The Stern name looms large in the world of horology. The Stern family has owned Patek Philippe since 1932, and four generations have managed the manufacture, growing it into one of the most important and sought-after watch brands today. Philippe Stern was president from 1993 to 2009 and now serves as honorary president. His son Thierry Stern is the company’s president, the fourth generation of Stern family men to do so.
Philippe Stern turns 85 this year, and to honor his birthday and horological legacy, Thierry Stern commissioned a unique chiming watch with a groundbreaking movement. Most high complications are limited in production by their very nature, but Patek Philippe takes the idea of a limited-edition watch to new heights with this release of 30 timepieces. Reference 1938, named for Philippe Stern’s birthyear, features a new movement, Caliber R AL 27 PS, with four pending patents. Incredibly, it will never be used again.
Philippe Stern is known for his love of the chiming watch and his dedication to pushing the boundaries of the craft at the Patek Philippe manufacture. To celebrate the manufacture’s 150th anniversary in 1989, he helmed the release of the first minute repeater movement that the company designed and crafted entirely in-house. Caliber R27 began a new era of in-house capabilities for Patek Philippe.
Chiming watches have become a signature of Patek Philippe, and these watches are celebrated for their crystal clear sound. Only the most skilled artisans can work on minute repeaters, and the Stern family famously listens to every chiming watch before it’s deemed finished and ready to go to the client. The manufacture has mastered all types of chiming watches over the years, combining different types in its most complicated watches. Reference 1938 features both a minute repeater and an alarm.
Patek Philippe debuted the alarm, which chimes the programmed time, in 2014. It was one of two patented world firsts in the Grandmaster Chime Ref. 5175, the most complicated wristwatch ever created by Patek Philippe and an homage to the manufacture’s mastery of chiming watches. It contains a grande sonnerie, a petite sonnerie, a minute repeater, a date repeater, and an alarm that chimes the programmed time.
Even though Patek Philippe has combined a minute repeater and an alarm in a movement before, adding the alarm function to a self-winding minute repeater movement was a technical challenge. There wasn’t enough space to include both as they traditionally would in other movements, so its engineers devised a novel way. The alarm and the minute repeater both chime on the same two gongs.
This created a new problem. Typically, a Patek Philippe minute repeater is activated by a slide integrated into the side of the case. In Reference 1938, the slide must activate both the minute repeater and the alarm, depending on the selected mode. In minute-repeater mode, it chimes the time on demand by striking the hours, quarter hours, and minutes. When in alarm mode, the chimes are held until the alarm time, and the movement then strikes only the programmed time. While this might sound easy, creating this movement was very complex, and Patek Philippe filed four new patents for the innovations that came from technical constraints, including switching chiming mechanisms.
Despite the complexity of the caliber, the watch is easy to use as the wearer selects the chiming mode through the crown. The crown pulled out to position one sets the alarm time, and pulled out to the second position sets the time. The pusher in the crown changes the chiming mode selection, and the slide piece activates the minute repeater and the alarm.
While many limited-edition watches are indistinguishable from a company’s primary collection, the dial of Reference 1938 immediately sets it apart from the rest of the Patek Philippe catalog: It features a Grand Feu enamel miniature painting of Philippe Stern. The portrait is striking in shades of white and gray, contrasting with the black Grand Feu enamel dial. In less talented hands, a portrait on a watch dial might be cheesy or cartoonish; here, it reflects the elegance of the man himself and the manufacture.
At 6 o’clock, there’s a small seconds subdial, and at 3 o’clock, the chiming mode indicator is displayed in a bell-shaped aperture. Black represents the minute repeater, and red or white represents the alarm. The white bell means the alarm has not yet sounded, and red means it has chimed, but the mechanism needs to be reactivated. The dial is completed by white gold Breguet-style numerals and hour and minute hands. The alarm time is indicated by a rose gold Breguet-style hand and a rose-gilt minute scale.
Reference 1938 has a 41mm platinum case with an Officer’s-style dust cover. Platinum is a relatively rare material in watchmaking because of its weight and difficulty to work with, especially when achieving clear, strong sounds from the chiming mechanism. The dust cover opens to reveal the movement, which is finely finished in a unique way. The bridges and hammers have chamfered edges that are gilded in a contrasting yellow gold. The micro-rotor features a hand-engraved reproduction of Philippe Stern’s signature. The inside of the cover is inscribed with a message from Thierry Stern to his father that says, “A mon père, 85 ans de passion horlogère,” which translates in English to “To my father, 85 years of watchmaking passion.”
For many companies, it would be unthinkable to put this much research and development into a movement that will only be used 30 times. But, I’m sure Patek Philippe will integrate these patents into other timepieces in the future. And, what better way to honor a horological legend than with an ultra-exclusive, groundbreaking movement that celebrates his favorite complication?