In June 2023, I was fortunate to spend three fascinating days at the Patek Philippe Watch Art Exhibition in Tokyo. I wanted to take this opportunity to offer some of my ‘revelations’ on the experience of attending this exceptional exhibition and offer our Collectability readers insight into the world of Patek Philippe from the perspective of one of these extraordinary events. By visiting one of these exhibitions, traditionally held every two years, one can gain a clear insight into the heart and mind of the company. So here is my opinion on what I saw, heard, and learned from this unforgettable visit.
Location: The exhibition locations are strategically chosen based on numerous factors and held in close partnership with the local distributor and retailers. Patek Philippe and the Stern family have a long and close relationship with Japan. From the marketing literature we can understand in Philippe and Thierry Stern’s own words the importance of this relationship: “[Japan] is a market of connoisseurs, keenly interested in the artistic crafts and able to appreciate all the technical excellence and painstaking workmanship contained in a timepiece. Born into a culture combining respect for tradition and avant-garde spirit, Japanese customers are also perfectly placed to understand the tradition of innovation that has guided Patek Philippe since 1839… As owner of the manufacture since 1932 and through four generations, our family also has close ties with Japan. Our father and grandfather Henri Stern and we ourselves have always set great importance on visiting our Japanese clients regularly, a tradition started in the late 1950’s.”
Each of the Grand Exhibitions are staffed by the local distributor’s watchmakers, service team, and commercial staff. Many of these employees are not usually client facing so it makes for an exciting dynamic for all involved and presents an authentic experience and with local teams and visitors. I don’t speak a word of Japanese, but I saw one of the watchmakers visit with his family and the pride of workmanship of this father presenting his work to his young children needed no translation. It was beautiful moment. You can literally meet and speak to the decision makers, watchmakers, and artisans face to face. Special congratulations to the head of Patek Philippe Japan, Frank Nagano and his entire team for such an exceptional execution.
Massive in Scale: the sheer scale of these exhibitions is massive, and here in Tokyo is the largest exhibition to date and is the closest thing to actually experiencing all the important Patek locations in Geneva. As the exhibition literature explains, “In an area covering 2,500 square meters, aficionados of fine horology, collectors and the general public will be able to immerse themselves in the world of Patek Philippe as if they were visiting our historical Salons in the rue du Rhône in Geneva, our manufacture in Plan-les-Ouates and the Patek Philippe Museum. Different themed rooms will present not only our entire current collection of watches and movements but a selection of antique pieces from the Patek Philippe Museum. Watchmakers and artisans will demonstrate their skills, offering visitors a close look at the inner workings of fine watchmaking and the decorative techniques that have adorned it for centuries.”
History: Patek Philippe history is at literally and physically at the core of these exhibitions. Here in Tokyo, the exhibition is built around a central gazebo (see above) with a wonderful video (in Japanese) sharing a detailed history of the company.
These exhibitions have a rich, historical context born out of the special presentations that Patek Philippe first did at the 19th century World’s Fairs and mid-20th century market exhibitions (especially the ones held in the USA), and then the previous five Watch Art exhibitions of the modern era: Dubai in 2012, Munich in 2013, London in 2015, New York in 2017 and Singapore in 2019.
Values: Value for money and the values of the family-owned company are of paramount importance to Patek Philippe’s philosophy. When I used to give tours at the workshops at Plan Les Ouates, visitors would have a better understanding of how each watch was designed and made. Following these visits, people used to say that Patek Philippe charges too little for their watches. It was an unexpected revelation. And this ‘road show’ allows people to walk away with the same feeling. This is not about money. This is about passion and obsession. A single-minded quest for horological perfection. And a conversation about ‘we’ not ‘I’.
Unparalleled Access: Patek Philippe has always believed in offering as much transparency as possible into to how it makes its timepieces. In this exhibition, you can literally walk up to Anita Porchet (see above), one of the world’s leading miniature enamelists and watch her work at a bench next to some of her enamel watches that she enameled especially for this exhibition. You can look closely at one the watches and see it signed ‘A. Porchet’ and then ask her in person about the inspiration for the work. As the only person currently allowed to sign their name on a Patek work of art, the historical importance of moments like this is not lost on me. I feel very privileged to have met this great artist in person and seen her work. If you get a chance, please listen to this Collectability Podcast with Anita Porchet and learn more about how she decorates each unique, museum-worthy timepiece for Patek Philippe.
Local Retailer VIP Events: You won’t see it unless invited by the local market but there are VIP events constantly throughout the exhibition. Each local retailer is offered unparalleled access to the exhibition and the opportunity to host dinners and special events. The celebration of the importance of the local retailer is a fascinating part of this winning concept. As a result, retailers can show and explain timepieces that their clients may never see in person such as minute repeaters and special complications such as the Grand Master Chime.
First Timers: the exhibition is a wonderful opportunity for curiosity seekers to experience the world of Patek Philippe for the first time. I was surprised to see hundreds of local ads at nearby Shinjuku train station offering everyone the ability to visit the Patek Philippe exhibition for free. Now that’s access! For people who have never attended BaselWorld, Watches and Wonders, or any other international watch show, I can only imagine what the impact of visiting a Patek Philippe Watch Art exhibition must be. Seeing the look of wonder and delight with first time visitors is one of the most enjoyable parts of attending these exhibitions.
Museum collection: For many fans of Patek Philippe, visiting the museum is a bucket list wish that is often hard to achieve, especially if you live on the other side of the world. However, these Grand Exhibitions bring a healthy taste of what it’s like to visit the Patek Philippe Museum and is a testament to the company who is so eager to share its treasures, even though there is a great risk moving these priceless pieces around the world. 180 pieces left the museum to visit Tokyo for this event, the most ever for an exhibition. The area dedicated to displaying the museum collection is over double the size of the New York Grand Exhibition.
The towering, high glass ceilings of the Sumitomo Atrium give the exhibition a whole new look from previous exhibitions. One highlight on display is the Caliber 89 prototype for the four Caliber 89 that were sold from 1989 onwards. Celebrated master watchmaker Paul Buclin recently finished the prototype Caliber 89 so visitors to the museum and exhibitions can see this modern marvel of watchmaking firsthand.
Rare Handicrafts: Being able to witness craftspeople execute some of the most extraordinary timepieces ever made is one of the main reasons these exhibitions are branded ‘Watch Art’ exhibitions.
In addition to presenting historical rare handicrafts such as engraving, enameling, and marquetry, Patek offers the opportunity to view countless limited edition rare handicraft pieces made especially for the exhibition inspired by Japanese influence and aesthetic. This will be the first and last time all these watches will be under one roof before they are sold off to voracious collectors wanting to own one of these works of art.
Limited Editions: Six new limited editions were created for this Tokyo event and the watch media has covered them extensively (see Hodinkee, Robb Report and Forbes). What I found most exciting is that from a historical point of view two major technical innovations made their world debut here in Tokyo: the quadruple complication ref. 5308P and the newly patented date display indexed to local time ref. 5330G.
These unforgettable exhibitions are presented at a huge expense of both time and money for all involved. It is a passion project that only a privately owned company like Patek Philippe is able to achieve. The exhibitions offer Patek aficionados and individuals new to the brand, the ability to make a pilgrimage into the very core of the company and what differentiates it from every other watchmaker. The reality of walking through this horological wonderland leaves nothing, forgive the pun, lost in translation. The question is, where will the next Watch Art Grand Exhibition be held? The year 2024 will be the 185th anniversary of Patek Philippe, it will be interesting to see what the company is planning…
Visit our Instagram coverage of the opening hours of the exhibition here.
Here’s an insider tip from Collectability: the Exhibition catalogue was only printed in Japanese – but you can download a PDF for with the catalogue fully translated in English here. It’s a beautifully designed and important document of each piece presented at the exhibition both new and old.
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