Inaugurated in November 2001, the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva houses one of the world’s most important and prestigious horological collections. Some 2,500 watches, automata, precious objects and portrait miniatures on enamel invite the visitor on a fabulous voyage through five centuries of Genevan, Swiss and European horological art, as well as proposing a panoramic view of Patek Philippe’s production since 1839. The recent introduction of a new museology makes the experience particularly vivid and engaging. This internationally renowned jewel in Geneva enables experts, devotees and the general public to make closer acquaintance with the exceptional cultural heritage that horology and the related arts represent.
An extraordinary private collection
The Patek Philippe Museum was born of a man’s passion for horology. That man is Philippe Stern, who was president of the Geneva manufacture at the time and is now its honorary president. Mr. Stern began assembling the collection well before thinking in terms of a museum. He concentrated at first on Patek Philippe watches, particularly the complicated models. In 1980 he enlarged the scope of his search to take in all timepieces that had left their mark on watchmaking history since the sixteenth century, together with the greatest treasures of the enameller’s art, that sublime Genevan specialty. Little by little he built up one of today’s most extraordinary horological collections. But his aim in bringing together all these technical and aesthetic masterworks was not solely to satisfy his personal tastes. He also intended to share his love of the watchmaking art and his joy of discovery with the public at large. And in doing so, to communicate the splendor of Geneva’s high-watchmaking tradition and ensure that this cultural heritage would be handed down to future generations. And so the idea of a museum began to take shape.
A building in the grand style
An extraordinary collection calls for an exceptional setting. The Patek Philippe Museum finally greeted the world in a magnificent industrial building dating from 1919–1920 and restored with great restraint. Located at number 7 rue des Vieux-Grenadiers, in the Plainpalais district of Geneva, this building had been occupied by watchmakers and artisans in the related trades throughout its history. Patek Philippe acquired it in 1975 to house Ateliers Réunis, a production unit making cases, bracelets and chains. In 1996 these activities moved to the new manufacturing premises in Plan-les-Ouates, leaving the building vacant. Philippe Stern decided that this was where he would present his collection. Between 1999 and 2001 the structure was fully restored, adding an additional floor, with strict respect for the original architecture. Mr. Stern’s wife Gerdi oversaw the interior decoration, her aim being to give the rooms the warmth and intimacy of a private residence. In November 2001, the Patek Philippe Museum collections were at last unveiled, in surroundings worthy of their technical, artistic, aesthetic, historical and scientific value.
500 years of horological history
Rather than a museum devoted to a single brand, the Patek Philippe Museum is unique in that it offers the chance to discover five centuries of horological heritage, as well as the significance for all the decorative arts traditionally associated with watchmaking – engraving, enameling, gemsetting, guilloché work etc. The collections are divided into two complementary sections: on the second floor, a tour through the history of the portable mechanical timepiece, from its origins in the sixteenth century down to the early nineteenth century; on the first floor, a survey of Patek Philippe’s most beautiful creations, from 1839 to 2000. On the third floor, a library of more than 8,000 works on horology and related subjects underlines the museum’s educational role.
A treat not to be missed
In the space of two decades, the Patek Philippe Museum has made its mark as one of Geneva’s finest museums and cultural highlights. Besides attracting visitors from all around the world, it also draws the inhabitants of the surrounding region, keen to know more about Geneva’s cultural heritage. The number of visitors testifies to its success, with more than 600,000 admissions in twenty years. Along with the permanent collections, the museum has held temporary exhibitions showcasing particular treasures: “Timepieces for Royalty” in 2005, “The Mirror of Seduction: Prestigious Pairs of Chinese Watches” in 2010 and “Timepieces Signed Rousseau” in 2012. Public guided tours take place every Saturday in French and English or may be booked in advance in seven languages (French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Russian). Themed tours are also on offer. The themes range from enameling or the magic of automata to a children’s tour or a discovery tour of the old watchmakers’ Geneva. These too may be reserved. And not forgetting the open-door weekends with their special attractions. Some of the objects also travel the world for Patek Philippe’s Grand Exhibitions, which are open to the public and devoted to the art of watchmaking.
A new experience for the visitor
Under the leadership of Philippe Stern and Peter Friess, director and curator of the museum since 2014, new acquisitions have continued to enrich the collections. The layouts of the two main collections have been reorganized, each now comprising twenty themed areas reflecting particular aspects of the watch’s history or the world of Patek Philippe. To complement the wide choice of guided tours, the museum has also introduced an audio guide, accessed via a tablet. This device makes it possible both to provide all the required information on the exhibits and to illustrate the context in which they were created and worn, highlighting the close links between watchmaking and science, fashion, artistic movements and social change. The audio guide currently offers some twenty hours of accompaniment in English, French or German. Other languages will be available as from 2023. Users may compose their own itinerary or choose a pre-set route, such as the one suggested by Philippe Stern himself. About 10,000 photographs complete this application, enabling the user to zoom in on details or examine features that may not be visible in the display cases. Modern, interactive and dynamic, this à la carte means of discovery gives visitors the freedom to tailor their visit to their particular interests.
For experts and watch lovers, the Patek Philippe Museum has produced two comprehensive catalogues – one on the Patek Philippe collection, published in 2013, the other on the antique collection, published in 2016. As the latter is out of stock, a new edition including the recent acquisitions will come out in 2023. On the occasion of its twentieth anniversary, the museum will issue two new 100-page publications conceived for a wide readership. One is devoted to the antique collection, the other to the Patek Philippe collection. These works, available in English as from 2022, will each have a print run of 10,000 copies and will be sold together in a presentation box, or separately.