Collector’s Guides • 10 Oct 2019
Patek Philippe Astronomical Exceptionalism
It was in the lead to Patek Philippe’s sesquicentennial anniversary in 1989 that this watchmaker of watchmakers presented to the world the most complicated portable timepiece ever conceived or created: housing thirty-three complications, with a case that spanned close to nine centimetres, and housed in a pocketwatch case, the Calibre 89 was the product of a decade’s worth of exemplary brilliance and arguably, a hundred-and-fifty years of ingenuity and skill.
The Calibre 89 began a world tour, in the same ethos that the manufacture’s founders did over a century ago, where the watch served as a mechanical representative of the might of its creators. Its exhibition in Tiffany showrooms in Beverly Hills and New York was a pleasingly circular culmination in the spirit of Antoni Norbert de Patek and Charles Lewis Tiffany as they shook hands in 1851, supporting their mutual commitment to the dedication to and proliferation of outstanding craftsmanship.
1989 also saw the fog of the quartz crisis gradually lift; interest in mechanical watches was reignited, a most unexpected realisation owing to multiple manoeuvres in the industry – Patek Philippe’s 1988 purchase of James Ward Packard’s astronomical pocket watch, No. 198 023, from the American Watch Institute, for 1.3 million American dollars; a young mover-and-shaker by the name of Jean-Claude Biver, who, like Philippe Stern and the formidable André Heiniger of Rolex, championed the ultimate perpetuity of the mechanical watch – and an Italian auctioneer, Osvaldo Patrizzi, who put forward the idea of thematic watch auctions.
Patrizzi had by then been collecting Patek Philippe pocketwatches for some years; his subsequent enterprise in auctioning wristwatches, which had till then played second fiddle to pocketwatches, was derided as idealistic and unprofitable. Nonetheless, his attempts were by no means unsuccessful: an auction in 1978 yielded CHF6,500 for a Patek perpetual calendar, and subsequently, in a second sale, a perpetual calendar chronograph bought CHF18,000. Patrizzi began holding auctions dedicated to the wristwatch through Habsburg Feldman, which later became Antiquorum. The recession of the early ’80’s attenuated some of the momentum gained, but by the end of the decade, the study and collecting of wristwatches was back in full swing.
With that buoyancy, Patrizzi held a monothematic auction, The Art of Patek Philippe, on April 9th, 1989, a catalogue of three hundred and one watches fetching in excess of 15 million American dollars, to which the Caliber 89, of which only one piece each were made in the precious metals – four in total – contributed 3.2 million. Other auction houses, taking notice, began the same tradition: two months after the Antiquorum auction, Sotheby’s New York held a June auction in which a Patek Philippe worldtime watch made by Louis Cottier sold for USD275,000.
It was a good year for the Genevan Giant. In addition to the Caliber 89, Patek Philippe liberated a vast, and vastly impressive range of complications and special, highly limited pieces for its commemorative year, including the ref. 3960 Calatrava in an officer’s case, the extraordinary ref. 3974, a minute repeater with perpetual calendar featuring Patek’s Caliber R 27 Q, a self-winding minute repeater movement with perpetual calendar module. At the time of its introduction, it was Patek Philippe’s most complicated wristwatch. Also revolutionary and avant-garde was the tonneau-shaped Jump Hour ref. 3969, of which five-hundred pieces were produced; 450 in rose gold and 50 in platinum. The watch featured a single hand, centrally mounted, which indicated the minutes; the hours, as suggested, were boldly displayed in a digital window at the twelve’ position. The tools and movement blanks used in its fabrication were destroyed – to ensure that it remained a limited edition.
But back to the Caliber 89: this behemoth of a watch, conceptually, technically, and materially – was unlike anything the world had ever seen. It took a quarter of a decade before its title of the most complicated timepiece was supplanted – it is a watch, as a non-collector friend put it, “the singular sum of an entire catalogue” – a coalescence of numbers. 1.1 kilograms, 33 complications across three German silver main plates, 1,278 components, 126 jewels. The four-tier movement itself weighs 600 grams and is 28 millimetres thick, 71 millimetres wide – impressive dimensions, in relative terms, in one sense, because it is very much larger than the aggregate dimensions of most wrist- or pocketwatches; impressively compact in another, considering the number and complexity of its complications.
The Caliber 89 displays solar mean time on the front dial, and sidereal time on the back. Sidereal time is measured according to the position of the so-called “fixed” stars (that is, the stars apart from the Sun); a sidereal day is the time interval between the successive passes of vernal equinox crossing the prime meridian (that is, the Greenwich meridian, 0 degrees longitude). A sidereal day lasts 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds, meaning, across an entire civil year (i.e. a year by solar time), that time difference accumulates to one full rotation of the Earth. As the Earth is orbiting the Sun, it has to rotate by more than 360 degrees for the Sun to appear to cross the meridian; therefore, a mean solar day takes approximately four minutes longer to occur. But lest your boredom reach astronomical proportions, the Cal. 89 also features a second time zone, split-seconds chronograph, grande et petite sonnerie, with carillon, minute repeater, and alarm.
That would be incomplete – more esoteric complications include – times of sunrise and sunset, equation of time (time differential between an actual solar day and a mean solar day), secular perpetual calendar, which in addition to the standard features, possesses a “sun hand” for seasonal indication, equinox, solstice, zodiac, star chart, passage, age and phase of the moon, passage of Sirius, and date of Easter. The date of Easter (which may occur anytime between March 22nd and April 25th) is a notoriously difficult complication to execute, owing to its basis on lunisolar cycles, and the interval of the entire cycle of dates of Easter is 5.7 million years. The Caliber 89 employs a notched programme wheel, which advances one step per year, and each notch has a different depth. Finally – power reserve indicators for both movement and striking train, crown position indicator, thermometer, hygrometer, barometer, altimeter, and compass.
Astounded? The Calibre 89 was the first Patek Philippe designed using computed-aided manufacturing equipment. Heading the project was the then 28-year old Jean-Pierre Musy, whose appointment at the helm was not initially well-received by some of the old-school watchmakers, who were not confident that a young engineer – and not the best watchmakers – were able to fit thirty-three complications into a single watchcase.
But the Calibre 89 was not the first uber complication that Patek Philippe made – if the name Henry Graves Jr, of American banking and railway fame, rings a bell, then so might the Supercomplication after its namesake. This twenty-four complication, one-pound heavy, three-tier, double-dial, seventy millimetre pocketwatch was commissioned by the gentleman, who instructed Patek to stop at nothing to produce the world’s most complicated timepiece, whose construction began in 1925 and ended in 1932.
Like the Calibre 89 that arrived over half a century after it, the Supercomplication features multiple chiming complications – alarm, petite sonnerie (chiming quarters, automatically), grand sonnerie (hour and quarters, automatically), and minute repeater. Activated by a slide at five o’clock, the minute repeater on this behemoth plays the Westminster chime on demand: the same chime as played by the London clock we all know as Big Ben. Chimed with five gongs, the tune is adapted from the fifth bar of Handel’s aria from the Messiah, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, and its clarity and timbre are quite – divine.
The mean time (for solar mean time) dial, constructed of white enamel, exhibited the Supercomplication’s split-second chronograph minute and hour registers, sharing space with the power reserve indicators for both going and striking train, themselves placed on registers of discrete enamel sections, sunken so as to minimise the overall depth of the watch. Also on this side are the apertures for moonphase, day, and month, as well as subdial for the subsidiary seconds and date.
On the other side, the sidereal dial, made by Stern Frerès in gold plate with a silvered finish, displays the Supercomplication’s sky chart, comprising a gold disc overlaid with blue champléve enamel, magnificently representing the Milky Way as well as the entirety of the night sky corresponding to the exact longitude for Mr. Graves’ Manhattan apartment overlooking Fifth Avenue. Three sunken subdials display the times of sunrise and sunset in New York, as well as the subsidiary seconds combined with equation of time scale.
In conjunction with Patek Philippe’s 175th anniversary, on the 11th November 2014, Sotheby’s sold the Supercomplication for USD24 million, making it the most expensive timepiece ever sold at auction. A legendary outcome for a legendary watch owned by a gentleman who buttressed the world’s best watchmaker during the challenging period of the twenties and thirties.
The celestial displays on pieces such as the Supercomplication served as the inspiration for so many of Patek Philippe’s modern watches like the Grand Complication Sky Moon Celestial ref. 6102P, whose sky chart displays the meridian passage of Sirius, as well as the meridian passage, orbital position and phases of the Moon, by virtue of three metallised sapphire crystal discs comprising the dial. The sky chart is a display of the night sky from a particular latitude, hemisphere, and time. The elliptical frame at the top of the dial is known as a “planisphere”, representing the horizon, within which is visible to the observer, and outside which is considered “below the horizon”.
The most prominent star on the sky chart, located above the V in “GENEVE”, is Sirius, or Alpha Canis Majoris, a binary star, of which Sirius A is the brightest star (by apparent magnitude) in the night-sky, while its “Pup”, Sirius B, is a white dwarf unable to be independently observed to its orbital counterpart. Sirius will cross the imaginary meridian, which runs from 12’ to 6’ on the dial, once every sidereal day.
Similarly to Sirius, the Moon will intersect the same meridian line; however, as the Moon is orbiting the Earth in the same direction as the Earth is rotating, the Earth rotates by more than a solar day for the Moon to cross the meridian – 24 hours, 52 minutes and 30 seconds, precisely.
The 6102 is a tranquil piece of wrist art for the eclectic collector – however, if one desires more interaction – and occasional aural pleasure, then I would turn your attention to the Sky Moon Tourbillon, reference 6002. Before the introduction of the Grandmaster Chime in 2014, the 6002 was Patek’s most complicated wristwatch ever. Described by Patek Philippe as “a sculpture for the wrist”, the descendant of the mighty 5002 is housed in a obsessively detailed white gold case, carved by hand, using sharp burins that incise and remove metal, resulting in the intricate arabesques and elements of the Calatrava cross.
The dials of the Sky Moon Tourbillon are an exercise in extravagant craftsmanship: the centre of the dial is decorated with cloisonné (additive) enamel, while its surrounds are champlevé, or reductive, enamel, both of which are separately fired at 850 degrees Celsius. Onto the technical side, the 6002 features thirteen complications: a minute repeater with cathedral gongs, tourbillon, perpetual calendar with retrograde hand, and moon phase display. Its astronomical functions include all of those offered in the ref. 6102 Celestial.
But the most complicated Patek Philippe wristwatch is the befittingly-titled Grandmaster Chime, seven of which were made for the watchmaker’s 175th anniversary, one of which has a permanent place in the Patek Philippe Museum. Comprehending this watch from a commercial point of view is confounding; similar to how Bugatti lost money on every Veyron sold, this watchmaker has, with the ref. 5175, pursued art for art’s sake.
Featuring twenty complications, a number of which have been recently discussed with regard to the super-complications, the 5175 nevertheless featured, for the first time, a date repeater, chiming the date on demand, driven by the perpetual calendar, which advances all its displays simultaneously; important for the accuracy of the date chiming. The 6300 also pioneered an alarm mechanism as an extension of the minute repeater; a patented mechanism we now see adapted for the Calatrava Travel Time Alarm, ref. 5520P.
That the ref. 5175 Grandmaster Chime is mechanical is somewhat incredible – that all of this technical prowess, all these complications, can be housed in a case measuring forty-seven millimetres and sixteen millimetres high – that is the best of Patek Philippe for you. The movement consists of 1,366 components; the case, 214. The case is able to rotate on its lugs, displaying either of two dials. Hand-engraved under a microscope, the regality of the case is almost baroque; the bezel is carved into a circular laurel wreath with a coin-edge, ribbed perimeter, a motif that extends to the lugs.
Patek Philippe brought back the Grandmaster Chime as part of their regular collection (as regular as it can be; it is difficult to conceive an annual output of more than one), as the ref. 6300G, exactly the same as the ref. 5175, sans the intricate case detailing; featuring a white gold case with the familiar hobnail motif, hand-guilloched. Priced at CHF2.2 million, it is the most complicated Patek Philippe wristwatch one may buy.
As detached from a realistic acquisition as the Grandmaster Chime can be – remembering that with Patek, the means alone does not justify the ability to purchase – it bears appreciating that it is with its greatest, top-tier watches that Patek pushes the envelope in what is technically feasible, aesthetically exemplary, and eminently wearable. And not only that, but any Patek Philippe is a worthy heirloom, one that holds its material value in perpetuity as much as it does the values of its maker and its owner.
There are few companies that commit to continuous improvement as much as does Patek Philippe, and it is only at a high resolution of analysis that one appreciates how exceptional are each of its watches. Resolving the difficulty of adopting cutting-edge innovation to make a better timepiece while preserving the ethos of a tradition spanning 180 years is one that few manage well, and Patek Philippe does so adroitly. For it is my genuine belief that this is one rare force – for such a company is a force – whose simultaneous commitment to the best watchmaking and to developing brand equity is not a zero-sum game. It is a win for both watchmaker and collector.
[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, Part 6 The Patek Philippe Grand Complications and Part 7 Astronomical Exceptionalism]