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Feature: Keeping Time

Laurie Kahle

With the words “We’re out,” Patek Philippe President Philippe Stern hung up the telephone and let the famous 1933 Graves Supercomplication pocket watch slip through his fingers during a Sotheby’s auction in December 1999. His palpable disappointment was tempered only by the fact that the Graves, which was commissioned by the reclusive American collector Henry Graves Jr., set a record at auction: $11 million, the highest price ever paid for a watch.

“After [the bids hit] $6 million, I stopped breathing,” recalls Daryn Schnipper, senior vice president and international director of watches and clocks at Sotheby’s. Schnipper notes that the Graves was estimated to fetch $3 million to $5 million, though rumors circulated that the watch could go for as high as $8 million. “It was the most exciting time of my career. It is one of the 10 most expensive works of art, other than a painting, that we have ever sold.”

For 56 years, until Patek Philippe produced the Caliber 89 to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 1989, the Graves reigned supreme as the most complicated watch ever made, with a combination of 24 complications. This ideal showpiece for Stern’s collection had eluded him. But it was one of the few that did.

For more than 35 years, Stern, with the help of horological expert Alan Banbery, has been quietly assembling a monumental private collection of some of the most important watches ever created. His collective opus, which includes some 2,000 timepieces, automata, and miniature portraits on enamel, has found a very public home in the new Patek Philippe Museum, which opened last November in Geneva.

An extensive horological library, artifacts from Patek Philippe’s history, and exhibits of antique watchmaking machines and tools are only the appetizers to the museum’s entrée: hundreds of watches on two expansive floors. The museum consists of two separate collections. The pre-Patek antique collection features rare early watches, mostly of Genevan provenance, dating to the 1530s; the other is Patek-centric, tracing the company’s accomplishments from its founding in 1839 to the modern era.

“The museum is an amazing and unprecedented resource for the collecting community,” says Schnipper. “In terms of Patek Philippe’s own products, it affords the opportunity to see all the different models at one time, and compare and study them.”

In 1966, Stern began setting aside significant timepieces from Patek’s own stock, including 1953 World Timers that had once languished in drawers unsold. “Today those pieces are worth $1 million, but at that time we could not sell them,” Stern notes with amusement at the company’s Geneva headquarters.

After taking stock of the many trea-sures already in Patek’s possession, Stern purchased pieces from private customers. His efforts were aided by the comprehensive records that the company has maintained since its founding. In Patek’s tightly secured archive, shelves are lined with volumes detailing the manufacturing of each piece, its separate movement and case number, any maintenance performed, and the name of the purchaser. “At that time we could still buy pieces directly from owners,” says Stern. “It was not as common for people to only sell through auctions, like today.”

Stern’s early start gave him a clear advantage in assembling an extraordinary and expansive collection. In the 1970s, watch collecting was uncommon and usually lim-ited to pocket watches. With the advent of quartz technol-ogy, mechanical wristwatches were considered obsolete and as a result were not highly prized for collecting. “It was rather easy to make a nice collection, because you didn’t have that many collectors,” says Stern, who started collecting wristwatches in 1973.

Banbery, who was named curator of the private Patek Philippe collection in 1970, would schedule his worldwide sales trips to coincide with watch auctions. The company began inquiring if its retailers had unsold watches in their vaults that Patek could buy back. When rare watches were returned to headquarters for repairs, owners were occasionally persuaded to sell or trade them. And Patek Philippe watches that had belonged to famous people became the targets of global searches. Year after year, the acquisitions mounted and the collection grew exponentially, though hidden from public view.

In 1989, the company’s sesquicentennial, there was discussion of establishing a public museum to pay homage to the art of horology as practiced by Patek Phillipe. But greater ambition took over, and Stern decided the museum should include masterpieces from the watch world at large, dating to 1530, with a special concentration on Genevan watchmaking.

“The primary mission is to provide an education,” says Stern. “Watches are part of human cultural development. They are very much influenced by the sciences—physics, mathematics, astronomy—as well as art—painting, sculpture, design. You can see the evolution of those disciplines in watches, because they were always adapted to their time.”

The Antique Collection: 16th through 19th Centuries
The first watches evolved from the miniaturization of portable clocks, says Arnaud Tellier, the museum’s director and former vice president of the Geneva auction house Antiquorum. These early watches, which date to the first half of the 16th century, were fitted with loops so they could be worn as pendants.

The oldest piece in the museum is a drum-watch of German origin dating to around 1530. The primitive iron movement is housed in a case of delicately engraved gilt metal. The piece originated in Nuremberg, which was a center for gun production and consequently ironwork. “We know of only 12 pieces dating from 1500 through 1550 that have survived until today,” says Tellier. “We are very lucky to have one in our collection.”

While the earliest watches originated in Germany, France, and Italy, a new watchmaking center began to emerge in Geneva at the end of the 16th century. Amid the turmoil of the Reformation, French Protestant Huguenots escaped religious persecution in France and brought their remarkable watchmaking and enamel-painting talents to the small enclave on the shores of Lake Geneva.

The results of this emigration of French talent can be seen in the museum’s extensive collection of exquisitely painted enamel pieces. Artisans from Blois, France, specialized in miniature painting on enamel, an extremely delicate technique used to adorn practical objects such as snuffboxes and watches with religious and mythological themes. “When we collected pieces first made in Blois and then later in Geneva, they were almost the same because they were made by the same people,” says Stern, adding that his personal favorites are the elaborately enameled watches that feature decoration on every surface, including the inside of the case. “Those pieces were made for royalty. Even at the time, they were very expensive. Today, very few of them remain, and they are very difficult to collect.”

Around 1650, the first complicated watches with moon phases and simple calendars were emerging from Geneva’s workshops. The watches were designed with only an hour hand, because they were not precise enough to track minutes. It was not until 1675 that Dutch physicist, geometer, and astonomer Christiaan Huygens invented the spring balance and transformed watches into precision instruments that no longer needed to be reset several times a day.

A highlight of the museum is one of the first watches with a spring balance, created by London watchmaker Henricus Jones between 1675 and 1680. The piece, which is the earliest known example of a watch capable of indicating minutes, features a Barrow endless-screw regulator and a minute hand that extends vertically and retracts horizontally to follow the elliptical shape of the dial.

Around 1680, Geneva’s watchmakers started to explore opportunities to export their wares to Eastern markets, beginning with the Swiss colony of Constantinople in Turkey. The museum’s Turkish watches are richly decorated with enameling and engraving. About a decade later, China welcomed Geneva’s artistry, which was exemplified in lavishly decorated pocket watch pairs that mirrored each other in yin-yang fashion.

The fanciful decorations were brought to life with the development of automation in Geneva around the turn of the 19th century. The delightful automata, with their complex mechanisms, surely mesmerized people of the time with their moving figures and music. One of these fantasy watches, created by Geneva watchmaker Rochat in 1810, takes the shape of a flintlock pistol decorated with gold, enamel, and pearls. When the trigger is squeezed, a singing bird emerges from the barrel and perches on top.

The sheer whimsy of the automata was complemented by the era’s major technical advancements pioneered by the father of modern horology, Abraham-Louis Breguet. Breguet, who was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 1747, is credited with an astounding range of inventions, including the tourbillon regulator. “Breguet was responsible for 11 very important advances in technology and design,” says Tellier. “He transformed watch production.” Breguet died in 1823, but his company continued to flourish under the direction of his son, Antoine-Louis.

The museum displays 10 historic Breguet pieces, including the Sympathique clock and watch that was sold to London banker Lord Baring in 1845. The clock, which is fitted with a perpetual calendar and strikes hours and quarters, is designed to readjust, reset, and rewind the companion watch with jumping hours, a quarter-repeater, and power reserve indicator. “In terms of technology, it was the most difficult thing to achieve at the time,” says Tellier. “It is like a computer, before there were computers.” Breguet produced 11 Sympathiques, one of which sold to a private collector for a record-breaking $5,777,000 at the same 1999 Sotheby’s auction that featured the Graves Supercomplication.

The Patek Philippe Collection: 1839 to Present Day
Almost three and a half centuries passed from the creation of the earliest watch to the founding of Patek, Czapek & Cie in 1839 by Polish exiles Count Antoine Norbert de Patek and François Czapek, who fled their homeland during Russian occupation. Six years later, Czapek left the Geneva firm, and French horologist Adrien Philippe became Patek’s partner in the company that eventually became known as Patek Philippe.

The museum pays homage to Patek Philippe’s illustrious history through the display of more than 1,000 of the company’s most significant timepieces. “With Patek Philippe you can really show 162 years of watchmaking evolution,” says Stern. “Every time there was an innovation, Patek Philippe was always more or less involved.”

Along with technological advances—from grand complications to one of the first quartz timepieces—the Patek display tracks changing styles and tastes, from Art Nouveau to Art Deco through the 1960s and 1970s.

Watches that once belonged to famous individuals are a highlight of the Patek Philippe collection. The museum features an open-face pendant watch that was offered to Queen Victoria at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London. The Queen was taken with the watch’s distinctive blue enamel, which was said to match her eyes, as well as its technically advanced, patented stem-winding system. Stern notes that the company has not been able to locate the watch ordered for the Queen’s husband, Prince Albert. “Perhaps it’s still in Buckingham,” he muses. Other celebrity pieces include watches owned by Leo Tolstoy, Rudyard Kipling, Richard Wagner, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Jack Daniel, and Richard Evelyn Byrd.

The collection covers the first century of wristwatches with 500 pieces ranging from the first Swiss wristwatch (a lady’s bracelet watch created in 1868) to a 1955 men’s split-second chronograph with perpetual calendar and moon phases. The brand’s flagship Calatrava model, introduced in 1932, is well represented by some 30 versions, including an early 1934 model. And of course there are the now highly sought-after world-time wristwatches that display universal time, thanks to an ingenious device developed in 1935 by independent watchmaker Louis Cot-tier. Patek collaborated with Cottier to create a series of wristwatches representing the world’s 24 time zones. The museum displays 20 such pieces dating from 1937 to 1966, some with magnificent polychrome cloisonné enamel dials.

For enthusiasts of complicated watches, the museum’s pièce de résistance is surely the supercomplicated watches for which Patek has achieved particular fame over the years. The firm holds about 70 patents for inventions, enabling it to use a wide range of horological functions in daring combinations.

The prototype of the Caliber 89, created to commemorate the firm’s 150th anniversary in 1989, holds a special place of honor in the museum. With its 33 functions and 1,728 distinct parts, the Caliber 89 is regarded as the greatest horological masterpiece ever created. Nine years of research went into the development of the piece, which combines the three main types of complications (calendar, chronograph, and striking mechanism) with extraordinary astronomical complications, including a celestial chart with 2,800 stars. “The way they display the prototype with its component parts allows you to study it in an in-depth way,” says Sotheby’s Schnipper. “It adds to the overall importance of the watch.”

The captivating early-20th-century collecting duel between American magnates James Ward Packard and Henry Graves Jr. is also represented. The Ohio automobile engineer and the New York financier each turned to Patek Philippe to create the most complicated timepiece ever built. The first of Packard’s highly complicated watches, comprising 16 horological functions, was delivered in 1916. In 1928, Graves commissioned a piece that had to be more complicated than Packard’s in every way. The result was the 1933 Graves Supercomplication, which was the object of Stern’s desire at that history-making 1999 auction.

While it may have eluded him at Sotheby’s, the Graves pocket watch has taken up temporary residence in one of the museum’s sleek sycamore display cases. Its anonymous owner was persuaded to lend the piece for the museum’s inauguration and for six months after. However, once the Graves settles in next to its regal relatives, even its owner may agree that it could not find a better place to spend eternity.

Laurie Kahle is a senior editor at Robb Report.

Structural Integrity
A museum-quality collection, of course, needed a suitable frame to hold it. The 1920s building on Geneva’s rue des Vieux-Grenadiers, which served as Patek Philippe’s former workshop for watchcases, bracelets, and chains, has been transformed from a dreary factory to an airy, contemporary backdrop for the colorful horological works of art.

Philippe Stern’s wife, Gerdi, served as project manager for the two-and-a-half-year renovation that sought to preserve the historical character of the building and its contents while exuding a modern spirit. “I had this vision of a warm and snug museum, offering a degree of comfort and privacy,” she explains.

Interior designer Jackie Nyffeler executed her vision through the use of materials selected for their quality and color—American granite for the floors, Provence stone for the walls, serpentine marble from the Alps for sideboards, and Spanish marble for the entrance. Four wood varieties were used for the custom-made cabinetry, which required the efforts of 40 cabinetmakers for an entire year. Bleached oak was chosen for the library, and solid natural or seasoned beech wood serves as the base for the display case veneering, which consists of eucalyptus for the antique collection and rare sycamore for the Patek Philippe collection.

“We wanted to create an intimate showcase,” says Nyffele. “Although open to the public, this museum had to come across as private. This was about creating a tailor-made museum, like a museum of haute couture.”

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