Patek Philippe brings back the ‘holy grail’ of watches for 170 lucky buyers


Patek Philippe watch
Courtesy: Patek Philippe

Patek Philippe announced Monday that it is making 170 special versions of its most popular watch as part of a partnership with Tiffany & Co., a launch likely to set off a buying frenzy among wealthy watch collectors.

The surprise move comes less than a year after Patek discontinued the famed watch, known as the Nautilus Ref. 5711, causing demand and prices to skyrocket.

Patek said it is making 170 special Ref. 5711 watches with a Tiffany-blue face that will be sold at select Tiffany boutiques. The watch was created to honor the 170-year partnership between the Swiss watchmaker and Tiffany, as well as Tiffany’s new ownership under French luxury giant LVMH, Patek Philippe said.

For Tiffany, getting the chance to sell what will arguably become the most sought after new watch in the world will add luster and marketing shine to the jeweler as it undergoes a makeover under LVMH and its chief, Bernard Arnault.

“This was my little gift to say congratulations on buying Tiffany,” Patek CEO Thierry Stern told CNBC. “For me, it was quite clear I had to choose something unique and exceptional. This is really the last round for this watch.”

The last round

Watch lovers around the world thought the last round was in January. Amid record demand for the top luxury watches, Patek unexpectedly announced that it was ceasing production of the Ref. 5711, saying the attention and demand for the watch had gone too far. The stainless-steel watch, launched in 2006, had rocketed to fame through social media. Among wealthy watch lovers, it had become one of the ultimate wrist trophies — a mixed blessing for a company that prides itself on its wide range of creative, complicated watches and refined gold, platinum and other designs.

“I have still no idea why suddenly, the success [of this watch] came so fast and went so high,” Stern said. “But what I know is that I do not want to be a mono-product company. So this is why I stopped the 5711. We made enough of it.”

Many watch buyers were enraged. Getting a Ref. 5711, which retailed for around $30,000, already involved long waiting lists and opaque terms from dealers, even for preferred Patek customers. Now, buying a new 5711 would be impossible. Prices for pre-owned Ref. 5711s — already been prone to speculation — soared to more than $150,000 online. One sold at auction in 2020 at Sotheby’s for $475,000.

Stern’s decision to make the final 5711s for Tiffany came from the deep history and mutual values of the two companies, he said. In 1851, Tiffany became Patek’s first official retail partner in the U.S. On his first business trip to the U.S., Antoine Norbert de Patek met with Charles Lewis Tiffany in New York. Today, Patek watches are sold at certain Tiffany boutiques and Patek watches co-stamped with the “Tiffany & Co” sell for big premiums.

The two companies are also family-controlled with plans to pass leadership to the next generations. The Swiss Stern family has owned Patek since 1932, while LVMH is controlled by Bernard Arnault, the world’s third-richest man. Bernard Arnault has for years explored the potential of adding one of the Big Four watch brands — Rolex, Patek, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille — to its luxury-brand stable, which already includes Tag Heuer, Zenith and Hublot. Stern said he has met with Bernard Arnault in the past and told him “we are independent and not interested in selling.”

Stern did, however, want to offer Bernard Arnault something special to commemorate LVMH’s $15.8 billion deal to buy Tiffany. He held a virtual meeting to present the Ref. 5711 to LVMH. It included Alexandre Arnault, the 29-year-old family scion who was recently named Tiffany’s executive vice president of product and communications.

“First, I told them, ‘gentlemen, please stay seated because you will be quite surprised,'” Stern said. “As soon as I showed them the drawings, they were very excited.”

Along with the special Tiffany-blue color, the watch will have the “Tiffany & Co.” stamp at 6 o’clock, paired with the Patek Philippe stamp at 12 o’clock. The sapphire-crystal case back bears the commemorative inscription “170th Anniversary 1851-2021 Tiffany & Co. – Patek Philippe.” Stern also created a tiny “surprise” on the back that he will leave for owners to discover.

“I put something secret in the back of the watch,” Stern said. “It’s quite funny.”

For Tiffany, Patek’s “gift” means the retailer can offer its most valued clients the holy grail of new sports watches and generate excitement at its boutiques. Alexandre Arnault said in a statement that Tiffany is “proud to introduce this special edition featuring Tiffany Blue dials to our most discerning clients.”

Yet it also carries risks. Tiffany will have far more than 170 VIP clients with the cash and desire to buy the watch and most will be turned down. It will retail for around $52,000 and only be available at the Tiffany boutiques in New York, Beverly Hills and San Francisco that carry Patek Philippe.

“I had to warn Tiffany and I said ‘listen, this is a fantastic gift,” Stern said. “But it’s also a poisonous one because you will have only 170 pieces and the choice to sell it to the final client will be yours. There will be 170 people who are very happy and the rest will be unhappy.’ I hope they sell it to the right people. This is really the most important for me. When you do such a watch, it has to go to the right person.”

Pandemic creates shortage, fuels interest

The Ref. 5711 is the most extreme example of a larger supply-demand imbalance in the luxury watch market. Soaring stock markets, crypto wealth and the flood of government stimulus has created record wealth, while a whole new generation of younger buyers started learning about high-end watches and buying online during the pandemic.

Yet Patek Philippe, Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille — all privately owned — haven’t meaningfully ramped up production. According to a report from Morgan Stanley, Rolex sold 810,000 watches last year, Audemars 40,000 and Richard Mille 4,300. The numbers were lower than usual due to pandemic shutdowns.

Patek usually makes around 60,000 watches a year. Like the other brands, the company says it can’t substantially increase production without compromising quality. As an example, Stern said it takes 10 years to train a good watchmaker who can master the intricate parts and fabrication of a Patek watch.

“Quality will always be at the top of my wish list,” Stern said. “I don’t need to rush, I don’t have any shareholders pushing me. I’m not interested in increasing quantity to have bigger numbers. I’m more interested in longevity and beauty.”

The low production by the top brands, however, has given rise to a vast online gray market for pre-owned watches. First-time buyers walking into a Rolex or Audemars store will typically discover that the watch they want is not available, and waiting lists can stretch for years for those lucky enough to even make a list. So many buyers turn to the growing ranks of online sites like Chrono24, Chronext, Hodinkee and WatchBox that sell pre-owned watches, often at vast markups. Sought-after watches that officially retail for $25,000 or $35,000 are being flipped online for $60,000 and higher.

Prices for pre-owned 5711s online are now selling for more than $120,000. It remains to be seen what the secondary price for a Tiffany model will be when it comes up for sale. One answer could come next week: Tiffany will auction off one of the watches at Phillips on Dec. 11, with the proceeds going to the Nature Conservancy, a charity chosen by Arnault.

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