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Having the Last Laugh

Critics panned Patek Philippe's Pilot watch when it was launched. Now people are lining up to buy it. Chuang Peck Ming reports.
Mar 11, 2017 5:50 AM

THERE'S this guy who's been making the rounds of watch boutiques in Singapore for the past three months. Each time, he asks the same question: ''Do you have the 5524?'' All the sales staff recognize him now. The minute they see him, they tell him ''No stock'' - even before he opens his mouth.

He's obviously not looking to buy 4D. Rather, 5524G is the reference number for Patek Philippe's Calatrava Pilot Travel Time. But the sales staff tell him pointedly he has a better chance of 'striking' 4D with that number than he does getting his hands on the two-time zone watch. As it turns out, the number did appear in a recent 4D draw - consolation prize.

Undeterred, he thought he hit paydirt when he saw the actual watch on display in a boutique in Geneva, Patek's home base.

''Can you wait?'' the salesman replied. ''Sure'', he said, thinking the man was going upstairs to get the watch for him. But no. ''Can you wait for two years,'' the salesman repeated. ''There's a long waiting list. The watch in the case is only for display.''

Market voices on:

The Patek Pilot timepiece is so hot, not a single Patek Pilot watch can be found in the outlets which carry Patek models. It has done so well that Patek's boss Thierry Stern calls it the ''stand-out'' timepiece under his watch. Yet when it was launched at Basel two years ago, collectors and watch writers panned it for looking more like a Zenith or IWC pilot watch than a Patek.

With a 42mm case, Ref 5524 was also too big for a Patek timepiece, the critics claimed. And a pilot watch shouldn't have a white gold case or a blue dial like the Ref 5524; it should be in steel with a black dial.

At S$62,800, it was also too pricey for a pilot timepiece - especially when it's powered by the same automatic movement as an earlier Patek model, the Aquanaut Travel Time.

Mr Stern, who succeeded his father in 2009 as President of the family-owned Patek Philippe, was aware of the criticisms from the start. Soon after Ref 5524 was unveiled, he told BT in an interview that all those people who said they disliked it secretly wanted to own it.

He's having the last laugh now that it's a hit. But instead of gloating, he merely says, ''People accept it. I could sell much more (of the watch) but I limit the production.''

The Pilot watch ''was something that was not needed and was not expected'', he adds. ''But I thought it was fun to do it.'' He says Patek, which celebrated its 175th birthday in 2015, is so predictable that fans could tell what watches Patek would release the next year - and that bothered him sometimes.

''It's like you already know what you're going to receive for Christmas,'' Mr Stern says. ''You'll be happy but, on the other hand, you lose the effect or the pleasure.'' He thinks it's great to surprise people once in a while - and the Pilot watch was intended to be it.

Mr Stern says Patek hasn't lost its touch in producing the timepiece. ''If you look at the detail, people didn't realise how far we went. All the small details on the dial, on the case, the pushers. That's Patek Philippe.''

He insisted its design is original. ''You see it in our museum where you have two original examples,'' Mr Stern says. ''In fact, I have another (vintage pilot watch) that can prove to everybody that it's not a copy of Zenith of IWC. Mine was earlier. I've never shown the picture. I kept it in case (the criticism) went too far.''