Royalty Have for Centuries Been the Watch Industry's Most Eager Clients

New York Times, September 23, 2011

NEWPORT BEACH, CALIFORNIA — In May of 2002, Michael Sheehan, an exotic car dealer from Newport Beach, California, flew to Brunei, the tiny oil-rich sultanate on the north coast of Borneo, to purchase two McLarens and two Ferraris from a collection of some 2,500 luxury cars owned by Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the sultan of Brunei’s wildly extravagant younger brother.

On arrival, Mr. Sheehan was escorted to the royal automobile compound, where, he says, a scene of mind-boggling excess awaited him.

“There were about eight buildings filled with cars,” Mr. Sheehan recalled in an interview. “One building was mostly Porsches, another mostly Mercedes, another Lamborghinis, all rotting in the tropical heat.

“Then in one room, probably about 1,000 square feet in size, were stacks and stacks and shelves and shelves of watch presentation boxes — hundreds of boxes for Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Cartier — all empty.”

Mr. Sheehan did not know where the watches were, but he offered this insight: “Rolexes are what they tipped the servants with,” he said.

While Prince Jefri’s lifestyle was extravagant even by royal standards — the “Playboy Prince,” as he came to be known, squandered a reported $15 billion before an epic legal battle with the sultan forced his temporary exile from Brunei in 2000 — he is merely the biggest spender in a long list of kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, emperors, sultans, despots and dictators who have kept high-end watchmakers on their toes over the centuries.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, royal patronage was the chief force behind the watch trade’s technical and aesthetic innovation.

“Until the 19th century, good taste was often the prerogative of kings,” Philippe Stern, former president of Patek Philippe, wrote in a preface to the catalogue for “Timepieces for Royalty — 1850-1910,” a 2005 exhibition organized by the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva.

“It is therefore not surprising that royal timepieces had a considerable impact on their period,” Mr. Stern added.

Take, for example, the groundbreaking self-winding pocket watches produced by the Paris-based watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet for Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette. The pieces established Breguet’s reputation as Europe’s finest horologist, paving the way for a 1783 commission that would go down in history as the most complicated watch of its time.

The Breguet No. 160, also known as the “Marie-Antoinette,” comprised 823 parts encased in 18-karat gold. Brimming with 23 complications, including a perpetual calendar, a moon phase display and a thermometer, the watch was completed in 1827, four years after Mr. Breguet’s death and 34 years after the queen’s beheading.

The court of Versailles may have been the first to put a watchmaker’s virtuosity to the test, but the French monarchs were hardly the last.

“Royalty can be quite demanding about what they want — and they usually get it,” said Charles Tearle, head of the Asian division of the watch auctioneer Antiquorum.

Consider an anecdote unearthed by historians at Patek Philippe as proof that what a monarch asks for, he shall receive. In 1873, the shah of Persia visited the firm’s atelier in Geneva. His hosts, hoping to impress him with rarefied examples of Geneva horology, showed him an extraordinary box containing a watch and singing bird; it was decorated with enameled scenes in the rococo style of the French painter François Boucher.

“The shah was delighted, and, thinking the box was a present, enthusiastically ordered that it be wrapped up and placed in his luggage,” according to the “Timepieces for Royalty” catalogue. “Despite the general surprise and consternation, those present found themselves obliged to follow through.”

Not surprisingly, the lengths to which watchmakers have gone to please their royal clients have resulted in some of history’s most captivating timepieces.