NEW YORK - During the winter of 1853 Antoine Norbert de Patek boarded a steamship for the United States and, with a tempestuous crossing, so began the owner of the Swiss watch company’s hazardous odyssey. During his visit, Patek’s hotel room was burglarised, a nearby street caught fire, as did a steamboat on which he travelled. He fared little better on land: one train was derailed, another became stuck in a snowdrift.
He returned to Europe crippled by rheumatism, but also enriched with vital knowledge of what was then an emerging market for Swiss watches. He noted that “Americans vociferously, loudly demand watches which are not expensive, but they also demand that they are capable of calculating the speed of their trotting horses with split-second accuracy.”
This quote leapt to mind when I noticed that there is a Patek Philippe Ref 5004 split seconds chronograph and perpetual calendar in the upcoming New York Watches sale. While not inexpensive, if you can afford to run a string of racehorses then you should have one of these watches too.
Clockwise from upper right: IWC stainless steel split seconds chronograph rattrapante, circa 2000, $6,000–8,000. Panerai, a fine and very rare limited edition split seconds cushion-form chronograph wristwatch with registers and tachymeter, PAM00158 No F05/10 radiomir rattrapante, $30,000–50,000. Patek Philippe, a platinum split seconds chronograph wristwatch with diamond-set indexes, Ref 5004, $200,000–250,000.
Internally complex, the 5004 incorporates the highly technical perpetual calendar, first adapted for the wrist by Patek Philippe, and the split seconds chronograph. Standard chronographs have two pushpieces, and start, stop and reset buttons, while the split seconds chronograph has an additional pushbutton that, as its name suggests, splits the sweep seconds hand into two: stopping one of the second hands, while allowing the other to continue. The French name rattrapante (catch-up) refers to the fact that the same button, when pressed again, allows the stopped hand to rejoin the moving one.
For the race-goer the benefits are obvious, allowing one to time both first and second place. For the watchmaker, however, it is a headache, as this is a complicated timepiece to manufacture. A clutch connects and disconnects the split-seconds hand, along with another pushpiece and the maker needs to finely adjust the watch so that the hands remain perfectly superposed, appearing as one until the extra pushpiece is called upon.
Another interesting example of a significant split seconds chronograph is IWC’s double chronograph, or doppelchronograph. Twenty years ago, when the Swiss watch industry was emerging from the quartz crisis years of the 1970s and 1980s, the visionary Günter Blümlein – who sought to re-establish the technical prestige of the brand by paying homage to its heritage with aviation timepieces – ran IWC. A significant launch from this period was Der Doppelchronograph, which demonstrated a mastery of such mechanical complexity to become a modern classic in the ‘squadron’ of IWC aviation watches.
With Patek’s innovation attuned to the land-based needs of American horse racing and IWC’s Doppelchronograph that took the rattrapante into the skies, Panerai, the favoured brand of Italian military submariners, holds great promise at home under the sea; which means that one lucky buyer could have the right split seconds chronographs for land, sky and water. The only remaining problem would be to acquire the racehorses, fighter planes and submarines to accompany them.
Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of The FT’s How to Spend It magazine and a regular contributor to GQ.
These split seconds chronographs will be offered at Sotheby’s New York on 10 December.