A typical million-dollar minute repeater probably spends a good part of its life sequestered in a solidly built safe, occasionally given an airing when its owner wants to enjoy its dulcet tones. Not, however, if the chiming watch in question is the Patek Philippe Grand Complication Ref. 5208P, currently sported by Thierry Stern, the president of esteemed Swiss fine-watch manufacture Patek Philippe.

“I’ve been biking in the mountains and karting with it,” says Stern, glancing at the platinum timepiece on his wrist during our interview at the brand’s newly refurbished office premises at Wheelock Place. With a smile, he continues: “I’m testing it to see how strong it is. It’s been three months. It has had shocks and vibrations, and it’s still working. It’s difficult to break it, but I will. I’m determined to make it stop.”

It’s pretty intense product testing, even for Stern, who famously listens to and approves the acoustics of every minute repeater before it leaves the Patek Philippe manufacture in Geneva, like his father and grandfather before him. This obsession with perfection is surely one of the key factors behind the enduring success of one of Geneva’s last family-owned and independent watch manufactures.

Whether old or new, its revered Grand Complications, and iconic models like the Calatrava and Nautilus, continue to be coveted by collectors and fans globally. In fact, one of its bespoke pocket watches from 1933, the Henry Graves Supercomplication, sold for 23.2 million Swiss francs (S$30 million) at an auction last month, making it the most expensive watch ever sold at an auction.

In October, Patek Philippe celebrated its 175th anniversary, launching a series of commemorative models that are destined to become collectors’ items (see sidebar). Founded in Geneva in 1833 by Polish entrepreneur Antoine Norbert Patek and French watchmaker Jean Adrien Philippe, the company suffered financial problems during the Great Depression. To ensure the continuation of the brand, its directors sold the company to the brothers Charles and Jean Stern, dial-makers and one of its main suppliers. It has since remained in the hands of the Stern family.

In an industry dominated by three watch conglomerates, Patek Philippe’s independence is all the more remarkable – a state of affairs never far from Stern’s mind. This year, the company’s fourth-generation head celebrates his own milestone: It has been 20 years since he joined the family business. We ask him what his greatest challenge has been, and the answer does not surprise. “Maintaining our independence,” he says.

With a wry laugh, he adds: “There are many groups around us, and I think all of them dream of buying Patek. We’re always, I would say, the target.” What Stern describes as “those big sharks” can expect to keep circling. His father, Philippe – who now serves as honorary president – believed that self-sufficiency was central to the manufacture’s independence. Stern says emphatically: “We have been doing everything internally for many years. That’s the best choice we ever made, to maintain a level of production that’s not that big, but to verticalise (our processes). We are a real manufacture – we produce the parts, the movements, the cases, the bracelets, everything in-house.”

Despite his palpable pride and protectiveness, the father of two boys aged 11 and 13 says he isn’t too worried about whether his children will want to join the business in future. This laissez-faire attitude, by the way, is another family tradition. Says Stern: “I always say, ‘I didn’t have children to take over Patek’. They will have to make their own choices.”

That said, the allure of a Patek can prove hard for even youngsters to resist. Stern says: “I don’t push them (into horology). But, if they are interested, I will show them.

“They recently discovered the minute repeater because I was testing one, and they asked me, ‘Dad, what is this ding-ding-ding’?”