Adaptation to changes
Sociologists say that before the coronavirus the Western world experienced phenomena similar to the ones that had caused the collapse of the Roman empire, namely decadency, sloth, welfare and sense of security. The pandemic has changed everything and we are now hoping that it is simply temporary, so the world will soon be back on the right track. We may lose a year or two, but not the world we lived in.
Such moments remind us of the stories we have all once heard. For example, the Biblical story about seven cows and its derivable moral saying that years of prosperity are always followed by years of famine.
I do not want to take the high moral ground, as it is not my duty, however this new reality, much resembling a disaster movie, reminded me of what Thierry Stern, the director of the Patek Philippe company, had once said, as it is ideal for this situation. In the official announcement on withdrawal of the Patek Philippe brand from the Baselworld trade show Stern used the argument one could not disagree with: the world is continuously changing and we have to adapt to these changes, because things that were alright in the past may not be such in the future.
Why have I recalled these particular words? Because, ironically, Patek Philippe created its exceptional works during crises, including the so-called Great Depression. Almost everyone of us know this story: the New York Stock Exchange crash in October 1929 ended several years of welfare, when people believed stock exchange was a perfect money maker, so they were speculating as much as they could. When share prices dropped and traders were selling out everything they could, this Eden came to a sudden end. Everything could be literally bought on a street for cash, even cars. In that situation most of companies did not think about keeping their reputation intact, as it was much more important to keep their heads above water. The financial crisis of 1929 was a “to be or not to be” scenario for the Patek Philippe brand, too. Two years before, James Ward Packard from Ohio (photo below), one of the best customers of the brand, had collected another customized and sophisticated pocket watch.
So, here we come to the point, to the story I recalled, wondering whether the current crisis will have any positive impact on the watch industry. It is the story of the peculiar prestige rivalry that occurred in the 1920s between two US millionaires, James W. Packard and Henry Graves Junior (photo below). Everything was different in them, except for their passion for watches. Packard was a hedonist who loved lavish life and luxury. He was associated with Hollywood stars using cars manufactured by his company. On the other hand, Graves, a New York banker, was an introvert known for his modesty (deceptive, as it turned out). When Packard ordered his watch at Patek Philippe, Graves wanted to have a better and more sophisticated one. Thanks to this rivalry, the genuine masterpieces of the watchmaking art have been made – those that are admired by collectors from all over the world until now.
One of the most spectacular timepieces was the “Supercomplication” ordered by Graves in 1928. It had been constructed for five years and in 1933, in the completely new reality, as it was an epicentre of the world-wide crisis, Patek Philippe delivered it to the purchaser. This pocket watch had 24 additional functions, for example it presented the star layout above Henry Graves’ mansion in Manhattan, sunrise and sunset times, Lunar phases, had perpetual calendar features and the repeater and alarm functions. Graves paid for it 15,000 USD that was an exorbitant price those days. Many years later, in 1999, the watch was sold at Sotheby’s for 11,000,000 USD and recognized as the most expensive watch in the world. This record was broken in 2014, when Graves’ “Supercomplication” came under the hammer once again (at the same auction house) and was sold for mind-boggling 24,000,000 USD. Considering inflation, the amount paid by Graves (15,000 USD) would have converted into 202,000 USD in 2014, so we can see how the market value of the watch has actually risen.
Anyway, when it comes to the Graves-Packard rivalry, it was Graves who won. Still, we do not know how this rivalry would have evolved, had Packard lived until the day Patek Philippe delivered the “Supercomplication” to Graves (J. W. Packard died in 1928 which was the year Graves ordered the watch; when ordering it, he clearly stated his timepiece was supposed to be constructed as more complicated than the one previously ordered by Packard).
In 1933 the company was already a property of the Stern family who introduced the completely new rules. One of them was constant supply limiting, the rule Patek Philippe has been known for until this day. This strategy has turned out to be perfect regardless of a moment in time. Even the coronavirus has not changed this, because you still need to register to be able to purchase marketable watch models.
Let us hope that the ongoing crisis will produce great achievements, too, at least partially matching those from the times of Packard and Graves.