CNN  — 

From Joe DiMaggio to Albert Einstein, Princess Diana to Victoria Beckham, watchmaker Patek Philippe has long been a celebrity favorite. But the Swiss brand’s reputation has taken an unexpected turn in recent years.

Namedropping luxury labels may be nothing new in hip-hop, but lyrical references to Patek Phillippe exploded in 2017. That year, one-third of the songs on the Billboard Hot 100 mentioned the brand, according to music website Genius.

Travis Scott has rapped about his “two-tone Patek,” Cardi B (pictured top) “flooded” hers with diamonds and Gucci Mane suggested that his was “gon’ make this crooked judge try throw the book at me.” Young Thug, Migos and Future have all mentioned their Patek Philippe timepieces, while Lil Uzi Vert has such affinity with the watchmaker that he released two tracks honoring it, “Patek” and “New Patek.” (“New Patek on my wrist,” he said in the latter, “white diamonds, them sh**s hit pink.”)

The phenomenon coincided with a wider surge of interest in watch collecting, according to Nick Marino, senior vice president of content at online watch magazine, Hodinkee.

“Since Patek Phillipe has always has been one of the most prestigious watch brands, it stood to reason that it would be the one that everyone was talking about,” he said via video call.

“Hip-hop has a long and storied history of shouting out brands that artists like, going back to ‘My Adidas’ by Run-DMC, and it just so happened that watches caught fire.

Rapper Future sports a Patek Philippe watch at the UNCF Mayor's Masked Ball in 2016.

“Rappers are smart,” he added. “They know what status means and they know what exclusivity means. You might expect rappers to talk about Richard Mille, because that’s a young, flashy, ‘new money’ watch brand – and rappers love that one too – but I love that they love the old-money watch brands.

“By positioning themselves as Patek customers, rappers are positioning themselves in the lineage of elites going all the way back to the 19th century. That’s power.”

The brand’s place in pop culture is a far cry from its 1990s “Generations” ads, which featured predominantly White parents and their children bonding over treasured horological heirlooms. The memorable campaign helped establish the famous catchphrase, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”

As a brand that promotes history and heritage as markers of quality, becoming a status symbol for the Instagram generation might have sat uncomfortably with the 182-year-old company. But, Marino said, the watchmaker has not visibly repositioned its brand – nor need it worry about becoming too popular: “In a lot of ways, the young audience – the hip-hop audience – has found Patek maybe rather than the other way around.

“This brand has been a symbol of luxury since 1839, so I don’t think there’s any danger of them being seen as a flash in the pan,” he said, adding: “Twenty-seventeen was a lifetime ago in hip-hop, and people are still talking about these watches.”

A watch from the Nautilus range, which contains some of Patek Philippe's most sought after models, on display at 2019 Baselworld luxury watch and jewelry fair in Basel, Switzerland.

Indeed, according to Sharon Chan, director of watches at Bonhams auction house in Hong Kong, Patek Philippe’s place in the zeitgeist is “a very positive sign” for its future.

“Five to eight years ago, Patek Philippe watches were mostly bought by older clients,” she said over the phone. “But recently, it’s all the younger generation – the second or third generation (down) from the first collector clients we had.

“Their collecting style and the types (of watches they’re interested in) are quite different. In the past, experienced collectors looked for the most complicated versions of products. Nowadays, they tend to go for simpler functions – something simple-looking or made from different materials. Whereas in the past 80% of our Patek Philippe watches we sold were (made from) precious metals, now, most customers are requesting the stainless-steel ones.”

“Rarely, do (the watches) really just go down to the next generation,” she added. “But it is a brand that connects the generations together.”

More money, fewer complications

Celebrities’ fixation with Patek Philippe may just reflect its status as the world’s most expensive watchmaker – if auction records are your measure, at least. The brand is responsible for eight of the 10 priciest watches ever to go under the hammer, including a stainless-steel Reference 1518 that fetched over 11 million Swiss francs ($11.1 million) and a pink gold version that smashed estimates to sell for almost $9.6 million last September.

A Patek Philippe watch formerly owned by Andy Warhol on display at a Christie's auction house in June 2021.

Considered among the most complicated mechanical watches ever produced, the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication became the world’s most expensive timepiece when it sold for 23.2 million Swiss francs ($24 million) in 2014. That record was comprehensively smashed five years later by an unworn Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime 6300A-010, created especially for a charity auction in Geneva, that fetched 31 million Swiss francs ($31.2 million).

Founded in Geneva as Patek, Czapek & Cie (the current name was adopted after Polish co-founder Antoni Norbert Patek partnered with Frenchman Adrien Philippe), the brand claims to have been making watches “without interruption” since 1839. Queen Victoria was among the watchmaker’s early clients, purchasing one of its “keyless” watches – the first in the world to operate without prior winding – at London’s Great Exhibition in 1851.

An undated photograph offers a glimpse into Patek Philippe's factory in Geneva.

New technology would continue underpinning Patek Philippe’s appeal among the era’s rich and famous. In 1868, the company produced what it believes to be the world’s first wristwatch for the Hungarian Countess Koscowicz (a claim hotly disputed by rival Breguet, which says a 1810 timepiece it made for the Queen of Naples was the world’s first). Patek Philippe has since been awarded over 100 patents, from the first perpetual calendar mechanism for pocket watches to “time zone” watches that featured a second hour hand for international jet-setters.

But its most exclusive range has proven to be one of its least complicated: the Nautilus.

Designed to resemble a ship’s porthole, Nautilus watches cost upwards of $30,000 each, with prices on the secondary market often significantly higher. Following popular ranges like 1932’s Calatrava, the collection launched in 1976 and has been worn not only by royalty and rappers, but business moguls, athletes and Hollywood stars.

More recently, Drake has shown off his emerald-laden Patek Philippe Nautilus Reference 5726, custom-designed by late fashion designer Virgil Abloh, while Kylie Jenner is regularly pictured sporting a white gold diamond-encrusted Nautilus Reference 5719. The Nautilus also makes regular appearances on Instagram, ranging from the subtle (see John Mayer wearing his in a mirror selfie) to the not-so-suble (see reality star Scott Disick waiting outside a then-unopened Patek Philippe store alongside the caption, “What time ya opening @patekphilippe?”).

It is the stainless-steel Nautilus Reference 5711, in particular, that has acquired cult status in celebrity circles. In 2019, the New York Times reported that only “carefully vetted clients” would be added to a waiting list – after which they would need to wait up to eight years to purchase one.

Then, last year, the company offered an unexpected response to the demand: it discontinued the 5711.

In the aforementioned Times article, company president Thierry Stern, whose family has run the watchmakers since 1932, suggested that Patek Philippe did not want to be seen as a one-model brand. “We make about 140 different models at Patek Philippe, and the basic Ref. 5711 in steel is just one of them,” he was quoted as saying. “We have many other models that are more complicated and arguably more beautiful.”

The 5711 nonetheless made a brief reappearance in late 2021, with the release of a limited-edition olive-green version and a Tiffany & Co. collaboration in the US jeweler’s iconic blue. But – for now at least – the model appears to have been scrubbed from the brand’s website, where the coveted 5711 is conspicuous by its absence among over 25 other types of Nautilus.

Aura of exclusivity

Waiting lists and soaring resale prices clearly bolster the brand’s aura of exclusivity. But the scarcity may be a genuine matter of supply and demand. While Rolex is thought to produce in the region of a million timepieces a year, Patek Philippe’s annual output may be as little as 50,000, Chan said.

Actor Kevin Hart, seen wearing a Patek Philippe Celestial watch at the German premiere of "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" in 2017.

“Everyone thinks (waiting lists are) a marketing strategy, but because the demand has increased in such short time, they really cannot meet it. Over the past two years, my watch circles are seeing 10 times the normal requests for the Nautilus or the Aquanaut,” she said, referring to another popular range launched in 1997.

“That’s just my little circle, so can you imagine, all around the world, how many people are trying to get one or two or three for themselves?”

If the watchmaker were to ramp up production, it might come at the cost of quality, which could itself threaten the brand, added Hodinkee’s Marino.

“What any elite watchmaker will tell you is that they produce as many as they can to maintain the level of quality that their customers expect,” he said. “Now, could Patek produce a ton more watches and put their name on it? They could. But then it wouldn’t be Patek anymore. The limited nature and the craftsmanship is what you’re paying for to begin with.”