The Rare Handcraft of Patek Philippe World Time Watches

Cultural Perspectives • 31 Aug 2019

The Rare Handcraft of Patek Philippe World Time Watches

by Blake Reilly

The world time complication is a brilliant piece of watchmaking. The ability to simultaneously tell the time in all of the world’s 24 time zones is an immensely practical function. To every cosmopolite, a look down at the city names on the dial of a world time watch undoubtedly conjures vivid images of foreign destinations and prompts an irresistible urge to travel. However, a Patek Philippe world time watch is an art beyond its mechanical complication: the use of cloisonné enamel on world time watches since 1948 has embodied the very best of Genevan watchmaking.

Cottier’s Design for the Jet Age

Before delving into the history of the relationship between rare handcrafts and world time watches, it is important to start by understanding how the world time complication came about. During the early 1930s, innovations in air travel and telephone communication were becoming indicative of a unmistakable change in the pace of life. It was at the beginning of this significant decade that Louis Cottier designed a remarkable mechanism which could display not only the local time, but also the world’s 24 time zones (typically represented then by 28 or 41 cities) on an anticlockwise rotating 24-hour ring.

18k Yellow Gold Ref 96 Hu “Heure Universelle”, circa. 1937

Cottier worked with a number of companies such as Agassiz, Vacheron Constantin and even Rolex to produce several variations of the world time complication. Nonetheless, the most enduring legacy of Cottier’s aesthetic composition persists in the collections of Patek Philippe. One of the earliest examples of this now emblematic design can be found in the Patek Philippe Ref. 96 ‘Heure Universelle’ (HU) from 1937. Around 1940, the Ref. 1415 and Ref. 1416 significantly updated the mechanism by including an adjustable rotating city disk on the bezel to prevent the indications from falling out of sync whilst travelling – one step further was the unique Ref. 1415 which added a pulsation scale chronograph complication.

Patek Philippe World Time Ref. 1415 – Sold in very small numbers between 1939 and 1954.

Further innovations would soon follow such as the twin crown design of the Ref. 2523 in 1953 and, when Cottier finally joined the company, the ‘Travel Time’ pusher system first patented in 1959 and debuted on the Ref. 2597 in 1961. By this time, Patek Philippe had well and truly stepped forward as the preeminent manufacturer of world time watches. Naturally Patek Philippe continually toils to update and upgrade their world time mechanism. Most notably, the release of the Ref. 5110 in 2000 revealed the patented Caliber 240HU which allowed for the synchronised advance of the hour, city disk and 24-hour indicator all with the press of a pusher at 10 o’clock – it is a design which defines the present world time collection.

Patek Philippe World Time Ref. 5110G-001 from 2004 (Source)

Map of the World

From an artistic perspective, the most significant year in the progression of the world time watch was in 1948 with the release of the Ref. 1415: the first Patek Phillipe world time wristwatch to include a cloisonné enamel dial. With the city names placed around the bezel, ample room was made on the face of the Ref. 1415 for an exquisite depiction of a world map which included Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The cloisonné enameling technique at Patek Philippe is an astonishingly intricate process that starts with the bending of a fine gold wire into a chosen design which is then applied to a base plate – in the instance of  the world time watches, that design is a world map.

Patek Philippe World Time Ref.5131/1P – The center of its dial depicts the world in cloisonné enamel – for the first time from the perspective of the North Pole

From there the base plate alternates between being painting by a brush and being fired by a kiln until the perfect colours are achieved. So delicate is the art that even a speck of dust or a slight knock can utterly ruin the work of the artisan’s hand. Because enameling is done by hand and because it is so frequently subject to fire, every dial will slightly but charmingly differ, and will therefore be somewhat unique. As a timeless Genevan tradition, the decorative process of cloisonné enamel is a truly fine and rare handcraft that Patek Philippe so ardently works to preserve.

Patek Philippe World Time Ref.5131/1P

A remarkable quality of a finished cloisonné enamel piece is that its colours endure beautifully. Examples from the 1940s like the Ref. 1415 and the 1950s like the Ref. 2523 have retained the vivid pigments from when they were first released: the rich blue tones of the ocean and the deep green hues of the forests have elegantly portrayed our world on a tiny dial for decades, and will reassuringly continue to do so for the many decades to come. Patek Philippe’s contemporary world time watches with cloisonné enamel dials, such as the Ref. 5131 and the Ref. 5231, have inherited a profound mechanical and artistic legacy.

Patek Philippe World Time Ref.5231J

Cottier’s initial innovation has progressed and developed since its inception into a thoroughly competent and cosmopolitan complication that captures the globally minded spirit of our times. Technical brilliance aside, the world time watch has also provided a fitting canvas to display an historic tradition of subtle handcraft and aesthetic excellence. For its artisanal distinction, for its romantic sentimentality, for its technical accomplishment and for its resolute functionality, a Patek Philippe cloisonné enamel world time watch is simply one of the finest expressions of the art of watchmaking.

[Editors Note: In the lead-up to the 2019 Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition David wrote a series of articles covering the gamut of watches Patek Philippe makes, including: Part 1 The Calatrava, Part 2 Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts, Part 3 The Patek Philippe Nautilus, Part 4 The Patek Philippe Aquanaut, Part 5 The Patek Philippe Complications and Part 6 The Patek Philippe Grand Complications

Patek Philippe World Time Ref.5231J

Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Singapore

Running from the 28th of September until the 13th of October Patek Philippe will be hosting the Watch Art Grand Exhibition at the Sands Theatre (Marina Bay Sands). Taking place during the Singapore Bicentennial year, the Grand Exhibition underlines the importance of Singapore and Southeast Asia for Patek Philippe. These markets are not only significant when it comes to the numbers of collectors and enthusiasts based in the region, they also play a major role in building an appreciation for the work of fine mechanical watchmaking. For more information click here.

Tags: patek philippe world time

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