Swiss horology has a Holy Trinity: Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. They’re also known as the New King, the Old King and the Young Prince. While this doesn’t provide a complete picture of modern haute horlogerie, it’s true: Patek Philippe rules . . .
Patek Philippe rules because it has the most respect, commands the highest prices for its products and garners the most plaudits from its professional peers. The New King dispenses its favors carefully, saving its blessings for those who acknowledge its dominance.
For decades, Vacheron Constantin enjoyed this exalted status. The Old King’s crown slipped when the watchmaker failed to create a single model capable of capturing vast swathes of territory. Vacheron continues to share the fiefdom thanks to Switzerland’s love of tradition, its respect for its history.
Audemars Piguet is considered the most innovative of the three, for good reason. The Young Prince’s Royal Oak invented the concept of the luxury sports watch, considered more than slightly boorish by the elite, embraced as an icon by the rabble (copied by The King to great effect.)
By treating steel as gold, The Young Prince unleashed hordes of barbarians rallying under the banner of Rolex, wreaking havoc in the land of haute horlogerie. A catastrophe Vacheron regards with jealous disdain, even as it struggles to break out of castle Royal Oak, in which it’s imprisoned.
This feudal scenario includes Jaeger-LeCoultre, the Wise Advisor to the nobility. Watchmakers such as Girard Perregaux, Blancpain, Breguet and Piaget also populate the Court, living off scraps from the royal table.
As always, there are pretenders to the throne. Young enterprising watchmakers such as Richard Mille and F.P. Journe elbow each other to tout their craftsmanship and dazzling innovation. Wizards and alchemists. For now . . .
There is little debate over the fact that Patek Philippe rules. After all, it makes the Holy Grail.
If you ask a horological foot solider, acolyte or hanger on to choose between a Patek Philippe Nautilus and an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, they will not hesitate. The Patek earns his fealty.
Not because the Nautilus is “better.” Because people know that the Nautilus confers exalted status on its owner. Why? They don’t know. It’s instinctive. They’ve been trained since birth to recognize their betters.
This has nothing to do with horological quality. Their devotion is due to ignorance and their innate desire to worship – a state of affairs that only consolidates the Royal Family’s prestige and power.
This is how a company like Rolex sneaks into the stronghold of haute horlogerie: by cultivating the fields for their betters. It also illustrates the simple point that perception is reality.
Is there a significant qualitative difference between a Patek, Vacheron or Audemars? No. Their status – both relative to each other and compared to “outsiders” – is down to their ability to create and protect their customers’ allegiance. With models, marketing and magic.
These allegiances may change very slowly, but they do change. Patek Philippe rules in this particular historical moment. In the 1800s, the same place was occupied by Breguet. In 50 years time, who knows? But definitely not Apple.