GENEVA – As one of the world’s most sought-after watchmakers celebrates 175 years of creating the finest timepieces, one of the supreme examples of their art will reappear at auction in Geneva. Nick Foulkes explores the allure of Patek Philippe.

It is a big year for Patek Philippe, as the bluest of blue chip watch houses celebrates its 175th birthday. So the timing of Sotheby’s sale in Geneva of the most valuable watch in the world could not have been more propitious. When the Henry Graves Jr Supercomplication last sold in 1999, this horological behemoth fetched over $11 million, setting a world auction record that has yet to be surpassed, and the passage of time has done nothing to dim its mysterious appeal. For watch lovers it is the equivalent of Yo Picasso or La Gioconda, a masterpiece of near mythical status.

patek-philippe-graves-supercomplicationBoth sides of the Henry Graves Jr Supercomplication by Patek Philippe, completed in 1932. To be offered in Important Watches at Sotheby's Geneva on 11 November.

The story, told most recently in Stacy Perman’s 2013 book A Grand Complication, has it that in the early years of the 20th century, Henry Graves Jr, scion of a New York banking family, was locked in a duel with auto-magnate James Ward Packard as to who could commission the most complicated watch. While the evidence of a feud is light, the narrative that these two watch collectors fought each other has entered horological lore – Graves “won” the battle in 1933 when he took delivery of the Supercomplication. The gold openface minute repeating chronograph clockwatch he received contains 920 individual parts, 430 screws, 110 wheels, 120 removable parts and 70 jewels. It incorporates a perpetual calendar (that will not require resetting until the year 2100), moon phases, sidereal time, power reserve and indications for time of sunset and sunrise. The chimes emulate London’s Big Ben, and it also shows the night sky above Graves’s residence in New York City.

The excitement surrounding the fabled watch is emblematic of the Patek phenomenon. While not approaching Graves levels, the breadth of values at auction from thousands to millions allows the brand to exert a remarkable hold over the imaginations of collectors, giving them the privilege of looking after a small object for their descendants.

The advertising campaign to that effect – “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation” – is, of course, world famous, but advertising can only sell a good product. It is the sense of continuity that makes the marque so attractive to collectors. This consistency has brought Patek to the position where its customers pay such close attention that the difference of a millimetre on a case diameter generates the sort of attention that other brands have to resort to superlatives to achieve.

Patek Philippe Ref 3802/200 "Calatrava": a fine yellow gold automatic centre seconds wristwatch 
with date, made in 1992. Estimate CHF6,000–8,000.
Patek Philippe Ref 3940J: a fine yellow gold automatic perpetual calendar wristwatch with moon-phases, made in 1990. Estimate CHF20,000–30,000.
Patek Philippe Ref 570: a rare white gold centre seconds wristwatch, circa 1960. Estimate CHF18,000–25,000.
Patek Philippe Ref 3700/1A: "Jumbo" Nautilus, a large stainless steel automatic cushion wristwatch with date and bracelet, circa 1975. Estimate CHF16,000–22,000.

It is a delightful irony that an object so concerned with the passage of time should itself be timeless. Looking at the watches of today it is possible to trace an unbroken bloodline back to the early days of the wristwatch. Take the simple round Calatrava. From the elegant Ref. 96 of the early 1930s there is a direct path to the drop-dead gorgeous Ref. 5123 of 2012. This is the essence of classic watchmaking and the choice of discerning men from Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom and Eric Clapton to Apple’s Jony Ive, Pablo Picasso and three quarters of The Beatles – John, Paul and Ringo. 

The Graves watch is a testament to Patek’s ingenuity and craftsmanship. It is joined, but not surpassed, by the Calibre 89, for which the complications were made with the assistance of computer technology. The Calibre 89 is a sensational piece of watchmaking and was produced to honour the 150th anniversary of the company. It will be fascinating to see what horological fireworks the brand has in store for its 175th anniversary celebrations this year and where the Graves winds up (excuse the pun) on 11 November.

Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of The FT’s How to Spend It and a regular contributor to GQ.

Patek Philippe, The Authorized Biography by Nick Foulkes is published next year by Random House.

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11 November 2014 | Geneva