With Patek Philippe Extract from the Archives confirming production of the present watch with silvered dial, laped white gold indexes and subsidiary seconds in 1952 and its subsequent sale on 20 October 1952. The Extract further states that the present watch obtained on 10 November 1948 a Geneva Observatory rating certificate, also confirming the existence of a second dial, fitted with 8 round cut diamonds and 2 baguette diamonds indexes.
To the best of our knowledge the present watch has never been offered in public before.
Reference 2458, one of Patek Philippe's largest vintage wristwatches, was launched in 1958. It was available with two different movements, the first series with calibre 12'''120, the second with calibre 12'''400. The models were mainly cased in yellow gold, few examples in pink gold, only one known in platinum specially made for Mr. J.B. Champion, the present watch.
The present watch is illustrated in Patek Philippe Wristwatches by Martin Huber & Alan Banbery, Second edition, p. 253, pl. 389.
Until the early 1980's, when wristwatches started to become an integral part of the international horological auction calendar, collectors focused exclusively on antique pocket watches and clocks. Since the earliest days and as in many other fields, wristwatch collectors have always worked on their personal "top ten lists". Sometimes these lists were kept as a personal secret, in other occasions they were discussed with other collectors. Today, some over 30 years later and a combined total of over 2 million collector watches having changed hands via the international sale rooms, the worldwide community of scholars, collectors, specialists, museum curators and dealers have quite democratically formed an "official-unofficial" list what the ten most significant wristwatches are in their view. On this 'all-star list' one will find wristwatches standing out by their historical importance, their mechanical complexity, their unmatched beauty, their unbelievably original condition, incredible rarity or sublime provenance. For a wristwatch to make it on this "elite of elite"-list, it must achieve a maximum score in each of the previously aforementioned parameters.
The world famous "J.B. Champion" special-order platinum observatory chronometer wristwatch is, without question, on this list.
Despite Patek Philippe's highest degree of manual work in their production and their limited annual output throughout their history, most of their 20th century wristwatch production was made in series and as of the 1930s, models would be given reference numbers. This modernization meant a gradual decrease in the production of unique, special order watches, a stronghold of Patek Philippe throughout their history. The most notable and best known representatives and highlights of Patek Philippe's bespoke program are, of course, the masterpieces made for James Ward Packard, from Warren, Ohio the celebrated car and automobile manufacturer, and Henry Graves Jr., the distinguished banker, sportsman, and collector from New York. Whereas these two historical patrons of Patek Philippe have been highly influential on the firm's pre-war production, J. B. Champion was probably Patek Philippe's most privileged client of the post-war years. He is known to have received in summer of 1953 the very first self-winding wristwatch ever made by the firm, a yellow gold ref. 2526 featuring the state of the art caliber 12'''-600AT with serial number 760'000. This privilege and historical moment is well documented thanks to the survival of the original letter addressed to Victor Brazell of Linz Bros. in Dallas, Texas with regard to this watch for Mr. Champion, written by Werner Sonn, the legendary president of the Henry Stern Watch Agency. This letter reflects how important Mr. Champion was on the list of the firm's elite clients. Thanks to three watches which are known to have been in Mr. Champion's collection, one can conclude that his emphasis was on quality, aesthetics and most importantly precision timekeeping.
By definition, watch manufacturers are businesses and regardless the size of a model's production, the aim of the firm is to sell watches. Only in exceptionally rare cases, watches are designed and built for research and testing and would eventually never become available for sale. Such was the case with all but two ever made 30mm competition chronometer movements which were built with the sole purpose to participate and compete in the prestigious Geneva Observatory "Concours de Chronomtrie" or Precision Contests. Movements built for these trials had to meet the specifications set out by the rules by which participants had to abide by in order to make it fair and equal for all contestants. In order to compete in the wristwatch category ("category D"), these movements shall not exceed a diameter of 30mm and the total surface shall be no more than 706.86mm2. These movements were built and finished to the highest standards and represent the essence of the firm's expertise. Their quality is beyond what was ever justifiable for the firm's commercial line and only the manufacturer's most skilled watchmakers participated in the designing, constructing, finishing and adjusting process.
Movement of No. 861'121 meets all the requirements imposed by the observatory rules and boasts features which are absolutely unique to these ber-movements specially prepared for these trials. A hugely important feature is the large brass/invar Guillaume balance, mounted by a blued steel Breguet spiral, virtually unknown to wristwatches. Furthermore, the movement is stamped twice with the Geneva seal and also double numbered, once on the large three quarter plate bridge and once on the movement plate underneath the balance.
We understand that Patek Philippe made some 30 wristwatch chronometer movements to participate in the Geneva Observatory competitions and all but 2 movements have been kept back by the firm. The second watch fitted with this movement is No. 861'137 and was cased in yellow gold with the reference 2556 design. This second watch was only finished between 1954 and 1955, consequently after J. B. Champion's example, and has been acquired by the Patek Philippe Museum in 1990, then setting a world-record for a wristwatch without further complications.
In fact, it was the celebrated, André Zibach, who was personally responsible for the adjusting of the movements for both of these watches. To prepare and regulate a chronometer for an observatory trial is one of the most difficult and painstaking tasks in the field of watchmaking and requires an incredible depth of knowledge, understanding and experience that only a handful of master watchmakers ever mastered to perfection.
Mr. Zibach's hands regulated all of Patek Philippe's 30mm competition chronometers and many of his entrants performed extremely well. Since 1945, when the wristwatch category was added to the competition, Patek Philippe won many first prices, notably in 1948 when the manufacturer did not only win the first position, but also the third (with the present movement no. 861'121). Until 1966, when such competitions were ceased due to the arrival of electric watches, Patek Philippe won an impressive number of 12 trials.
It comes to no surprise that the ever demanding J. B. Champion eventually would request Patek Philippe to supply to him a wristwatch chronometer fitted with such an Observatory movement. Given the fact that these movements competed at the Precision Contests in little wooden or aluminum containers (for better handling and testing in different positions), it is obvious that before he could receive his precision wristwatch a case had to be designed and built to house it - naturally reflecting Mr. Champion's exclusive taste. It is understandable that he opted for the most precious of all materials, platinum. The case style has been inspired by an existing model, reference 2458, but was altered in terms of thickness and case proportions. As a matter of fact, whereas ref. 2458 would traditionally feature a 12 lignes caliber, Mr. Champion's watch differs in many ways, notably boasting more substantial lugs and a more solid case body. It is, furthermore, the only example of this model ever cased in platinum.
Visually, the most evident difference between Mr. Champion's platinum reference 2458 and examples of the same model of the regular production is the dial design. Whereas all the other examples of this model have the subsidiary seconds positioned at 6 o'clock, Champion's chronometer has the subsidiary seconds at the 9 o'clock position, opposite the winding crown - a result of the ébauche's layout. In order to create a perfect harmony on the dial, the "GENEVA OBSERVATORY" designation was placed at the 3 o'clock position, opposite the subsidiary seconds circle, the letters arranged in a perfect circle of the same diameter. The result is a wonderful symmetry resembling a chronograph featuring two subsidiary dials positioned on the horizontal axis of the dial. In a further attempt to also create vertical symmetry, the dial was completed with the exclusive "MADE ESPECIALLY FOR J. B. CHAMPION" signature at the 6 o'clock position. The fact that the watch was awarded a Bulletin de Marche (rating certificate) and the individual movement number are mentioned in the center of the right circle. All of these elements are unquestionable proof that this very dial was a unique order made for this one and only "pice de résistance." Fortunately, an archival image has survived showing how the present watch left the Patek Philippe workshops in 1952 and we are grateful to have been granted permission by Patek Philippe to reproduce this image.
It appears, though, that Mr. Champion's hunger for exclusivity was not yet fully satisfied as he ordered a second dial for his cherished trophy watch. This second dial was of very similar layout but featured, instead of the faceted platinum hour markers, ten diamond numerals, including two baguettes for the 12 and 6 o'clock positions. Interestingly, this dial version does not make reference to Mr. Champion. However, a spectacular feature to this "tuxedo dial" is the hand scratched inscription to its case back reading "Linz Bros", the very retailer which well one year later again deliver the first ever made reference 2526 to Mr. Champion. When putting the puzzle together, one can conclude that Mr. Champion took delivery of his platinum chronometer with the regular Observatory dial and only shortly after placed an order for the more elegant but less scientific diamond set dial. Interestingly, some 30 years ago when this watch found its way into one of the world's most acclaimed private collection of vintage wristwatches, it featured the diamond-set dial paired with the currently mounted "feuille" (or leaf-shaped) hands. In this constellation it was photographed and published in Die schnsten Armbanduhren vergangener Jahrzehnte bei Giampiero Negretti/Franco Nencini, pp. 160-161. Much to the delight of all the scholars and specialists, the original observatory dial originally fitted to this watch was decades later rediscovered and eventually reunited with the watch. The "dauphine" hands originally mounted in combination with the Observatory dial must have been exchanged against the "feuille" hands which are the perfect match for the diamond dial.
Since the 1980s when No. 861'121 entered the world of watch collecting, it has remained in the same private family collection and has never been made available for sale. Equally, thanks to its excellent overall condition without signs of noteworthy wear, it never required any restoration and is today, some 60 years after it's making, in superbly crisp and overall original condition. The Observatory dial has an incredibly warm cream colored patina and the subsidiary seconds track, the signature and Observatory designation are all in perfectly raised and untouched hard enamel. The diamond dial which lived most of its life on the watch has only a few very light surface marks and displays a more silvery surface. The case impresses with incredibly crisp proportions with all the four lugs still displaying sharp facets to their tips. Last but not least, all the platinum marks, especially the one placed at the 6 o'clock position in between the lugs, can be considered as crisp as they were when they left Geneva in the early 1950s.
The result of all these elements combined is simply striking. For any experienced watch collector and a novice alike, No. 861'121 must be considered one of the world's most important, technically most sophisticated and most perfect looking watches ever built and known to have survived. Without a doubt it meets any requirements set by the world's most demanding connoisseurship when studying and appreciating an important collector's wristwatch. The "J.B. Champion Platinum Observatory Chronometer" reaches top scores in every discipline and ticks every box on the must-have list demanded by the world of watch aficionados; name, mechanical complexity, aesthetics, rarity, condition, history and provenance. Watches of such magnitude are in many collectors lifelong hunt for perfection a unique sighting and must be considered seriously when looking for the ultimate addition to one's collection.
J. B. CHAMPION
J. B. Champion, Jr. (aka Joe Ben) was born on August 16, 1917 and died May 27, 1975 in Dallas, Texas. He attended law school at the University of Oklahoma and practiced law as a criminal defense attorney, becoming one of the most legendary and successful lawyers of the time.
Champion considered himself a bit of a loner but was not shy at all. His highly energetic temper and unmatched confidence meshed with a brilliant mind that seemingly was always one step ahead of everyone else. In fact, he was quite boisterous and had an amazing sense of humor.
He lived life to the fullest. Champion had a townhouse in Dallas and commuted to work to Ardmore, Oklahoma to the family firm "Champion, Champion and Wallace". In Dallas, his favorite restaurant was the luxurious restaurant Chateaubriand (in business 1958-1982). It was here where he celebrated daily, at 5pm sharp, his beloved cocktail hour. Also at this restaurant, while drinking his libation of choice (scotch and soda), he was once recognized by a couple as the lawyer from Oklahoma that was 'pretty good'. When he heard this, JB responded, "Pretty Good? I'm the best!!".
He loved to work, but he also loved to play. In his youth, he was one of the best Southern tennis players of his day. At 6' 2", he was large, fast, and fiercely competitive, a trait he kept for his whole life. As the result of a generous oil royalty that he inherited from his father, he did not need to work. However, he chose to work because he truly loved practicing law and adored the competitive nature of the legal game. And when preparing for the greatest battles, he preferred to go on his own, also since he believed that trusting someone else meant possibly being vulnerable.
When he found out he was terminally ill in the mid-1970s, he took the news of his terminal disease with courage and fortitude. He was not afraid to die but recognized the value of every minute of time he had left. For Champion, his watches represented the value of time and he cherished his timepieces above all other worldly goods.
Champion may not have trusted people but he certainly trusted the value of a fine timepiece. According to friends, "he would spend his last dollar on a Patek Philippe". He collected every bit of literature he could find about watches in a time that few resources were available. He also enjoyed spending a considerable amount of time with his watches. In a daily ritual, he would take all of his watches out of the vault and wind them, and, of the most treasured ones, view the movements with a microscope as he carefully adjusted the magnification. He also timed each of his Patek Philippe watches and immediately sent them back to Henry Stern Watch Agency in the rare case that they deviated from acceptable timekeeping. He was always on time and expected everyone and everything around him to be on time. His passion for watches was second only to his love of his family and being a lawyer.
He amassed a collection of 10-20 pieces, both pocket watches and wristwatches, and all the watches were from Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. His colors of choice were typically yellow and rose gold, except for an occasional diversion with platinum. He wore his watches, most typically a wristwatch, but occasionally liked to wear a pocket watch to make a statement in the courtroom. As a true connoisseur of fine timepieces, he was in constant contact with his retailer of choice, Linz Bros, and Henry Stern Watch Agency in New York, eagerly awaiting the news of the release of new models from Basel and the status of his special orders.
J. B. Champion and his Patek Philippe watches
Regrettably, there exists no published list of all the watches J. B. Champion owned. However, fortunately, three of his watches have returned to the market during the last 30 years and two of them are designated "Made Especially for J.B. Champion Jr.".
The earliest watch known is a lovely open-faced lever chronometer with Guillaume balance, delivered to him in 1950. One can only imagine him wearing it in court on a substantial gold chain. Knowing his obsession with precision, it comes to no surprise that his reference 824 boasted an extra-quality movement with Guillaume balance. This observatory tested ever chronometer was sold at Christie's Geneva, 15. November 2004, lot 316 and is now in a private collection.
In terms of chronology, the present platinum cased wristwatch chronometer, reference 2458, no. 861'121, is the next piece. It comes to no surprise that he asked again for an Observatory tested chronometer, but this time in the form of a wristwatch and this time to be cased in the most noble of metals, platinum. This master piece was delivered to him in late 1952, via the Henry Stern Watch Agency and then via his retailer of choice, Linz Bros. Shortly after having received it, Champion asked his contact at Linz Bros. to exchange the faceted baton numeral at 5 o'clock against a diamond marker, in order to remind him daily of cocktail hour. This request was not accepted but the two men agreed to have a second dial made for his beloved wristwatch chronometer, however with all hour markers being diamonds. Champion's spontaneous comment was 'it is always cocktail hour somewhere!'. In 1953, the second dial was eventually delivered to Henry Stern Watch Agency and the two dials were immediately exchanged. Interestingly, the diamond dial features on the back the hand-scratched designation "Linz Bros.". Another interesting feature of this dial is the way that the marker at 5 o'clock is rotated, as Champion probably still wanted to make it stand out from all the others.
By 1953, Champion was no longer an unknown to Patek Philippe and must have, by then, enjoyed VIP status. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that, in the summer of this year, he was chosen to receive the very first automatic wristwatch ever made by the firm, a reference 2526 in yellow gold, with movement number 760'000. This watch is today in a private collection and must be considered the historically most valuable example of this landmark reference.
The above three are clearly identifiable as Champion watches, thanks to their engravings or the surviving documentation. One must assume that Champion had also pieces in his collection which weren't given the Champion inscription. Consequently, when they were sold by his family in the late 1970's, their traces have been lost.