Patek Philippe is one of the most prestigious watch brands in the world, and their name alone is synonymous with luxury and quality. While their iconic Nautilus watch may be the current talk of the town, the company’s president, Thierry Stern, has reminded us that there is much more to Patek Philippe than just one model. One of the brand’s most exceptional collections is the annual Rare Handcrafts, which showcases watches that are hand-decorated over hundreds of hours by skilled artisans.
The Rare Handcrafts collection includes 67 pocket watches, table clocks, and wristwatches, which are inspired by nature and the outdoors. These pieces are created by expert artisans who possess the skills required to master the different arts involved in their production, such as enameling, miniature painting, gem setting, engraving, marquetry, and guilloché. These techniques require years of apprenticeship to perfect, and the result is a collection of exquisite and unique timepieces.
The works are usually exhibited during the first two weeks in April, overlapping the week-long Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva. Journalists and retailers from around the world take time out to make an annual pilgrimage to the company’s Rue du Rhone salon to view the Rare Handcrafts collection. Anyone is welcome to stop by and take the tour to understand the extent of Patek’s standard of perfection when it comes to decoration and finish. Visitors are greeted by a burst of flora and fauna, with pieces depicting lush landscapes, pouncing leopards, birds, airplanes, and dragonflies in flight, elephants, sailboats, sunsets, and life-sized flowers on most of the clocks.
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One of the highlights of the Rare Handcrafts collection is a full gem-set version of Patek’s most complicated wristwatch, the Grandmaster Chime, which has 20 complications, including several chiming functions and a perpetual calendar. It is decorated with sapphires and diamonds in baguette and tapered baguette cuts. Another highlight is the Leopard pocket watch, which is rendered in wood marquetry, hand-engraving, and champleve enamel. The marquetry consists of 363 tiny veneer parts and 50 inlays, cut out and assembled by the artist. A palette of 21 species of wood in different colors, textures, and veining was used, and the bezel and caseback are embellished with a hand-engraved border of tropical foliage. The watch is displayed on a handcrafted stand.
The Calatrava 194 Nations Grand Prix wristwatch is also a standout piece, with a dial depicting the race of the same name held in Geneva from 1946 to 1950. The dial is made using grand feu cloisonné enamel in 17 colors and enriched with a silver leaf under the paillonné enamel, with a background rendered in miniature enamel painting. It is one of a series of pieces depicting human adventures.
Some of the dome clocks in the collection were made using a technique called Longwy enamel on faience, which involves applying a thick glaze that is then carved in relief. Colored enamel is then applied in a way that imitates cloisonné compartments. The motifs are mainly flowers, and the textured relief makes them seem to blossom in 3D.
It is important to note that Patek Philippe’s Rare Handcrafts are as exclusive as the company’s rarest watches. Most are one-of-a-kind or produced in very limited editions, with each dome clock being a unique piece. Obtaining a work from this collection is akin to scoring one of the company’s minute repeaters, involving, if not an interview with Mr. Stern, at least a solid relationship with a Patek Philippe retailer.