Patek Philippe watches excite a passion among connoisseurs that no other timepiece can match, reflecting generations of fine craftsmanship and artistic flair. But are young people brought up in today’s fast-paced world still prepared to put in the long years of apprenticeship and on-the-job honing of skills needed to make one of these watches?

In November 2014, the world’s most expensive watch was sold at auction – the winning bid was more than $20 million. Set in 18 carat yellow gold and weighing half a kilogram, the bespoke Super complication was made for Henry Graves, an American financier, between 1925 and 1933. Yet it is not the precious metal that make this watch so special. What really sets this exquisite timepiece apart is that it is the most intricate ever produced without the aid of computer technology. Its 24 ‘complications’ (the watchmaker’s term for features and functions that go beyond simply telling the time) range from Westminster chimes to an astronomical map of New York.
The maker was Patek Philippe of Geneva. And today, its watches are still produced with the same innovation, aesthetic ambition and mechanical precision that make them the pinnacle of haute horlogerie. It takes more than a thousand steps to construct a single timepiece, with everything still made in-house and a huge array of different skills required. From conception to completion, there are some 1800 people working on the products in Geneva. They stretch from designers and engineers, through to watchmakers, jewelers, enamelers, engravers and finishers.

trusting to tradition

“Watchmaking reached a crossroads in the 1970s with the arrival of digital quartz technology. While many others went down the digital quartz route, we chose to stick with traditional mechanical methods and this has been vindicated by the fact that our products are now more prized than ever,” says Daniel Rochat, who had a background as a watchmaker and engineer before he moved into HR.
This sense of heritage is reflected in the company’s famous advertising slogan: “You never own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.” And this is no idle boast as the company takes pride in being able to repair any of its watches, the earliest of which date back to the 1830s. While much of the work and training is still carried out in Geneva, the company has developed global service capabilities, which include a new watch repair school in Shanghai.
At the same time, technology plays an important role in the business, be this 3D printing of prototypes or the computer-operated machines used to make working parts too minute for even the finest craftsman to create by hand.

what makes employees tick?

The obvious challenge is how to attract and retain the people with the select skills upon which the product relies. This is a career that calls for supreme patience and dedication. It takes four years to study for a technical degree in watchmaking, and then many more years of hands-on experience before you can consider yourself ready for a ‘complication’. It could be decades before you can move on to working on the most intricate ‘grand complications’. In a world of tech-driven immediacy and instant rewards, finding people who are prepared to put in all this time can be difficult. Companies taking part in the latest annual Deloitte Swiss Watch Industry Study cited shortages of qualified labor as among the three biggest risks they face, ranking alongside weaker foreign demand and the strength of the Swiss Franc. Thierry Stern, who took over from his father as President of Patek Philippe in 2009, highlighted the challenge in an interview with Fortune magazine in 2014, when he said: ““It’s not easy to say to a young person, ‘You need 15 years to apprentice before you can even start to be a little good’.”
Yet, the numbers enrolling on college watchmaking courses and apprenticeships have actually been rising in recent years. The 2014 and 2016 Randstad Award Survey found that watchmaking is the most attractive industry to work for in Switzerland. In 2014 all three of the most popular employers were watchmakers (Patek Philippe was number one, with Swatch in second place and Rolex in third).
So what gives watchmaking such an enduring appeal in Switzerland? It isn’t money. For all but a few at the summit of their profession, salaries tend not be as high as bankers, teachers or other professionals. But watchmaking can offer a kudos that no other industry can match. “Clocks and watches are very much part of our heritage here in Switzerland and there is still a lot of status attached to making them,” says Mr Rochat. “But we recognize that we are vying with other luxury brands for the best people.”

the product is king

So what gives Patek Philippe the edge over other watchmakers?  “I think what has helped to mark us out is the passion for our products and all the artistry and ingenuity that go into them,” says Mr Rochat. This passion is the essence of Patek Philippe’s employer brand. “The product is king,” says Mr Rochat. “The more we can set our craftsmanship apart, the higher our expectations, the more people want to work for us. And it’s not just the engineers and craftsmen who want to be part of our brand, but people in marketing, logistics and other support functions as well.”

taking the career to the next level

If the employer brand is built around the product, the employer value proposition is founded on the opportunity to always strive for something more. “People work towards different levels of complication, so wherever they are now there is always something more to learn and an opportunity to go further in their career. At the summit are the grand complications, which are the supreme test of the designer and craftsmen’s expertise, and what all the years of training and experience are building up for,” says Mr Rochat. The company sets high store on preserving and passing on some of the rarer skills in areas such as watch enameling, which otherwise would be in danger of dying out.

a rare level of intimacy

When so many luxury brands have been swallowed up by conglomerates, Mr Rochat believes that the other big attraction of Patek Philippe is that it is still an independent family-run business. “Family ownership enables us to maintain a clear strategic vision and strong and enduring values,” he says. Alongside stated values that one would expect in such an enterprise such as attention to aesthetics, service and fine workmanship, Patek Philippe places strong emphasis on ‘emotion’. Among customers this is reflected in the commitment to repair any watch in recognition of what it might mean to the owner and the associations it holds. Within the workforce, the emotion is reflected in the close relationships between owners, management and staff. “Despite being a global enterprise, family ownership enables us to operate on a human scale,” says Mr Rochat. Patek Philippe’s high employee satisfaction and low turnover rates are a testament to these close bonds.
Nonetheless, Patek Philippe knows that it cannot take its position for granted. One of the challenges the company faces is that while it has a high profile within the technical schools from which a lot of the craftspeople are sourced, it is less well-known than other watchmakers elsewhere. Drawing on the findings of the Randstad Award Survey, one of Mr Rochat’s priorities is to increase the company’s visibility among university students, from which a lot of the people engaged in marketing, logistics and other business processes are sourced.

seeking like-minded people

Even if skilled people are available, ensuring that potential recruits have the necessary passion and dedication remains a challenge for Mr Rochat and his team. “We have a presence on social media. But what we really value are face-to-face interactions. We meet and talk with potential recruits at our factory many times, as that is the only way to really get to know the candidates as people, what motivates them and whether they have the zeal to put in all the many years of training and preparation,” he says. There are no formulaic questions or interview techniques that would single out someone who has what it takes. Mr Rochat believes that you can only see the passion if you look into their eyes.

lasting appeal

So what can other organizations learn from Patek Philippe? This is clearly a rare and unusual company, whose attractions can’t really be fitted into conventional descriptions of an employer brand. Yet in a world of automation and immediacy, what Patek Philippe’s appeal as an employer does show is that many people still cherish the opportunity to bring time, craftsmanship and devotion to their work. It is hard to see how the talent model would work without the watchmaking heritage and concentration of technical schools focusing on the necessary skills that exist within Switzerland. Therefore, this is a triumph of local tradition in a globalized world. Ultimately, this is about the chance to do something that nobody else has done, even if it takes decades to win the opportunity – that takes a passion that only people who have it would really understand.