• Image about Patek Philippe

Patek Philippe, the company that makes some of the finest watches in the world, has been in Philippe Stern's family since 1932. With his son Thierry poised to take over, it won't be leaving anytime soon.

Photographs by Julia Baier.

Paul Buclin, a genial man with a white beard and a slight squint, slides on his latex gloves and examines the elaborate specimen he is assembling. He works in a quiet, dust-free, temperature-controlled environment, often wearing a magnifying glass over his right eye to help him see the tiny gears and bridges he is fashioning into a single, precise instrument.

"Don't touch that," he warns a visitor, who is also wearing protective gloves and a white lab coat. "I'm showing that to Mr. Stern this afternoon. He is the final judge."

Buclin is near the top of the esoteric world of watchmaking. With 33 years of experience, he works on the most complex and valuable pieces. He is a master of "complications" - the name given to the perpetual calendars, chimes, star charts, moon phase indicators, and other features that make watches so complex. But that doesn't mean he is fast. He spent nine years working on Patek Philippe's legendary Caliber 89 first showpiece; in total, only four were made, the most expensive selling for more than $4 million. Now he is preparing to submit another special watch, with an extremely advanced tourbillion movement, for approval by Philippe Stern, the president and owner of Patek Philippe, one of the last of the great, family-owned watchmakers that helped make Swiss watches famous throughout the world.

"Mr. Stern says I'm not rapid," says Buclin, carefully eyeing the intricate timepiece for flaws that he might have missed the first 5,000 times he checked it. "But these pieces are unique. They are one-of-a-kind. Each piece has its own soul."

Theologians might not agree, but a growing number of people with a taste for traditional, handcrafted mechanical watches are turning to Patek Philippe even though the venerable Geneva company faces an increasing number of competitors in the lucrative high-priced-watch field. If you're not familiar with expensive watches, think of it this way: When you see an oversize, flashy, diamond-­encrusted watch packed with bells and whistles, it's probably not a Patek Philippe. But if you see an elegant, straightforward watch that looks like it could have been made from the finest materials 100 years ago, you may be looking at a genuine Patek. Its trend is antitrend.