Patek Philippe

My first visit to watch manufacturer Patek Philippe's head office back in 1996 couldn't have come at a more inopportune time as the company was literally moving to new offices six miles away the day I showed up at the Geneva lakefront building. This was a big deal for the company since it had been headquartered at the same site since 1854. Actually, the head office was moving but the company's flagship store would still remain on the ground floor.

It's seven years later and I'm anxious to get a look at this new facility so I leave Geneva's city center and head towards the nearby French border. The address I have brings me to a designated industrial park and my first view of Patek Philippe's facility is of a spiffy-looking chateau whose roots date back to the 15th century. Industrial park and 15th century chateau together. How can this be? Close by is the four-story, 220,00 square foot combination head office/production building. By close by I mean the chateau and main building are separated only by a beautiful landscaped French-style garden with terraces made of 18th century paving stones.

With lots of trees and a park-like atmosphere Patek Philippe has managed to make one forget you're in an industrial park. Next door neighbors with huge industrial-like buildings include L'Oreal and Rolex, the later putting finishing touches on a brand new chocolate-colored structure.

Before entering the main building visitors are greeted by Andre Bucher's "Le Spiral" an enormous four-story tall stainless steel balance spring. The lobby/reception area is spacious and elegant. A gigantic vase filled with fresh flowers stands off to the side of the reception counter manned by two friendly receptionists. Visitors have lots of magazines to thumb through while sitting on the two blue couches with steel backing. All have to do with watches including The Basel Magazine, Trajectiore, Montres Passion and eight issues of Patek Philippe's own publication.

Jasmina Steele, International Public Relations Director, greets me in the lobby and we're soon off for an extensive tour of the place. We pass an elegantly furnished room filled top to bottom with shelves of bound books and I ask if it's some kind of reference library. It turns out to be part of the company's archives. Here they keep detailed records of each Patek Philippe watch and its owners since the company's founding in 1839-of course records are now computerized. During the tour of the workshops I meet watchmaker Paul Buclin, who's one of the fellows responsible for the Caliber 89. With 33 complications, the pocket watch Caliber 89 holds title of the most complicated portable timekeeping instrument ever built. How long did it take to assemble one of these masterpieces? NINE years. At an auction back in 1989 one of the four existing 89s sold for a cool $3.2 million.

About 700 people work here. Though this isn't downtown Geneva, parking is still tight thanks to city officials imposing rigid restrictions on the number of parking spaces allowed. Employees put their names on a wait list for a parking spot. Commuting bicyclists don't have to deal with such problems and even have covered parking for their trusty steeds. There're no onsite recreational facilities, no smoking in the workplace and no formal dress code. Thanks to the large picture windows, the good-looking ground floor company cafeteria is bright, airy and even has tables for eating outdoors. It's two minutes to the nearest freeway, 10 minutes to Geneva's airport and 15 minutes to downtown. Any employee perks? Employees are allowed to buy one watch a year at a special price. Even with a sizeable discount that's still going to set someone back a pretty penny since the least expensive watch listed in Patek Philippe's latest catalog goes for 4,730 Euros.

Managing Director Philippe Stern occupies a top floor middle office. Sitting behind his L-shaped desk he can see on the far wall two oil paintings of Geneva scenes. Don't see any plants or family pictures, note the computer and the regulator wall clock. Mounted near the window is a watch microscope. It's the only watch microscope I've come across during my tour of watch CEO's offices. What is it for? The big boss likes to inspect some of the finished products before they go out the door. Hey, it's attention to details like that, which makes Patek Philippe numero uno in the watch world. What's the view looking out Stern's window? The adjacent French-style garden and chateau.

How did Patek Philippe end up with Chateau Blanc (its formal name)? When acquiring this parcel of land for its head office and watchmaking workshops Patek Philippe agreed to renovate the chateau, which was in complete disrepair. Somehow I have the feeling Patek Philippe would have renovated the chateau without it being part of the deal. What's it used for nowadays? Receptions to host guests of honor of the watch manufacturer. Hmm, I wonder if I had been more specific about my arrival date if I would have been honored?