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
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?