Understated but ‘never easy’: Why collectors covet Patek Philippe

New York (CNN)The world record holder for the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at auction isn’t a lavishly appointed timepiece encrusted in diamonds or encased in 24-karat gold. Instead, the title belongs to a relatively understated, stainless steel watch made by Patek Philippe in 1943. In November 2016, the watch went for a staggering $11 million to an unnamed private collector, courtesy of the Geneva branch of the Phillips auction house.

But don’t let its simple appearance fool you. Open the watch case, and you will find nearly 200 individual hand-made components working in harmony in pristine condition in a space a mere fraction of the size of the average smart phone. The inner workings are, to riff on watchmaking parlance, very complicated, a trait that has become a company signature.

“Patek Philippe is never easy,” says Sandrine Stern, the brand’s head of creative and wife of Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern. “Never.”

Fostering an understanding of the detailed craftsmanship that goes into every Patek watch is one of the reasons the company has organized “The Art of replica Watches,” an interactive, 10-room, 13,200-square-foot retrospective at Cipriani 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan open now through July 23, that aims to, as Stern puts it, “show what is Patek Philippe, in terms of movement and innovation.”

At Cipriani, visitors can learn about a watch’s movement (the technical term for its inner mechanics) and its appropriately named complications — the word for any function a watch performs other than telling time.

Patek Philippe has contributed to advancements of both. The company helped pioneer the chronograph movement, annual calendar and perpetual calendar that accounts for leap years. Guests to the exhibition can observe the craftsmanship that goes into each high-end timepiece, via a handful of artisans working on-site and a virtual reality tour that takes viewers inside a Patek Philippe watch.

The absolute premier brand’

The record setting, $11-million wristwatch — known by its reference number, 1518 — is not on display, but pieces once owned by John F. Kennedy Jr., Duke Ellington and Joe DiMaggio have been assembled for the event. They’re among the serious collectors and seriously wealthy clients who have found Patek timepieces irresistible since the company was founded in 1839, often ahead of its competitors with equal or greater brand recognition.

“Within the world of collectible replica rolex watches, Patek Philippe has always been the most desirable,” says Benjamin Clymer, a high-end watch expert and founder of Hodinkee, a website devoted to the finest in watchmaking. “It’s always been the absolute premier brand.”

By way of comparison, Paul Boutros, head of fake watches at the Americas division of Phillips auction house, notes that the most expensive replica Rolex ever sold at auction — the Bao Dai, a yellow gold, automatic style — bought for $5 million at Phillips in May.