Patek Philippe’s Head of Watch Development Philip Barat on the Brand’s Sophisticated Technology

What better way to learn more about the way Patek Philippe watches are made than to chat with the brand’s head of development, Philip Barat.

During the inauguration of the Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Singapore just a short while ago, the brand presented the world première of the new Ref. 5303R-010 Minute Repeater Tourbillon. Besides the impressive mechanisms contained in the watch, it is also notable for being the first time that a Patek Philippe watch had an open architecture that showcased its inner workings—in this case the minute repeater and tourbillon. Indeed, the brand follows a very traditional approach to mechanical watchmaking, where even the most impressive complications aren’t shown unless they had to. It is certainly a relatively uncommon practice these days.

Fortunately, during the exhibition, DAMAN had the opportunity to chat with Philip Barat, Head of Watch Development at Patek Philippe, who provided new insight into the way the brand conceptualizes and creates its mechanical masterpieces.

DAMAN: Can you tells us a bit more about the new Ref. 5303R-010 Minute Repeater Tourbillon? Especially how the idea for this watch started…
Philip Barat: We have this watch in our collection, the Ref. 5304 [Skeleton Minute Repeater Perpetual Calendar] and we wanted to create an evolution of these watches. But we didn’t know what kind of complications we can have on it. And we said, you know, we have a perpetual calendar but there is nothing to see because it’s not moving. And what about the minute repeater? Because when you activate the slide, all the parts fall down the snail and go up to strike the hours, quarters and minutes. We have had minute repeaters since 1989 and since that time people have never seen the minute repeater mechanism. On the dial side, there are no hammers and gongs.

So, the construction of the watch involved a shift from the back to the dial side. We have enlarged the base plate to put the hammers and we have also opened the hour wheel so we can see the minute snail of the minute repeater. And we also have opened the base plate to make the tourbillon visible.

We never see tourbillon on Patek Philippe watches, because of the [lubricant] oil. They don’t like sunlight. But now, we have the technology to add a UV treatment on the sapphire crystal so we won’t burn off or dry out the oil anymore. This has allowed us to show more of the mechanism from the dial side. Clients and consumers have asked to see more and more on the dial. This is the story of this new movement.

DA: Patek Philippe seems to be the only brand who would go through the trouble of creating a tourbillon and then not show it. Besides the issue with the lubricant drying up under sunlight, are there any other reasons behind this?
PB: A tourbillon is not an indication; it is a complication. A tourbillon is there to improve the accuracy of the watch. At the beginning, Mr. Breguet [French-Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet], invented the tourbillon to ensure that watches maintain the same accuracy when they are placed in different positions. When we make a tourbillon, we want them to be very precise. That’s why we provide a certificate guaranteeing an accuracy of -1/+2 seconds per day. The tourbillon is made for that; it’s not for show.

So, again, when we put a tourbillon on a watch, we provide a certificate to prove that it is very, very precise. That’s why we didn’t want to put it in the front of the dial, because we know the oil will be altered by the sun. But now thanks to this new technology, we can add UV treatment and preserve the oil.

Also, now, we have silicon hairsprings that we have launched in the last two years, which with one spiral replaces the Breguet curve and the tourbillon function. So, we prefer to use that, because that because that way we can make movements that are thinner, more reliable and free from the complications of having a tourbillon. And that’s what we want: We want precise watches, as thin as possible and also very nice to see.

DA: On a more general note, how are new Patek Philippe watches developed?
PB: First, we must have an idea. For the movement, for example, we have a meeting with the product committee twice a year, to present new ideas. We have more than a hundred ideas in reserve and we choose new ones. We look at what we currently have and we look also what we have in the museum. But what we want to do is always something new: More indications or more useful functions for the customer and increased reliability.

We have a scheduled program for the following 10 years and we develop about three or four movements per year. That’s quite a lot. When we have chosen something, the marketing department writes a marketing brief and, technically, we start. We begin with our constructor. They build a rendition, with a 3D computer, of the new model. Then we make some prototypes in plexiglass. If it works in plexiglass, we can be 90-percent sure that it will work on a 1:1 scale.

The time to do that—construction, drawing, fabrication, the tests—go on for about two years, depending on the complication. For this one [the Ref. 5303R-010] it was less, just one year, because it’s an evolution of an existing minute repeater. We just shifted the hammer and the gongs to the other side. Other than that, we didn’t change anything. But when we have a new model, it can take two, three, four years just to make the final prototype. Then, we have the industrialization and production. That is two years.

So, to make a new watch with a new movement, it takes between four and seven years. That’s long. But now it’s longer than in the past—which might sound strange because now we have computers, we don’t draw by hand, etc. Now we have so many tests for the prototype and what we call the first series. Many prototypes and many tests, because now the objective of the manufacture is to have less and less customers becoming unhappy and returning their watches.

What is difficult is that it’s not just simple movements as in the ones showing the hour, minute and seconds. We have annual calendars, perpetual calendars, chronographs, tourbillon, grande sonnerie … so many different models. We are happy that we have a whole collection of complications, but it’s very tough to make them reliable. It takes time. Mr. Thierry Stern [President of Patek Philippe] is never happy because it’s always too long. But at the end he’s happy because we have a very good product. [Laughs]

And this is the technical part, but there is another important part, which is the aesthetics. It’s not my part, but I can tell you, Mr. Stern is very involved in that. If he didn’t feel that we have a good color on the dial, good indexes and so on, we will never launch the watch.



DA: Major innovations in watchmaking are extremely few and far in between. In what ways can watchmakers come up with something new?
PB: Yes, it’s very difficult to find new indications. So, what we do is, for example, the watch we launched in New York, the World Time Minute Repeater [Ref. 5531R]. That was two complications combined, but in a new way. It was the first time that the minute repeater can strike the time for the city displayed at 12 o’clock. So, even if on the dial it does not look new, all the functions are totally new. And we have a patent for that.

But you’re right, it’s difficult to find new things. So now, we have more user-friendliness. In the past, you have perpetual calendars but you don’t have correctors. If the watch was unset you had to go to a watchmaker to set your watch. Now, there are correctors everywhere and you can correct your watch at any time—you will never damage the watch. So, we improve the reliability and things like that.