Gentlemen's War, and Its Progeny

New York Times, April 24, 2013

NEW YORK — On Dec. 2, 1999, in a packed salesroom at Sotheby’s headquarters here, an anonymous phone bidder made watchmaking history by paying $11 million for a Patek Philippe pocket watch considered, then and now, to be the Mona Lisa of timepieces.

In the 13 years since, watch collectors have lifted sales at the three major auction houses — Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Antiquorum — from less than $100 million in 1999 to $275 million in 2012. But the record set by the Graves Supercomplication, as the illustrious pocket watch is known, still stands, a testament to its singularity as a timekeeping mechanism as well as the rarefied glimpse it provides into the gilded age that spawned it.

Commissioned in 1925 by Henry Graves Jr., the fiercely private heir to a New York banking fortune, the pocket watch boasts 24 complications, including a split-second chronograph, sunrise and sunset indications, a moon phase display, a perpetual calendar, a minute repeater that chimes the same melody as Big Ben, and a celestial chart mapping the nighttime sky over New York.

“It was as if Merlin captured Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven, encased their essence in gold, and then slipped the mechanism inside a man’s waistcoat, where their collective genius might tick through eternity,” writes Stacy Perman in “A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch,” her new book about the Graves Supercomplication and the horological rivalry that gave rise to it.

Ms. Perman contends that Mr. Graves’s receipt of the Supercomplication in 1933 marked the end of years of one-upmanship that had the banker going toe to toe with the automobile magnate James Ward Packard to see which one of them could commission the world’s most interesting timepiece.

Although Mr. Graves and Mr. Packard never met, Ms. Perman brings to life the “gentlemen’s war” that defined their acquisitive frenzy: “As the decade pulsed ahead,” she writes of the 1920s, when the men entered their peak collecting years, “the automaker from Warren, Ohio, and the New York financial scion emerged as haute horlogerie’s two greatest American patrons, and their watchmakers were more than delighted to assist them. Their patronage engendered special treatment. No request, it appears, was denied.”

Nearly a century later, the landscape of the high-end watch business has undergone a tectonic shift. Not only have wristwatches triumphed over pocket watches, the renaissance in mechanical watchmaking that began in the late 1980s — after a disastrous period of decline brought on by the introduction of inexpensive and accurate quartz technology in the 1970s — has bloomed into a $22 billion marketplace for contemporary Swiss timepieces led by a global coterie of collectors “looking for the same thing their predecessors were looking for — the rarest, most complicated, aesthetically beautiful works of horological art that can be built using the present technological advances,” said John Reardon, author of “Patek Philippe in America: Marketing the World’s Foremost Watch.”

Modern-day collectors of Patek Philippe, however, have to contend with a critical difference between now and the days when Mr. Graves and Mr. Packard engaged in an epic duel for collecting supremacy: The firm, owned by the Stern family of Geneva since 1932, rarely accepts commissions, said Larry Pettinelli, president of Patek Philippe U.S.A.

The most elaborate timepiece to emerge from the Patek workshop since the Supercomplication is the Calibre 89, an astronomical pocket watch brimming with 33 complications. Produced in a set of four, the model was designed according to the whims of the Stern family to celebrate the firm’s 150th anniversary in 1989, and not to please a capricious collector.