I was recently named to the honorary committee of the Gerald Genta Heritage Association: needless to say the honour was all mine. As well as an honour, it is a pleasure because I get to have lunch with the charming Mrs Evelyne Genta, Monaco’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Kazakhstan. It was during one such lunch that Mrs Genta said she had received a call from a Russian investor who asked if he could buy Patek Philippe — not one watch but the firm.
There is seldom a year in which Patek is not reported to be for sale… and yet at the end of each year it remains in the same hands; as Thierry Stern wearily confirms it is “fake news”. The only thing was that this year it was Bloomberg announcing the “sale”, and the morning I spoke to him Stern had received calls from half the industry, most expressing concerns that he had to allay.
Even so, it is hard for the truth to get in the way of a good story and by the time of the Basel fair some of the younger, more excitable executives were bounding up to me telling me Rolex was buying Patek. Then I heard that Chopard, another bastion of independence, was going to hold a press conference to announce its sale to LVMH. My informant seemed so confident that I would not have been surprised to hear that Bernard Arnault had said as much over breakfast that very morning… only he hadn’t.
I congratulated Karl-Friedrich Scheufele on the impending “sale” of his business and he smirked mischievously: he had merely announced that he would be holding a press conference and rumour did the rest (in fact, he was actually “just” launching a watch — who would have thought!). Of course, I may have been hopelessly deceived and by the time of reading Chopard may be a subsidiary of LVMH, but I doubt it, and by the end of the fair I was cheerfully predicting that it was in fact just as likely that Chopard had decided to buy LVMH.
I am not one of those Cassandras who say the industry is going to hell in a handcart. Group ownership of a brand is no bad thing, after all it was a group, SMH, the predecessor to the Swatch Group, that did much to save the Swiss watch industry; and were it not for the huge success of Cartier as part of Richemont, Officine Panerai might still be a name known only to a handful of geeks. And who knows how the craft-intensive, no-corner-cutting A Lange & Söhne might have fared without the protection of its benevolent parent company.
But just as groups have their place so do powerful independents. When people use the term “independent watchmaker”, they tend to refer to producers of a handful of excessively artisanal watches; things of beauty, ingenuity and covetability but in the grand scheme of things commercially irrelevant.
But Rolex, technically, is also an independent — free to invest and reinvest in its business as it pleases. And, had Patek been run on ruthless, quarterly-result-driven lines, watches such as the Nautilus and the Golden Ellipse would probably have been discontinued when their popularity dipped. Watchmaking is a cultural activity as well as a commercial one and to view its great names as financial entities to be bought and sold is to miss part of the point of their existence.
Nevertheless, this year’s over-productive rumour mill certainly made me ponder whether if, finding myself in the fortunate position of owning a hallowed watch brand, I would sell up for an 11-figure price. And, beyond having more money than I ever thought existed, I couldn’t think of a single good reason. Why would I trade the good fun of designing and making some of the most sought-after watches in the world (and deciding who should be allowed to buy them) to be just another billionaire who calibrates his life by the size of his yacht and, yes, the number of “grail” watches he owns?
The world is full of rich people but last time I looked there was only one Patek Philippe. But if Big Luxury is on the lookout for something to buy and will not rest until money has been spent: I would consider letting my house in West London go for the right money.
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