A step back in time: the story of Antoni Patek, the man behind one of the most famous names in watch making

The Patek Philippe watch that was sold at Sotheby's in Geneva on November 11, 2014 for a record price of $21.3 million. /PAP/EPA

In 2014 a Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication pocket watch dating back to 1933 smashed world records when it went at auction for $21 million, making it the most expensive timepiece ever sold. But the history of Antoni Patek, the man behind watch, tells a story far removed from the multi-million dollar prices and glamour surrounding his products and his name.

Antoni Norbert Patek (known later under French version of his name Antoine Norbert de Patek) was born more than 200-years-ago, on June 14, 1812 on his family’s estate in Piaski Szlacheckie, close to Lublin in the east of Poland.

When Antoni was only 10, his family moved to Warsaw, and when his father Joachim died five years later the boy had to take responsibility for his family.

But he along with his duties for his family Patek also felt he had a duty to his fatherland. Poland was occupied by foreign powers so the only way he could fulfil this duty was to fight.

Antoni Patek went from being a decorated Polish soldier to being one of the most famous names in watchmaking.Public Domain

Still aged only 15 Patek joined the 1st Polish Mounted Rifles Regiment, and saw action two years later during the November Uprising (also known as the Polish–Russian War 1830–31). Wounded twice, Patek was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and was later decorated with the Virtuti Militari Golden Cross. 

Unfortunately, the November Uprising was defeated, and the following repression by the victorious Russians was harsh. Patek, like many other Polish soldiers and officers, was forced to leave his beloved country.

Owing to his bravery and commitment to the cause, however, Patek was given one more mission. He had to organise a safe and secure evacuation route for Polish insurgents through Prussia to France. During the mission he was even given command over a strategic staging point in Bamberg near Munich, but when the evacuation was over Patek settled in France making a living as a type-setter.

Still going strong: the Patek Philippe display at the international watch and jewellery exhibition 'Baselworld' in Basel.PAP/EPA

But Patek’s exile in France did not last long because after two years the French government, under pressure from the Russians, decided to resettle former Polish insurgents in Switzerland. There, Patek tried his hands at many trades while at the same time taking lessons from the renowned Swiss painter and engraver Alexandre Calame. Patek also began to develop a taste and love for beautiful objects that would have significant implications for him later in life.

As he settled into Swiss life, Patek started to buy the mechanisms of watches from the best Geneva watchmakers and put them into cases. He was extremely demanding when it came to the quality of workmanship and artistry that went into the cases, and he also found out that there was a growing and appreciative market for his creations.

Finally, in 1839, Patek and Franciszek Czapek, another Polish immigrant who was also a talented watchmaker, established their own watchmaking firm. The artistic motifs of their watches were at the time deeply rooted in Polish imagery, depicting revolutionary and legendary Polish heroes or the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.

In 1845 Patek and Czapek’s paths separated so Antoni hired gifted French watchmaker Adrien Philippe, the man who invented the revolutionary key-less winding mechanism.

A Patek Philippe watch engraved with an image of Napoleon.Irena Jarosińska/PAP

The Patek Philippe Company was officially established in 1851, and in the same year at London’s Great Exhibition Queen Victoria gave the fledgling company a huge publicity boost when she bought an open-faced keyless-winding watch. Victoria regarded the beauty of the watch so highly that she wore it as a piece of jewellery, and Patek became “the royal watchmaker”.

Ever since then the list of the famous who have fallen in love with Patek watches has grown and grown. After Queen Victoria it was Tsar Nicholas II, who became an obsessive collector, and then came, among others, Leo Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, John Paul II and the Dalai Lama.

As Patek’s reputation grew he still involved himself in Polish matters. He was an eager supporter of the initiative of a group of Polish emigrants for the establishment of the so called “Polish Foundation”, an aid organisation. He also helped set up a Polish library and lecture hall in Geneva, and after the defeat of the 1863 January Uprising Patek helped Polish refugees arriving in the Swiss city. Despite being one of the most celebrated and internationally known Poles Patek never ceased to be a deeply patriotic Pole.

He died in Geneva on March 1, 1877.