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An 85th Birthday Watch: The Patek Philippe Ref. 1938P-001 Created in Honour of Philippe Stern

An 85th Birthday Watch: The Patek Philippe Ref. 1938P-001 Created in Honour of Philippe Stern

10. November 2023

It is a touching tribute to his father: as Philippe Stern turns 85 on 10 November, his son, Thierry Stern, will introduce the world to the Reference 1938P-001, limited to a mere 30 pieces. Thus, the current President will pay homage to the Honorary President of the manufacture, while its employees likewise honour the man who led and shaped Patek Philippe for over three decades. Only the most outstanding of watches could possibly suffice to mark this occasion – so it comes as no surprise that its movement will be used exclusively for these 30 pieces alone, never to be seen again. Originally, Patek Philippe wanted to present a unique piece of this reference at the Only Watch auction and auction it off for a good cause. Following its postponement until next year, however, the 1938P-001 will now be presented on the birthday of the Patek’s Honorary President.

The perfect choice for Patek’s patriarch: A minute repeater with alarm function and miniature painting

In the late 1970s, Philippe Stern took over the manufacture from his own father, serving as president from 1993 to 2009. The company’s strength and might, as well as its stellar reputation as the home of fine watchmaking, can largely be credited to him. But, putting his entrepreneurial skills to one side, Philippe Stern also has a particular fondness for minute repeaters, which is why this complication is now considered a core competence of the manufacture. Another thing he holds dear is the virtually forgotten artisanal finesse of watchmaking, which can primarily be found at Patek Philippe in the form of its ‘Rare Handcrafts’ collection. It is therefore only natural that the 1938P – the name is a reference to the year of Stern’s birth – combines a very special minute repeater with alarm function along with a very special Grand Feu enamel dial.

The latter features a portrait of Philippe Stern, which has been applied to the dial in miniature painting. The shades of grey used on Stern are restrained and elegant, almost evoking a shadow, which seems fitting for the Honorary President, whose work remains very much visible in the company today. But more on that later.

Form and function: A special reference in every respect

It is safe to say that the birthday boy was all for Patek’s decision to opt for a classic officer’s case, alongside a black dial with the Breguet numerals. Although the 41 mm diameter was considered to be exceptionally large during his own reign, it is now regarded as one of the company’s smaller Grandes Complications cases. As spectacular as the movement is, its case remains restrained. Typical Patek Philippe, typical Philippe, and typical Thierry Stern. 

The alarm function is originally known from the Grandmaster Chime, the manufacture’s most complex watch. It was precisely this function that had to be added to the established R 27 repeater movement, known from models such as the Sky Moon Tourbillon and the Ref. 5178G presented this year. This addition required a further 227 components. Four patents were registered for new mechanisms inside the R AL 27 PS calibre. One of these, for example, ensures that the mainspring barrel is fully wound each time the repeater function is activated so that the full-time strike can always be sounded, which, at 12.58 p.m., is 31 strikes. The safe switch from one striking mode to the next also had to be guaranteed.

The operation of the complex movement is pleasantly straightforward. The slider on the left-hand side of the case can be used to either trigger the minute repeater or wind the alarm. The desired mechanism is selected using a pusher in the crown. A small bell symbol at three o’clock indicates which function is selected: a black bell indicates the classic minute repeater, a red bell indicates alarm mode, and once the alarm has been successfully wound using the pusher, the bell changes to white. The exact alarm time itself can also be set using the crown, which simply needs to be pulled to the centre position. This allows the rose-gold hand to be set, and points to a matching rose-gold scale, with which the alarm can be set from a quarter of an hour to the nearest hour within the next twelve hours.

A very deliberate inaccuracy here is that the alarm always goes off two minutes before the set quarter of an hour, in order to provide a more beautiful, prolonged sound. Assuming it was set to a full hour, it would normally only indicate this with a few low chimes. This way, however, the owner can also enjoy high-low double chimes for the quarter hours and 13 high chimes for the minutes.

Four patents were registered for new mechanisms inside the R AL 27 PS calibre.

Another piece of family history

Patek Philippe has been in the hands of the Stern family since 1932: first under the brothers Jean and Charles, then Henri, who in turn was succeeded by his son Philippe, and since 2009, the current president has been Thierry Stern. Father and son worked side by side for many years before the senior bequeathed the company to the junior, just as Philippe and Henri had done before them. And just like Philippe Stern, Thierry Stern started his career in the USA in the New York branch that his grandfather had once founded.

Philippe (left) and Thierry (right) Stern, the third and fourth generations, have made significant contributions to the brand’s success. The Stern family has owned and managed Patek Philippe since 1932.

The fact that a shining star is at the helm of the manufacture is a matter of course, but it is also a given that this star understands the company and, above all, the products, down to the last detail. Despite this, there had never been room for the Stern name – or even the portrait of a family member – on the watches themselves until now. The 1938P is therefore a special watch in this respect, too. ‘À mon père, 85 ans de passion horlogére’, i.e. ‘For my father, 85 years of watchmaking passion’, is engraved on the back of the watch’s cover. Furthermore, the signature of the birthday boy himself is engraved on the oscillating weight of the movement.

Never before has the name Stern, which usually appears rather discreetly in the background, been so conspicuous on a Patek Philippe. It is the greatest possible tribute to a life’s work that only future generations will be able to fully appreciate. Patek Philippe owes much to Philippe Stern. He decisively guided the brand through every global and industry crisis, positioned it at the forefront of the industry, made the minute repeater part of the company’s DNA, introduced the annual calendar, accompanied the launch of the Nautilus, and later joined it with the Aquanaut, and safeguarded the move across to purely manufacture calibres. In short, he handed over a company to his son that he was able to make even mightier than its existing strength. The phenomenal growth seen in recent years is a family achievement that would be inconceivable without this father-son team.

One for the collectors

It is already clear to everyone that this ‘Philippe-Stern-Patek-Philippe’ is a kind of holy grail for collectors of the company’s models in general, and of minute repeaters in particular. It is a truth universally acknowledged that family-run manufactures are both rare and special. Despite a price tag of 890,000 Swiss francs, 30 pieces will not be nearly enough to meet the demand. Even without the portrait of the Honorary President, a successive reference produced in a mini-series would undoubtedly prove a great success. However, the movement will not be used in any alternative model; it was solely designed to be used 30 times – for this reference and this reference alone. Some might think that’s madness. Others will say that it’s wonderful that something like this still exists. And everyone will think and feel: this is Patek Philippe.