The shortage of expert watchmakers is in part a hangover from the digital- and quartz-watch boom of the 1970s. It seemed to many at the time that the days of premium watches were coming to an end because of the advent of technology that would bring inexpensive, accurate watches to the masses. Japanese watchmakers such as Seiko and Casio were so successful that many in Geneva despaired of finding a future in watchmaking. Schools that taught the craft emptied out, and some veterans went so far as to throw away the tools that were used to make mechanical watches.

Stern, not yet company president but already influential, was not daunted. He believed there would always be at least a small market for beautifully made, traditional, mechanical watches, so the company did not cut back. His instincts were correct. In fact, demand for luxury watches has increased steadily in recent years, allowing the company to more than double its workforce in the last decade.

FEW COMPANIES GUARD their history as carefully as Patek Philippe does. The heart of its enterprise can be found in more than 700 bound archives carefully stored in a locked room at the Geneva headquarters. The books chronicle the details of each watch sold since 1839, often recording the name of the watchmakers who worked on it, meaning that someone who wants information about a Patek Philippe that belonged to their grandfather or great-grandfather can write to the company and provide the serial number engraved on the watch's movement and, for a fee, receive a detailed history of the birth of that particular timepiece.

Each page has been scanned into a computer so that there is a duplicate record available in the event of a fire or other disaster. The existence of this unique record means that famous sales have been recorded for posterity -­including a transaction on November 30, 1851, when Victoria, the Queen of Great Britain and the Empress of India, paid 612.50 Swiss francs for a spectacular yellow gold pocket watch decorated with enamel and rose-cut diamonds.

Her Majesty was not the only famous person to choose Patek Philippe. The company's­ pocket watches and early wristwatches were acquired by many European royals, Russian czars, and various popes, and were later prized by show-business stars, including the late Duke Ellington and guitarist Eric Clapton, who recently auctioned part of his collection of Patek Philippe chronographs. Russian author Leo Tolstoy and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie also wore Patek. Some of these watches­ can be found in Geneva's Patek Philippe Museum, which houses hundreds of historic watches by Patek and other companies.

It is a point of pride for the company that its craftsmen will stand behind and repair any Patek Philippe watches, even those that date back to 1839. Many well-known watch companies will not repair or renovate movements that are 25 or 50 years old, but Patek's experts are willing to work on any watch made by their predecessors, although this can be an extremely expensive process if special parts must be made.