A summer’s day walking through Sloane Square and I find myself thinking how interesting can a watch exhibition actually be? I had my doubts, as I came up on the Saatchi Gallery. I had never been before, but its neo-classic architecture had me appreciating the place before I’d even entered. Walking up the 4 steps, beneath the colonnade I was reminded that the ancient Greeks used to build temples that inspired these designs with 3 steps, so a person would exit / enter the temple on their lucky foot (your right foot). The 4th step on the Saatchi gallery, however, denied me and entering in on my unlucky foot made it seem even more likely that I’d be leaving the place with my interest in Patek Philippe unsatisfied.
How wrong I was.
The Historical Film Theatre
“Am I allowed to take photos of the watches?”
“Yes, just don’t steal one.” The woman who was monitoring the cloakroom replied.
After handing in my jacket at the cloak room, I came across the artistry of Patek Philippe before I had even entered the first exhibit and admired the collage of Patek Philippe artwork which set my mind to imagining what lay in wait.
I proceeded onto the first exhibit – the immersion room. A short film showcased on a large mounted wall screen set the scene for the exhibition, introducing Patek Philippe as a brand and gave a brief overview of what I could expect. To say I found it engaging would be an overstatement, but the film gave me the chance to indulge my imagination on the timepieces to come.
As the film drew to a close, I found myself in the room next door, sat down once more. It was the Historic Theatre room in the style of a old cinema space, only with a lot less seats filled and a lot less comfort. Pouring off the screen was the history of Patek Philippe, something I know well from my previous research into the brand and while an interesting story, it was one that my daydreaming hadn’t put me in the mood for. My phone began to ring and I found myself with the perfect excuse to leave the cinema space, but as I stepped up from my wooden 1920s styled cinema seat, I found myself swiftly returning to it, as chimes began to play from the speakers. That and the fact the phone call was nothing more than a well spoken machine offering me a PPI claim. The tale of the company’s past climaxed with the introduction for the watch that the 175 year anniversary commemorated; the Grandmaster Chime. I didn’t know it yet, but this watch was to be the most appropriately named timepiece I would come across. In all honesty, it looked quite bulky for a Patek Philippe; a step away from their classic elegance, but the film had me intrigued nonetheless. After the teaser for one Patek Philippe’s most complicated watches the company had produced finished, I followed the crowd out of the film theatre thinking on just how complicated a chiming watch could be and entered into the first show room.
As I entered a room fit for royalty, the first two things I was met by were security guards and a tranquil fountain. It added a charm to the room that balanced harmoniously with the regality of the timepieces I was about to admire, as did the level of security. The Royal Room itself was a tribute to the design of the 1851 Great Exhibition for the works of Industry of all Nations, held in Crystal Palace. The very same exhibition where Prince Albert came across a Patek Philippe pocket watch with an incandescent blue enamel coating. It was rumoured that he chose the brightly coloured watch for her majesty Queen Victoria, because the sky blue complimented her eyes.
The shape, style and enamel décor was something that emitted a form of elegance that didn’t belong in our time, but was respectful and stunning to admire nonetheless. It was at the Great Exhibition that her majesty appointed Patek Philippe as the official purveyor of watches to the Royal Family and has remained so to this day.
The first wristwatch Patek Philippe ever made was for a Countess and so it seemed very appropriate that the first wrist watch I was to see belonged to royalty. Queen Elizabeth II lent to the exhibition 2 of her watches, one of which was her Pearl Watch. It was a lavish thing that shined as the crown jewel of the Royal Room collection, although its looks seemed to take away from the technical complexity of Patek Philippe.
The room featured more watches from past nobility and Russian Royalty, I had seen all I needed of watches tailored for wrists with blue blood for now. I wanted the real Patek Philippe – the Calatravas, the Nautilius’ and I passed straight through the replica show room of Patek Philippe’s 19th century Geneva headquarters to find them.
The Patek Philippe Calatrava Current Collection
As soon as I entered into the Current Collection hall, I knew I wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. Embedded in the fine wooden walls were the watches I’d been waiting to see. Like a time infused forbidden sweet shop, the Patek Philippes had been divided by type and encased behind large panes of show glass. Empty velvet sofas and carefully orchestrated lighting set the scene, while classical strings playing from speakers set the ambiance. The first collection that the visitor was chronologically drawn to was none other than the Calatravas.
Form follows function; the idea that the original Calatrava model was designed with in mind and which has been maintained for 83 years. It was reflected in each of the series models, arrayed like a flowerbed of horology. Since my interest in Patek Philippe first came about, the Calatrava has always stood out to me as the staple model that combined not just form and function, but style and simplicity. The lighting of the display slipped off the watches golden curves and gave each of the Calatravas the attention they deserved. I saw the Patek Philippe Calatrava 5227 and 5119 shining in the 2nd display window of Calatravas, but my focus was held on the initial display because of a different model.
The 5123 model captures the essence of the principle. Its minimalist design hides the complex horological mastery beneath and the cross that inspired the name of the watch model adds enough flair to compliment the rose gold casing.
The Blue Aviator
Moving down the line and onto the 3rd window, the World Time and Travel Time watches were on display. The 5524 Calatrava Pilot Travel Time was the striking centre piece of the display. Its design isn’t something I would have initially identified as a Patek Philippe, especially as a Calatrava. The bulk of the timepiece and the weighty numbers that take up most of the watch face are a bold design choice for a Patek Philippe, but align well with the white gold casing. The watch seemed to be a modern take on a timepiece meant for a different time, but the watch itself did seem almost out of place in the exhibition.It came equipped with a dual time zone mechanism indicating local and home time, indicated through apertures.
Some Officer watch inspired designs that could not have inhabited the theme of the exhibition more, on the other hand, were part of the London 2015 Special Edition collection. Each engraved with ‘Patek Philippe London 2015’ on the case back, the series of London Special editions came with an aesthetic closer to the traditional Patek Philippe style. The audio scripture informed me of how it was a tradition for historic timepieces to use the officer case design as inspiration. The 5159 with moon phases and perpetual calendar comes in the traditional military style, with Breguet styled numerals and hands. The future value of these limited edition Patek Philippes I believe will be of interest.
A Watch to Want – The Patek Philippe Nautilus 5980
It was in the Nautilus collection that I came across the watch that held my gaze for longer than I’d care to admit and that I had tried to spot on the artwork in the entrance hall. Standing on the far left flank of the display formation sat the Patek Philippe Nautilus rose gold 5980. Its dark leather strap against the rose gold casing delivered to the watch a balance between trusted authority and elegance that the Nautilus reflects so well. Coupled with the brown to black fade dial fade, a design feature typical of the Nautilus model, it seemed to be a watch that embodied strength. Meanwhile, the Chronograph with 60 minute and 12- hour monocounter and date in aperture provide it’s wearer with some reliable complications.
By this stage I was exhausted and dehydrated. An hour or so under the Collection Room’s lights had heated things up and the amount of saliva I had produced from glaring through the show glass meant my fluid levels were pretty low, so I decided to take a seat in the darkened finery of the Napoleon Room to rest and refuel.
The view from the Napoleon room was an impressive for a looped screen projection. On the wall behind the watches stood the picturesque scene of Lake Geneva, the view from the historic Patek Philippe Headquarters in Geneve. An inspiring sight. The room’s composition and interior was meant to be a replica of the salon Napoleon; a show room located within the original headquarters. I found myself eager to move on after my break, wanting to see what the older Patek Philippes looked like in comparison to their modern counterparts.
A Museum and a Menagerie
When I entered the Patek Philippe museum room I wasn’t sure what to expect. Whether it was to be filled with intricate and historic watch parts or one of a kind watches, I doubted now that I would be disappointed. It was in this section that the capabilities of the watchmakers that Patek Philippe has recruited over the years was truly emphasized. The variation in all the timepieces styles and details was amplified by each surrounding exhibit.
Patek Philippe’s first wristwatch was the first watch in the room that I was drawn to. Created in 1868, the first wristwatch to be made, was for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary. I had come across this wristwatch a few times in my research into Patek Philippe and my first impression was that it was a lot smaller than I expected. It seems that the technology used to create wristwatches has always remained a similar size.
Moving around the room I came across a number of colourful and vibrant timepieces that all had a unique fashioning about them. From peacock feathers to creatures found under the sea, it seemed that this room could have substituted itself as a menagerie, as well as a museum.
The P1080 Pendant watch. The gold peacock feathers adorned with sapphires, accented with green enamel made this pendant watch a particularly eye catching piece. The elegance of Patek Philippe can be found in all of their watches. It’s a staple trait of the brand and is inhabited by the intricate gold work of the feathers, the level of detail on the half hunter case and the finely crafted Gold Louis XV hands.
The Pisces Dress watch (Ref. 723) is a timepiece that stands as testament to the gifted enamellers work in Patek Philippe. The nautical and star sign inspired piece uses gold on copper and opals as markers for the hours in the day.
The Little Virtuoso (SO802) is a singing bird box with both a watch and music inside. It houses a striking mechanism as well as the petite blue bird. The musical movement inside the watch plays both on the hour and on demand, with two melodies generated 32 tuned teeth, played via a movement with a pinned disc. While I was unable to see it for myself, the catalogue that was gifted to each visitor at the end of the exhibition details that the bird itself would animate; moving its head, wings and tail as the music played.
While there were a few avian inspired timepieces, only 1 was given the well-deserved limelight. The Alpine Landscapes (SO192).
A golden cage fit for 5 finely crafted birds, Alpine Landscapes was a timepiece made for the Turkish Market and once belonged to the Ottoman Imperial family. On the hour or on demand, the 5 birds begin their bird song harmonies. I leaned forward for a closer look and could see the whole family of birds perched and at home in gold finery. A button to the left of the exhibit activated the bird song that plays each hour. The 2 largest birds would come alive, flapping their wings and opening their beaks before jumping between the two bars they stand on. Meanwhile, the 3 fledglings found in their nest, move their heads and open their beaks. It stands as one of the most complicated singing bird cages designed and was a pleasure to view. The 2 enamel paintings flanking the Turkish numbered dial add some colour to the golden home for the 5 birds.
As I closed my viewing of the Museum section down and the bird song on the Alpine Landscapes piece faded, I couldn’t help leaving it wondering if these pieces didn’t belong in the gallery room as much as the museum.
Patek Philippe Watch Art
If one thing I learned to be true from this Patek Philippe exhibition, it was how little I knew of the spectrum of design and intricacy of the timepieces that Patek Philippe had created. My knowledge of Patek Philippe is hardly wide, but it had eluded me that the watchmakers went beyond making the most advanced horological complications in the world for fine watches. They also created pieces of fine art. It was in the artisan’s room that I came across the skill of marquetry being used in watches and that I was truly shocked and impressed by the imagery and craftsmanship that these handcrafted watches displayed.
The Lakeside Scene Calatravas held me for a while. My concentration was only broken by a man wondering over with a cloth and spray to clean the glass that I had been misting up. With picturesque scenes inspired by old postcards of Lake Geneva, each of the dials on these watches was constructed from up to 166 pieces and 45 incrustations of 15 – 30 different species of wood. Each wooden puzzle piece had to be cut to shape and assembled on the dial’s plate of solid gold to paint the pictures of the lake. I had never seen a better combination of art, horology and style.
The artisan’s room gave me some perspective as to the time and effort that these kind of timepieces take to accomplish. I could see first-hand the engraving process on a Patek Philippe wristwatch, viewing each line being etched into the precious metals by the engraver more carefully than the last. His eyes never left the binoculars and the crowd watched avidly, throwing out the occasional question to the watch expert in the white coat standing behind him. The audio narrative for the room divulged that there are currently less than a dozen engraving specialists trained in house. This fact made the watches engravings and artistry seem all the more exclusive.
The enameler had gathered a separate crowd. I peered over a few shoulders to see him bending gold wire with a taught precision that could be delivered to someone through time and dedication. The expert standing behind the enameler told the crowd the parts of the process, explaining how the enameler would grind and prepare all his own pigments. The careful application of spreading the colour of the enamel with a paint brush was an art technique that seemed powerfully related to watercolour painting. I left the artisans room approaching the grand Complications room.
The Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillion – Time and Space
The Grand Complications room played host to some of the more iconic Patek Philippe models, the Sky Moon Tourbillion being one of them. Locked in its glass case, the double sided watch faces rotated like the moon the watches complication’s monitor. Comprised of 686 parts, very few models of this watch are produced each year.
Located at the edge of the Complications space I spotted a separate booth, with a black velvet background, studded with LEDS to make it look like the night sky. The Star Caliber 2000 sat in a glass dome, sparkling. 21 complications, including the capability to play the Westminster chime, the Star Caliber 2000 was created to mark the new millennium. Only 20 of these timepieces exist.
By this stage I’d walked past a few experts from various areas in Patek Philippe and I had a question racking my brain. So, after engaging in small talk about the exhibition with a couple of people wearing the official Patek Philippe badges I asked
“What do you think about the Apple watch entering the luxury watch market?”
This question was met with an aura of neutrality, but it seemed like one they had an answer for. They were quick to express that they didn’t see the Apple watch as competition. The explanation of how they believed the smart watch to be in a different market, viewing it at as more of a gadget than a watch. This lead to the expression of an elaborate theory; one I had not heard before. Speaking on the future of watches, they revealed a prediction that we may well wear 2 watches in the future; 1 being your smartwatch the other your luxury timepiece. As I left the conversation with an intriguing, but what I believed to be an unlikely vision of the evolution of watch wearing, I found myself in the movement room surrounded by suspended complications and watch parts.
While I appreciate the complications and their design, I heard the chimes of the Grandmaster chime calling and found myself walking towards them rather than focusing on the watch movements.
The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime
It wasn’t just chimes that filled the air in the immersive space of the Grandmaster Chime exhibition. The amplified sounds of ticking and metal rang heavy in my ears. It sounded like something was cutting through time. A small auditorium showcasing an interactive film was the source of the sound effects and I joined the queue of people waiting for their turn. Sitting down on the backless rest of the cramped space, the lack of comfort was pushed from my mind as I began to watch the Grandmaster Chime’s watch parts assemble themselves. The arced screen that achieved the immersion took up the back wall and brought to life one of Patek Philippe’s most complicated watches.
With 20 complications, 6 of which have never been seen before, the Grandmaster chime was an impressive feat of horology. While I found the look to lack the balance between elegance and power that I believe Patek Philippe does so well, the chime mechanisms it incorporated were undeniably impressive. The double faced masterpiece, equipped with an invisible reversing mechanism is powered by the new calibre 300 movement and made up of 1,366 parts. One of the watch’s intelligent designs is an alarm which will strike earlier than the alarm set to take advantage of the amount of chimes that the watch will release. For example, an alarm set for 9:00 will strike at 8:58 so it’s more likely to wake up its wearer. The watch can even signal the wearer of the date through communicating with a series of chimes, releasing a double chime for 10 days and single chime for 1 day. Viewing the complex innards of the watch’s mechanics explained why it took 7 years to develop and 2 years to produce. Only 7 models have been produced, 6 of which have already been sold to collectors while the 7th will stay in the hands of Patek Philippe.
I left the immersive Grandmaster Chime experience musing over who the watch enthusiasts were that had already purchased 6 of the 7 Grandmasters chimes for the price of $2.6m, walking through a narrow doorway to view the watch first hand. I ended up queuing, being held back by a guard from entering the room with only 3-4 people being allowed to view it at once. Entering the exclusive room with purple curtains, the Grandmaster chime stood in a glass dome case on a pedestal. It’s size was initially smaller than I imagined, however, my eyes then recovered the perspective they had gained from viewing the enlarged Grandmaster Chime on a wall screen for the previous 15 minutes. As it rotated, revealing it’s double face and alternate strap colour, the thickness of the watch became apparent. While it’s craftsmanship is undeniable, the thickness of the watch didn’t seem that appealing.
Time had taken its toll on me by this stage. I passed through the watchmaker’s room drifting in and out of their lectures on how the movements operated and answering questions. Their array of knowledge was impressive, but focusing on what they were explaining was difficult when you’re imagining a Nautilus 5980 on one wrist and a Calatrava Lakeside watch on the other.
Outside of the Watchmakers room stood a poem to send me on my way:
From childhood comes the memory of blowing a flower to release small white parachutes into the wind…
Beyond what can be seen each fuzzy seed has kept the memory of the plant and thus creates perpetual motion.
At the heart of this collage patience has joined forces with this delicate memory to create a spiral, symbol of life energy, capturing the unbounded present between past and future.
From the infinite space of the present, we invent time and create the world.
I had come to the end of the exhibition and had come out of there with a desire to build up the funds for a Nautilus 5980 and a free catalogue. Sadly the latter was only a reminder of the former, but I had also left with a new appreciation for Patek Philippe as a brand. A combination of timekeeping talent and design unmatched. The exhibition was truly well dubbed as Watch Art.