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Unravelling the mystery of the Patek Philippe ‘Senza Luna’ reference 3448

With the rediscovery of an exceptional white gold ‘Senza Luna’ — movement no. 1’119’585, coming to auction on 13 November — Christie’s International Head of Watches John Reardon delves into the enigma behind this legendary Patek Philippe timepiece

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  • How many ‘Senza Luna’ Patek Philippe watches are known to exist?

Seven — three in white gold, four in yellow gold. The most famous is the yellow gold ‘Alan Banbery Senza Luna’, which sold for CHF1,840,900 at Sotheby’s Geneva in 2008. This watch was accompanied by an extract from the archives of Patek Philippe, dated 1999, confirming the special dial and the fact that the watch had been modified within Patek Philippe’s workshops after its initial sale in May 1970.

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  • So what do we know about ‘Senza Luna’ timepieces?

The existence of the ‘Banbery Senza Luna’ is the starting point of this discussion and proves that there were 3448s which were modified by Patek Philippe even after they had left the Patek Philippe workshops for the first time.

The images of this watch, including a detailed picture of the movement published in Martin Huber and Alan Banbery’s book, Patek Philippe Wristwatches, clearly demonstrate that Patek Philippe made special orders of the reference 3448 for important clients — in this case Alan Banbery, an employee of Patek Philippe for more than 50 years.

Beyond Huber and Banbery’s book, these prototype pieces were not shared in company literature or advertisements — something that further contributes to the mystery around these watches. Added to that, their known Extracts from the Archives  do not contain detailed dial descriptions mentioning whether the watches were modified without the moon phases.

This has all now changed with the rediscovery of the watch Christie’s will offer in Geneva on 13 November, which now has a newly issued Extract from the Archives  from Patek Philippe which confirms the existence of the ‘Senza Luna’ dial.

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  • What has sparked the recent upsurge in interest?

In February 2017, a groundbreaking article by Cara Barrett in the online magazine HODINKEE — In-Depth: The Curious Case of the Patek Philippe Reference 3448 ‘Senza Luna’ opened a public dialogue on the questions surrounding the ‘Senza Luna’, and bestowed on these watches an almost mythical status among collectors and connoisseurs.

Patek Philippe. An exceptional and historically important 18K white gold automatic perpetual calendar wristwatch without moon phases, Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, ref. 3448, movement no. 1’119’585, case no. 332’625, manufactured in 1981, with 18k white gold Patek Philippe buckle, Extract from The Archives confirming production of the present watch in 1981 with an 18k

Patek Philippe. An exceptional and historically important 18K white gold automatic perpetual calendar wristwatch without moon phases, Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, ref. 3448, movement no. 1’119’585, case no. 332’625, manufactured in 1981, with: 18k white gold Patek Philippe buckle, Extract from The Archives confirming production of the present watch in 1981 with an 18k white gold case, silvered dial with applied white gold indexes, without moon phase disc and its subsequent sale on 28 January 1982. Case: snap on back, 37 mm diam, signed. Estimate: CHF 300,000-500,000. This lot is offered in Rare Watches on 13 November 2017 at Christie’s in Geneva

Excitement then hit fever pitch over the summer of 2017 with confirmed proof from Patek Philippe of the ‘Senza Luna’, which led to the revealing of the Extract from the Archives  of the white gold 3448 Senza Luna movement no. 1’119’202 at the Christie’s Patek Philippe exhibition in New York.

For the first time the public was able to see documented evidence of a ‘Senza Luna’ from Patek Philippe with the extract stating that movement number 1’119’202 ‘does not include a moon phase function’.

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  • Why is this moonless dial type so mysterious?

Given that the 3448 ‘Senza Luna’ has to date eluded attempts to fully understand its evolution, this moonless dial type begs further questions: was it a true experimental or prototype product, a special client order, or a combination of both?

As far as is known from existing extracts from the archives, the majority of watches known publicly with ‘Senza Luna’ dials are originally described as having a moon phase indication. It is therefore assumed that all were later modified. The question is: were they born with ‘Senza Luna’ dials, or later modified?

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  • What are the theories behind it?

Several theories abound in relation to the conception of the ‘Senza Luna’, and with each of the seven watches the question of when the pieces were modified is a subject of academic debate.

It is certain that clients could order Patek Philippe watches on special request, and many dials were made for Patek Philippe to test new concepts and design aesthetics. In a pre-digital age, the very existence of a watch such as a ‘Senza Luna’ on Alan Banbery’s wrist would have had the inner circle of Patek Philippe collectors buzzing. As a brand ambassador, his watch was sure to inspire others to own something similar.

Among the six known ‘Senza Luna’ watches (the seventh being the ‘Alan Banbery’, with the deviation of the perpetual calendar indication), the key is to try to identify which pieces were likely to have been modified by Patek Philippe in-house, and which were possibly changed outside its workshops. A forensic study of each individual piece is required to make an opinion of each.

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  • So what do we know about the watch coming to auction, Movement No. 1’119’585?

After the catalogue for this sale went to print, Patek Philippe Geneva issued an Extract from the Archives  confirming that this watch, mvt 1’119’585, was indeed made without a moonphase disc. This is the first time since the confirmation of the ‘Banbery Senza Luna’ that Patek Philippe has made an explicit statement regarding the existence of the moonless dials.

Patek Philippe’s Extract from the Archives  confirming that watch mvt 1’119’585 was indeed made without a moonphase disc — the first time since the confirmation of the ‘Banbery Senza Luna’ that Patek Philippe has made an explicit statement regarding the existence of the moonless dials

Patek Philippe’s Extract from the Archives  confirming that watch mvt 1’119’585 was indeed made without a moonphase disc — the first time since the confirmation of the ‘Banbery Senza Luna’ that Patek Philippe has made an explicit statement regarding the existence of the moonless dials

The extract further confirms that this self-winding perpetual calendar watch was produced with a silvered dial, made in 1981, and originally sold in 1982. It renders the ‘Senza Luna’ offered in Geneva one of the rarest of all Patek Philippe ‘prototype’ watches ever made.

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  • Do we know whether the watch was modified by Patek Philippe?

Yes, the Patek Philippe extract confirms that this 3448G has a ‘dial without moonphase disc’ and based on the movement number, this was one of the last reference 3448s ever made.

The next consecutive movement number 1’119’586 was the first ever watch of the reference 3450, also of course made in 1981. That particular watch (sold by Christie’s on 12 May 2014, below) was, significantly, a highly unusual and possibly unique ‘hybrid’ — being the first reference 3450, but still fitted with the caliber 27-460 Q of the reference 3448. It therefore did not have the leap-year indication that typifies the reference 3450, which was from then on fitted with the next generation 27-460 QB (Quantième Bissextile) with ‘red dot’ or Roman leap-year indication.

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  • Why are these movement numbers so important?

They demonstrate that at the exact moment in 1981 when the present ‘Senza Luna’ was in the Patek Philippe workshops, the company was at a crucial stage of experimentation during the transition period between the references 3448 and 3450.

It is also worth considering that in 1981 nobody would have known whether the new reference 3450 was going to be a success or not, and consequently this Senza Luna was perhaps a trial or test piece for a planned non-moon perpetual calendar watch that never came into production.

Watch no. 1’119’585 is the only example of the three known white gold ‘Senza Lunas’ to be born without a bracelet

Lending credence to this theory, the present watch was not sold until the end of January 1982, meaning that for at least several months it remained in the factory workshops, hence allowing plenty of time for modifications to take place before its sale.

Patek Philippe made several watches with perpetual calendar modifications (with/without moon, with/without leap-year indication etc.) based around the 3448 and new 3450 cases during this period. Apparently these pieces were one-offs and occasionally special orders used to gauge market potential for watches being considered for development.

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  • What can we learn from details on the dial of the watch offered in Geneva?

The dial is in itself a work of art preserved in remarkable condition. The reverse of the dial is inscribed ‘OR’ (French for gold) indicating it is of Geneva manufacture and a special alloy white gold used for watch dials and for jewellery. The subtle low-gloss finish, white gold ‘lapped’ baton and pyramidal indexes, raised hard enamel signature with accented ‘e’ and date numerals also in hard enamel are pure Patek Philippe in feel and execution.

Interestingly, the dials of the ‘Senza Luna’ are all slightly different from each other in both appearance and construction, including orientation of the date numerals and size of the indexes. The serial movement numbers range from 1’119’014 — the earliest known on a watch dating from circa 1965 — to 1’119’585, the present watch dating from 1981.

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  • Is there anything else that makes this white gold ‘Senza Luna’ unique?

Watch no. 1’119’585 was first publicly seen at Antiquorum in Geneva on 24 April 2004 when it was sold to its current owner for CHF686,500. Seen for only the second time on the market, it is the only example of the three known white gold ‘Senza Lunas’ to have been born without a bracelet.