Finely Made Clocks Emerge as Connoisseur Favorites

New York Times, November 21, 2012

BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA — Patek Philippe is best known for making some of the world’s finest wristwatches, but at its new Rodeo Drive boutique, pride of place belongs to something unwearable — a one-of-a-kind, cloisonné dome clock.

Designed to commemorate the boutique’s opening in July, it depicts, in colorful detail, a California idyll populated by a valley quail and a golden poppy, two symbols of the state. Sold to a seasoned collector for $117,000 within a week of its arrival, it is now on unofficial loan to the store while the owner looks for somewhere to put it.

“It was very special for us to get the clock in the first place,” said Thomas J. Blumenthal, president and chief executive of Gearys, the Beverly Hills retailer that owns and operates the boutique.

With only about a dozen such pieces made available every year to the brand’s global coterie of retailers, Mr. Blumenthal said he would be lucky to get another any time soon — and, judging by the strength of the secondary market, the frenzy may be just beginning.

“One barometer we have, to show that the market for modern clocks has increased rapidly, is by the price achieved for Patek Philippe dome clocks in the last few seasons,” said Sam Hines, head of watch sales at Christie’s Asia. “Ten years ago such clocks were fetching $30,000 at auction. In May this year we achieved a world record price, selling a late ’50s example for $297,000.”

More than just elegant nods to a bygone era, finely made clocks — be they decorative art objects or complicated timekeeping mechanisms, or both — have emerged as connoisseur favorites.

From its base in Le Sentier, in the Jura region of Switzerland, Jaeger-LeCoultre is among a handful of watchmakers actively pursuing the clock business. In January, the firm introduced a 10-piece limited edition of its Atmos clock that pays tribute to the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Klimt, the Austrian painter. The $245,000 clock features a marquetry reproduction of one of Klimt’s paintings, “The Kiss,” using 1,200 pieces of exotic wood meticulously cut and assembled to cover the external surface of the cabinet.

A sign that more watchmakers see a future in clocks came last month, when Chopard, based in Geneva, introduced the L.U.C. Quattro table clock, the first of its clocks to be powered by a sophisticated mechanical movement.

Featuring an eight-day power reserve, dauphine-style hands that mimic those on its namesake wristwatch collection and a 16-centimeter, or about 6-inch, see-through back, the clock retails for $6,740 — far less than the watches of the same collection which start at $26,510.

Clock components are “obviously much larger and therefore slightly less complicated to manufacture and to assemble,” said Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, co-president of Chopard.

Fans of the sober German clock making tradition would do well to look up Erwin Sattler, a 54-year-old Bavarian firm known for producing table clocks, ship clocks, grandfather clocks and pendulum clocks.

The latter incorporate barometric and air pressure compensation systems that limit their deviation from true timekeeping to two seconds per month, said Richard Müller, co-owner of the company, speaking by telephone from the floor of MunichTime, a consumer watch and clock show in the Bavarian capital.

Where Erwin Sattler’s timepieces would not look out of place in a 19th-century salon, the Austrian firm Buben & Zörweg, founded in 1995, unites technology and craftsmanship in futuristic-looking products like its new $200,000 Grand Aficionado, which combines a high-security safe with a clock, humidor, wine cabinet and iPad docking station.

“We can completely customize the housing of our masterpieces and use selected woods such as Makassar or walnut burl wood, high quality carbon fiber, fine leather — whatever the customer desires,” said Martin Zeiringer, director of marketing at Buben & Zörweg.