By ALEX WILLIAMS
As Rolls-Royce is to automobiles, Patek Philippe is to watches: exquisitely crafted, rich with legacy, and, with prices starting around $20,000 and quickly moving into the six figures, decidedly out of reach for most mortals.
For 11 days starting Thursday, however, the Swiss watchmaker will open its doors to the masses with “The Art of Watches Grand Exhibition New York.” The lavish pop-up museum at Cipriani 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan features hundreds of its most exquisite pieces — including a 1948 chronograph, one of Patek’s first, once owned by Joe DiMaggio, and a quartz desk clock that President John F. Kennedy kept in the Oval Office — along with other very rare pieces that predate Patek.
In advance of the show, Larry Pettinelli, the president of Patek Philippe U.S., spoke about the industry’s challenges ahead, especially at the exceptionally high end.
Are there enough watch geeks out there to justify the expense of this 13,000-square-foot exhibition?
We’re hoping for 20,000 people over the course of 11 days. The Grand Exhibition is of a scale we’ve never seen before. We’ve done one exhibition in Dubai, one in Munich and the last one in London, but we’ve never had this many historical pieces out of the [Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva] at one time.
What is the appeal for people who can’t afford a five- or six-figure timepiece?
We have enough things for the uber-collectors, but we also want those iconic, Americana pieces, like Joe DiMaggio’s watch, for people who appreciate art for the sake of art, or are historians. The J.F.K. clock was given to him back in June 1963, at his famous speech over in Berlin.
Joe DiMaggio is hardly the only famous person to have worn a Patek. These days you have sports stars like Andre Iguodala and rock stars like John Mayer collecting Patek. Why not use celebrity endorsers like most other watch brands?
Generally speaking, unless somebody dies, we don’t tell people about their watches. We’ve never actually been a brand that has celebrity endorsers. Celebrity endorsers, sometimes they fall in and out of favor. Having to figure out who’s hot, who’s not, we’d much rather let the watch be the superstar, the watchmakers be the superstars.
The watch business has been facing headwinds lately: political uncertainty in the United States and abroad, economic disruptions in Europe, and an anti-corruption drive in China that cracked down on pricey gifts to officials. What has that meant for Patek?
It’s a strained market right now. But there’s always a flight to quality, to less trendy purchases, whenever the economy slows down a bit. We saw that in 2007, 2008, 2009. People who were still buying, they wanted that blue blazer. They wanted that pearl necklace they can wear forever. When people see other brands that don’t maintain their value — if you buy something, and it goes down 40 or 50 percent — you don’t rush to buy five or six more.
Where have you seen unexpected growth in the U.S. market?
In Silicon Valley, some of the people you would think would be into throwaway, fast-moving technology are looking for something with lasting value, something they can pass down. I’m not trying to sell it as an investment, but people have realized, “If I bought a Patek in the ’40s for $500, it’s $15,000, $20,000 today.”
Speaking of technology, mechanical wristwatches in general have made a surprising comeback with millennials, kids of the cellphone age. How do you account for the resurgence?
I give credit to sites like Hodinkee. They were a young, hip crowd that helped make watches cool again to that younger generation. When I first started here 30 years ago, there were maybe five or six watch magazines. We tried to support them with advertising, just in order to have somebody to talk about the product. But now, you look at the bloggers, we get bombarded with people looking for information on a daily basis. I think young people are curious: You have this tiny little micromachine that seemingly has a life of its own, its own heartbeat. Imagine taking a year trying to make something the size of a half dollar. There are not many products out there that have that kind of old-world craftsmanship.