For 11 days in July 2017, watch aficionados converged in Manhattan to take in The Art of Watches Grand Exhibition, the most impressive collection of Patek Philippe timepieces in the world. While the price of a brand-new basic Patek Philippe begins at about $20,000, the Grand Exhibition allowed those of perhaps more modest means to examine dazzlingly decadent watches up close.
For fans of vintage watches, clocks, and other mechanical objets, however, the biggest draw was a salon filled with historically important timepieces once owned by important personages.
One of the reasons Patek Philippe is so popular amongst the elite is its exclusivity. In the beginning, the company produced about 200 high-quality pocket watches per year. Some models are in such high demand that buyers must submit to an application process to prove that they are serious collectors of high-caliber watches.
Which is why the ruling classes were the first to champion Patek. Most of these timepieces were made to order, and while world leaders needed accurate watches to rule their empires, they also wanted to possess one-of-a-kind pieces. The enterprise soon enjoyed the patronage of Polish General Tadeusz Kościuszko and Prince Józef Poniatowsk.
Anyone with enough resources can buy a Patek Philippe, but to behold a pendant watch that belonged to Queen Victoria is a whole other story (with the emphasis on story).
Held at the Crystal Palace, the Grand Exhibition was a celebration of industrial-age progress and it is said the Queen was besotted by the technology behind this open-face, keyless-winding and hand-setting pendant watch. Royalty still has loyalty to the brand: In 2017, Victoria’s timepiece was presented alongside a pearl and diamond bedazzled wristwatch belonging to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (who graciously gave her permission for it to be shown at the Grand Exhibition).
The man behind the manufacture was a Polish émigré called Antoine Norbert de Patek, who started Patek, Czapek & Co. with Francois Czapek in Geneva on May 1, 1839.
Patek parted ways with Czapek and on May 15, 1845, paired up with French watchmaker Jean Adrien Philippe, who became the company’s technical director. Before joining Patek, Philippe invented the key-less winding mechanism. His arrival signaled the company’s dedication to innovation.
And in the second half of the 19th century, when technological and economic progressed from a more agrarian economy to the fast-paced adoption of steam-powered railways, boats and ships, and factories, the forward-thinking captains of industry (like today’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) wanted to be ahead of the game when it came to technology.
Patek was also one of the first Swiss businessmen to roam the world marketing his company’s unique timepieces. One of the most important destinations for Patek was the United States, where railroad and mining magnates competed to commission pocket watches with more and more elaborate complications.
The most famous of these friendly feuds was between financier Henry Graves, Jr., and automobile maker James Ward Packard. In 1927, Packard commissioned “The Packard,” a watch that displayed a moon phase, a sub dial indicating the day, date, and year (which automatically adjusted for leap years), sub dials showing the time of sunrise and sunset calibrated to the latitude and longitude of Packard’s home in Warren, Ohio, a carillon (three-gong) minute repeater, and (on the back) a blue enamel celestial chart of 500 stars representing the view of the night sky from Packard’s mansion.
Not to be outdone, Graves approached Patek Philippe to make an even more audacious mechanism. Both Packard and Graves continued to up the horological ante until 1933, when the “Henry Graves Supercomplication” Pocket Watch, featuring 24 complications, was presented to the businessman. The Supercomplication also holds the record for the world’s most expensive watch, selling at Sotheby’s in 2014 for just over a cool $23 million.
As the company continued its march through time, Patek Philippe built a following among the celebrated. Examples of celebrity-owned timepieces represented at the Grand Exhibition include Duke Ellington’s split seconds chronograph (one of only three known in existence), another chronograph presented to Joe DiMaggio by the New York Yankees, and a minute-repeater that was gifted to General George S. Patton when he graduated from West Point.
One of the most intriguing timepieces that is not only a sign of the times, but also a witness to one of the most stirring oratories of the 20th century—a desk clock owned by President John F. Kennedy. Known as the JFK clock (these timekeepers are so important that they have their own names), it was gifted to the President by West Berlin mayor Will Bryant in 1963 on the day after his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech—a turning point in America’s role in international relations.
Made at the beginning of the Cold War, the piece is a triple time-zone clock that displays the time in Washington, D.C., Moscow, and Berlin. It was commissioned by a German retailer and the design was meant to evoke a nautical instrument in tribute to Kennedy’s service in the U.S. Navy.
Rhonda Riche is an award-winning Toronto-based lifestyle writer with a particular obsession with watches. Riche is also fond of art and design and is the co-author of the book ‘Covet Garden Home.’