Founded in 1845 by Antoine de Patek (Polish) and Andrien Philippe (French), the company's flagship shop and head office have been located on the same lakefront six-story building since 1854. The left bank of Lake Geneva contains the ritzy shopping area, which is surprisingly drab. In a several block section, are some of the world's most exclusive shops and boutiques (Hermes, Chanel and Harry Winston to name a few) but there're no tree lined streets or fancy marbled sidewalks. As with Patek Philippe's, every other lakefront building has large advertisement names atop their buildings. Matter of fact, Philippe has it's name in huge letters on top the building and, on the sides of the fifth floor AND second floor.
The company's flagship store occupies the ground floor so making my way past movers loading boxes onto trucks in the street I bound up the stairs to the second floor reception area. Lots of English magazines lying around the coffee table including Vogue, Business Week, Newsweek, Country Life, Asian Business, Woman's Journal and Advertising Age. First item of business is to check the watch of the receptionist. Hmm, she isn't wearing a watch. Sylvie Dricourt, a secretary, steps out and says no one has time to meet with me because they're in the middle of a move. Checking Dricourt's wrist and noticing she isn't wearing a watch let alone a Patek Philippe. "How come neither one of you is wearing a Patek Philippe?", I ask. "We can't afford them", they both answer.
The flagship store will remain on the ground floor, but the offices along with the watchmakers will be moving six miles away to a new build housing 600 employees.
Not knowing much about watches I stop in the flagship store and end up talking with Dominique Bernaz, store manager, who graciously takes time out to show me several watches. One of the timepieces I'm handed is a pocket watch called the Calibre 89. It takes five years to complete this dandy little time keep, which consists of 1,728 parts and 33 functions. This 18 karat gold, enamel painted keeper of time which grand strike, minute-repeater, perpetual calendar, moon phases and split seconds chronograph goes for a cool 966,000 Swiss francs. So, one would think if I were to whip out 966,000 Swiss francs on the counter I could walk out with my new watch--right? Wrong. There's a 30- day waiting period for these watches, as they have to be run through a battery of checks again before being handed over to the owners. What makes Patek Philippe watches so expensive? Bernaz says it's the craftsmanship and the limited number of watches produced. For example, he says Rolex produces 800,000 watches a year while Patek Philippe only 20,000. Bernaz hands me another Patek Philippe watch, this platinum timepiece that never needs winding and gives you the date and year will set you back 585,000 Swiss francs. Speaking of watches, I check out what Bernaz is wearing and sure enough, it's a Patek Philippe. "Do employees get a discount?" I ask. Bernaz says no because it would dilute the product.
The next morning I unexpectedly get a call in my hotel room from Jasmina Steele, communications manager for Patek Philippe. She called to apologize for not being able to meet with my yesterday and hoped I understood what a difficult time it was with this big move going on.