The Legend of J.B. Champion and Patek Philippe’s First Self-Winding Watch

The Legend of J.B. Champion and Patek Philippe’s First Self-Winding Watch

Patek Philippe’s Reference 2526 returns to the market after 26 years.
Patek Philippe’s Reference 2526 returns to the market after 26 years.

I n an age where celebrities and magnates-turned-celebrities dominate the high-end watch collecting scene, the spectre (or fantasy) of the once quiet collector has become close to the stuff of legends. Texas-born Joe Ben Champion Jr, known as J.B. Champion (1917-1975), is one such remarkable figure. Champion was considered one of the most talented and successful lawyers of his time. He was also a prolific watch collector.

It’s been believed that Champion’s collection included somewhere between 10-20 wristwatches and pocket watches – all from Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. He purchased the majority of his watches from Linz Bros in Texas and the Henri Stern Agency in New York. Yet only three of Champion’s watches have ever come up for auction, and one of them, the Patek Philippe Reference 2526 is a true holy grail.

When the reference 2526 was made in 1952 and introduced in Basel in 1953, it was Patek Philippe's first self-winding watch. It is a time-only watch, with an enamel dial and the finely crafted calibre 12-600 AT ticking away inside. Research has shown that only 3,000 watches were made by the time they ceased production in 1960. Many of the watches are believed to still in the hands of private collectors or lost, as only 320 yellow gold, 95 pink gold, 21 white gold and 23 platinum 2526 watches have re-surfaced.

This 2526 was the first one ever made. It was saved for Champion, though it appears that Henri Stern Agency to see just how popular the watch might be before delivering it to Champion a few months after its debut at the Basel Fair. The 18k yellow gold screwdown case, bracelet, clasp, enamel dial, and 36mm case size lend the watch modern wearability without overshadowing the vintage charm and bonafides. Because it is the earliest model and the earliest movements were fitted by a bi-metallic compensation balance instead of a gyromax balance, it stands out not just for its good looks but for the uncommon structure within.

This timepiece made its first appearance on the market at Antiquorum in 1991. It re-appeared in 1998 and has been in the hands of the current collector until today. The watch is accompanied by a letter from Werner Sonn, the president of the Henri Stern Agency at the time, confirming the elite provenance of the timepiece.

The other two watches from Champion’s collection that have come up for auction, both Patek Philippe, help to paint the picture of a man who had an eye for significant horology. We can look at these watches with the benefit of history, and certainly Champion had plenty of Patek Philippe heritage to study by the 1950s, but these choices reflect an appreciation for the rigors of watchmaking. The platinum observatory watch reference 2458 was made for Champion in 1952. It is notable for the chronometer movement 861115 which received the "Bulletin de Marché” and twice stamped Geneva seal, it was sold at auction in 2012 for a jaw-dropping 3.8 million CHF. Champion’s other watch, a reference 824 gold pocketwatch with ano“her "Bulletin de Marché” movement, fetched 50,000 CHF at auction in 2015.

What can we tell about J.B. Champion from his watches? If we were to look at the facts that could hold up in court, as a lawyer might want us to do, we are left with very little. He owned three Patek Philippe watches in his lifetime, purchased in his 30s. He clearly had a relationship with the brand and retailers that afforded him access to early (and the earliest) pieces. These tidbits are just enough to feed the imagination; what else might have been in his collection? What must it have been like to collect Patek Philippe watches in an era when a lawyer (who had access to family wealth) could volley to the front of the line? What we know about Champion the man paints a more complicated picture. According to an article by Eric Wind, Champion wanted to alter the dial of the Platinum Observatory watch to celebrate 5 o’clock happy hour. Champion passed away from terminal illness at the age of 57 in 1975. To this day, his collection continues to intrigue and fascinate watch collectors.

When you look at the rarity and importance of the reference 2526 in Patek Philippe’s illustrious history, and stack that up with that only three of his watches have surfaced to the market in the past 30 years, it’s little wonder this is an incredibly rare chance to own a piece of horological history. Of the three watches from Champion’s collection, only two of them were made specifically for Champion including the reference 2526. This yellow gold watch, seemingly simple to the untrained eye, is an amalgamation of what attracts so many to watch collecting: history, craftsmanship, rarity, and a good story.

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