Why Patek Philippe has Always Cared About Quartz
Mention the name 'Patek Philippe' to someone with more than a passing interest in horology and the likelihood is that images of exquisitely-crafted mechanical movements will instantly spring into their mind.
They will think of the minute repeaters and perpetual calendar wrist watches for which the maker has become renowned; of the record-breaking Henry Graves 'Supercomplication' pocket watch and its 900-plus parts; of the Calibre 89 that reigned as the world's most complicated watch for 27 years. And of course, of the Grand Master Chime – the masterpiece created to mark Patek's 175th anniversary, a unique example of which became the most expensive timepiece on the planet when it fetched $31 million for charity back in 2019.
Possibly the most esoteric Patek Philippe ever made, the Beta 21 driven ref. 3587, courtesy of Sotheby’s.
But only a true Patek Philippe scholar is likely to think of the maker's long-standing appreciation of (dare we even say it?) the quartz oscillator, the invention best known for threatening to kill-off the traditional skills of mechanical watchmaking on which the entire Swiss industry was founded.
Indeed, there are plenty of watch aficionados who would rather wear no watch at all than be caught with anything battery-powered on their wrists, and there's no denying that the comparative residual value of most quartz models compared with mechanical ones bears out the widespread perception that the former is vastly inferior.
After all, where is the craft, where is the engineering, where is the eco-friendly power of the mainspring and balance wheel that give clockwork its enduring appeal and bring us as close as it gets to perpetual motion?
While few of the above drawbacks can be argued against, we can begin to appreciate why Patek Philippe has cared about quartz for more than half a century by looking back to the 1930s when the dark hours of the Great Depression led to the firm being acquired by its current owners, the Stern family.
Calibres e15 and e23, made by Patek Philippe and run on quartz, courtesy of WatchBase.
The reasons it had faltered under the prior ownership of the Philippe’s were multiple, but among them was the fact that they had failed to predict - more than a decade before - that watches would soon make an almost wholesale migration to the wrist.
To draw a quote directly from Nicholas Foulkes's 'authorised biography' of the firm: "He [Charles Henri Stern] understood that the previous management had become complacent, slow to adapt to change, disinclined to invest in research, and had faced the future blithe and utterly unprepared for the challenges of the tumultuous years between the two world wars."
As a result, Stern employed the exacting Jean Pfister as technical director in 1933. A firm believer in 'new technology', it was Pfister who introduced the amagnetic, rust-resisting Nivarox spring and beryllium mono-metallic balance into Patek's workshops, and he who championed the utmost accuracy in the firm's watches, devising a series of rigorous tests and employing brilliant 'regleurs' to 'tune' movements to achieve prize-winning accuracy.
Henri Stern (left) with Jean Pfister in 1958, courtesy of Patek Philippe and a French naval quartz marine chronometer, courtesy of 1st Dibs.
During the 1930s and '40s, this accuracy was obtained by using a combination of a pair of atmosphere-controlled precision clocks and an electro-magnetic signal sent from the local radio station. Remarkably, the method is said to have enabled precision down to within one tenth of a second - a calculation arrived at by Patek's use, in 1939, of the first quartz-controlled timing machine in Switzerland. Brought in, of course, by Pfister.
By 1948, Patek had established its own electronics division and, in 1952, it pulled the wraps off its first quartz-powered product, a quartz clock measuring four feet high and two feet across.
By the end of the decade the firm had reduced the technology to portable, table-top size (winning the U.S. Government's 'Miniaturisation Award' in the process), after which it produced its ground-breaking Chronotome of 1962 - not only the first series-produced quartz chronometer but a timekeeper that, for a short while, was actually more accurate than the testing devices used at the Geneva and Neuchatel observatories.
The ‘Peace Chronotome’ gifted to John F. Kennedy on his trip to Berlin amid the Cold War, courtesy of Elite Traveler.
The following year, President Kennedy was presented with a quartz Patek clock called the 'Peace Chronotome' by West Berlin's mayor Willy Brandt during a visit to the recently-divided city (the clock is now in the John F. Kennedy museum in Boston) and, by the late 1960s, the electronics division had drawn-up plans for a timing system that used a master clock linked to slave units situated in Switzerland's federal buildings.
Perhaps most remarkable, however, is the fact that a similar set-up was ordered by the Vatican to ensure the multitude of clocks operating in the minuscule city would remain accurate to one thousandth of a second per day.
By 1967, the so-called 'Timing Towers' even incorporated radio receivers that automatically synchronised them with the low-frequency HBG time signal transmitted from Prangins near Geneva, leading to the devices being adopted by major manufacturers and television stations, at airports and railways stations and on board ships.
Just a some of the timing towers that Patek Philippe produced in this period, courtesy of Rau Antiques.
Even today, the T3 Timing Towers still seem futuristic and would not look out of place in even the most cutting-edge of contemporary interiors.
Surprisingly they remain relatively affordable, especially considering their exceptional quality and the fact that each one was made to order. Recently, a majestic 12-unit Time Tower that was originally supplied to Zurich airport came onto the market with a U.S. dealer at a price of $188,000.
But such sci-fi creations were mere sidelines in relation to Patek Philippe's real business of making exquisitely crafted wristwatches - and soon after JFK had received his Peace Chronotome, the firm began working towards miniaturising a quartz oscillator-based movement down to wristwatch size in a bid to fend-off the impending invaders from the east whose programme was already well underway.
Patek Philippe also put their super-accurate electronic times into marine chronometers, courtesy of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and 1st Dibs.
And Patek was not alone in its quest. No fewer than 19 other companies (including Omega, Girard-Perregaux, Piaget, Rolex and Omega) came together in the project, collectively forming the Centre Electronique Horloger in Neuchatel with the aim of developing a quartz movement that reflected the long-held standards of Swiss watch making.
The result was the Beta 21 which, although ready for use in 1969, was upstaged by Seiko's cheeky Christmas present to the Swiss watch industry - the Quartz Astron that went on sale on December 25 of the same year to become the world's first commercially available quartz watch.
At the Basel Fair a few months later, 18 of the manufacturers who had taken part in the Beta 21 project displayed watches powered by the new movement, with Omega's Electroquartz being the first Swiss quartz watch to reach the full production stage.
A ref. 3587 and 3603 courtesy of Phil Toledano.
Just 6,000 Beta 21 movements were produced for distribution among the various partners - and Patek Philippe's effort was, inevitably, a cut above the rest.
In a bid to prove that quartz didn't mean second best, the Reference 3587 saw its movement housed in a statement-making 43mm cushion case by Atelier Reunis (some with lugs, some without) that was hewn from a sizeable chunk of 18 carat gold, while its elegant, two-tone Stern Freres dial and the hour markers applied to it were also made from gold.
'We've turned it into a wrist watch' ran Patek's droll launch advertisement, which depicted three modules from a Time Tower attached to a supple-looking bracelet.
And if a buyer really wanted to make a statement, he (it probably wouldn't have been a 'she' back then) could, indeed, opt for a gold-link bracelet in one of two styles - although the $3,500 price of the strap version might already have brought tears to the eyes, not least since it was more than 60 per cent higher than the cost of a Reference 2499.
A ref. 3587 on the wrist of Phil Toledano.
Anyone still alive who was faced with the choice of buying an old-tech, clockwork Ref 2499 or a futuristic, new-tech Ref 3587 and chose the latter will probably still harbour regrets, since the former is today worth at least $500,000 and the latter less than a $50,000.
But just as the Rolex Oysterquartz is emerging from the collecting doldrums, so savvy vintage watch fans are homing-in on the actually quite fabulous Reference 3587 that, according to a description in the Christie's catalogue produced to mark Patek's 175th anniversary in 2014, contained as much as 180 grams of gold.
The fit and finish of each watch was superb and, as well as alternative dials in blue or silvered finishes, there was also a white gold case option for those who preferred a (slightly) more low-key look.
The Beta 21 movement inside a ref. 3587.
Even more low key, however, was another period Patek to receive quartz power: the Reference 3603, known as the 'Jumbo Ellipse' due to having a dial shaped similarly to that of the Ellipse but housed within a far chunkier, soft-square case. Made in little more than 100 examples, it could be had with a blue or brown dial and on a leather strap or one of two designs of bracelet.
The development and use of the Beta 21 movement (which appeared in fewer than 500 Patek Philippe watches) undoubtedly represented a key moment in the brand's history - and considering the quality and rarity of both the Reference 3587 and the 3603, it is probably safe to say that the only way is up in terms of value and collectability.
Whether or not they will ever be regarded in quite the same light as their mechanical counterparts, however, is a different matter altogether.... but that's not to say they shouldn't be.