The 19th century Polish insurgent and immigrant Antoni Patek was a pioneer in the industrial production of watches. Patek, the company he founded and which has been in the hands of another family for years, has been producing some of the best and most expensive watches in the world for almost two centuries.
by Piotr Bejrowski
Born in 1812, Antoni Patek came from a noble family and was the grandson of the mayor of Lublin. At the age of seventeen, following a move to Warsaw and his father’s death, he joined the 1st Regiment of Augustów Mounted Riflemen. Patek took part in the November Uprising, during which he showed great courage and was wounded twice. For his merits, Lieutenant Patek was awarded the War Order of Virtuti Militari.
After the end of the uprising, he managed to reach France in 1831, where he started working as a typesetter in a printing house. Soon after he was forced to emigrate again after being suspected of revolutionary activity, and at which point he fled to Switzerland, finally settling in Geneva.
Antoni Patek, the future watch tycoon, started quite small. He traded wines and studied painting, while visiting and observing the work of local watchmakers. Then he started buying the best mechanisms from Geneva specialists. Later on he commissioned their gilding, enamelling and engraving by other artists. He made a lot of money as an intermediary. Finally, in 1839, in partnership with Franciszek Czapek, he decided to set up his own watch company. This particular combination of decoration (Patek) and watchmaking (Czapek) experience brought these Polish emigrants incredible success. Since its inception, the brand has been distinguished by its reliability, modern design and extremely precise mechanism. To this day, there is a belief that “pateks have a soul.”
The Patek-Czapek company grew rapidly. In 1844 in Paris, Patek met with the French watchmaker Adrien Philippe, who had constructed a new mechanism for winding watches (the often troublesome key was replaced by a string). During the Paris exhibition, the watches of the Polish company enjoyed great popularity among buyers, and a year later the company’s composition changed. Czapek, allegedly refusing to constantly modernize mechanisms and thus increase production costs, left the company, setting up his own company which was soon closed. Philippe became the technical director and then a full partner and to this day the company operates under the name Patek-Phillippe.
Patek watches, considered true works of art, quickly became status symbols for the world’s wealthiest figures. Products purchased by the Polish aristocracy were decorated with national symbols, the image of Our Lady of Częstochowa or national heroes – Józef Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kościuszko. In 1851, during the World Exhibition in London, the watch was purchased by the British Queen Victoria and the Danish Queen Louise. Soon, the Polish entrepreneur gained the nickname “the watchmaker of kings”. Owners of these luxury watches included, among others, Tsar Nicholas II, King of Italy Victor Emmanuel III and Pope Pius IX, who honored Patek with the title of count.
In the following years, “pateks” were also owned by Leo Tolstoy, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, John Paul II, Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, Duke Ellington, Josep Broz Tito, and Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Gorbachev and Vladimir Putin.
In order to increase sales, Patek actively sought to attract new customers, advertised its products all over the world and constantly introduced new innovations. Reversible watches were produced with different functions on each dial. In 1841, an independent second hand mechanism was introduced. Finally, in 1868, the company began to produce wristwatches (previously only pocket watches were made), which quickly gained popularity.
Patek died on 1 March 1877 in Geneva. He was an extremely determined and creative self-taught individual who created a brand from nothing, and is recognized today as the manufacturer of the most luxurious watches in the world. He also remained a patriot until the end of his life. Patek was active in the Polish Democratic Society, the largest political party in exile. In his company, he employed compatriots, supported Poles’ aspirations for independence, and helped emigrants who had to leave the country after the fall of the January Uprising.
In 1932, the company was bought by brothers Karol and Jean Stern, whose descendants still manage Patek-Philippe. The company continues to surprise with new products. The watch series is limited and its dials are hand-enameled. As luxury items, “pateks” sell for millions of dollars at auctions. In 1999, a twenty-four function watch made in the 1930s for banker Henry Graves was sold for eleven million dollars. A dozen or so years later, the same watch sold for twenty-three million dollars and thus became the most expensive watch in history.
Author: Piotr Bejrowski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin