The top-tier leadership in any large scale organisation is of absolutely paramount importance, guiding day-to-day decision making while having a clear vision for the distant future of a company. In the watchmaking industry, it has the added layer of complexity that a CEO has to not only preserve their business’ ideals and values, but for those who head manufactures seen as cornerstones of the industry, have the entire weight of the centuries of watchmaking craft on their shoulders. This makes it all the more impressive when those in charge are able to deftly navigate one of these most storied maisons through the good times as well as challenging circumstances, maintaining a position in the marketplace, and growing it to even greater successes. A closer look at the position of Patek Philippe now is a clear indicator of the strength and fortitude by the company’s current CEO, Thierry Stern.
Established in 1839, Patek Philippe has long held a position at the very pinnacle of watchmaking, producing an extensive range that embodies what true fine watchmaking represents. Exceptional finishing, entrancing complications, unwavering chronometers, and designs that are praised by many, the maison offers a fascinating case study in how to respect tradition while remaining relevant in contemporary culture.
Stern’s path to his position at the helm of the company is particularly interesting, being one of multiple generations of his family to have run the business. Following its founding in the 19th century by Franciszek Czapek and Antoni Patek, who would go their separate ways after six years, with Patek joining forces with French watchmaker Adrien Philippe, the company would have a long history of innovation and collaboration, both within the families in charge, and the valuable suppliers who contribute to their magnificent watches.
One such business would be the Fabrique de Cadrans Sterns Frères, who would provide the component that for many owners in the face of a watch, the intricate dial utilising a host of intricate artistic techniques to render something both highly legible and especially beautiful. Run by brothers Charles and Jean Stern during the depths of the Great Depression, Sterns Frères would take over Patek Philippe in 1932, bringing the distinguished family name to the house of the Calatrava cross, perhaps one of the most fruitful unions that has ever existed.
The Stern family would quickly have an outsized impact on the business, propelling it to new heights. Charles’ son, Henri, would establish the Henri Stern Watch Agency in New York in 1935, a shrewd move that was no doubt inspired by the wealthy clientele in North America, such as Henry Graves Jr, owner of the so-called Super Complication, whose sizeable reserves of capital had insulated them from the economic downturn. Henri’s success in the United States would result in him taking the reins in 1953, becoming president of Patek Philippe.
His time in charge would coincide with many important events, including the stellar run of legendary references such as the 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph and the 2523 world time, the launch of the Nautilus in 1976 and the debut of the Calibre 89 for the brand’s 150th anniversary, a watch that would also signal the arrival of computer aided design at Patek Philippe, an important step forward for the company. Henri’s son, Philippe, would become president of Patek Philippe in 1993, being an excellent custodian for the company as mechanical watches witnessed a revival after the quartz crisis, carefully increasing production to keep up with demand, and initiating a number important marketing efforts such as the now famous "You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation”, as well as launching the Patek Philippe Magazine for owners.
It would also be a period where the heritage and craft of watchmaking at large would become incredibly important, as collector’s scholarship improved, techniques from the past were revived, and important vintage references elicited heated bidding battles in auction rooms. Philippe oversaw the opening of the Patek Philippe Museum in 2001, a location in central Geneva containing over 2,000 exhibits and 8,000 horological publications, not just on Patek Philippe but the whole horological landscape, with the inconspicuous building earning a reputation as a place of pilgrimage for collectors.
With all of this history behind him and a family name that carries such gravitas, it is easy to have the quote from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2, “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” in one’s mind when considering Thierry, but since succeeding his father as president in 2009, he has handled the role with an energy and charisma that has been extremely well received by the collectors’ market and industry alike. Witnessing the name Patek Philippe enter wider popular culture, thanks to name drops in chart topping songs and appearing on the wrist of some of the most distinguished personalities, as well as introducing the Grand Exhibition concept to intentional audiences in London, New York and Singapore, Thierry has ensured that the ambassador aspect of running the business has been extremely well covered.
Perhaps the most exemplary aspect of his leadership has been his ability to mix this storytelling component with impressive technical achievements, debuting multiple important novelties during his time at the head of the company. From spectacular grand complications to carefully refining iconic models such as the Nautilus for its anniversary, it is clear that the stewardship of Patek Philippe is in very safe hands with Thierry Stern, and we can no doubt look forward to him instilling the same virtues in the next generation for this family business.