Detail of Patek Philippe, an extremely fine and large, highly important and probably unique 18k gold ‘prototype’ chronograph wristwatch with uniquely constructed case and dial with

5 minutes with… A unique Patek Philippe ref.1491 chronograph

Not only is this the only known ref. 1491 chronograph, but it also features a unique dial with oversized 30-minute register. International Head of Watches John Reardon describes it as ‘unlike any other watch in Patek Philippe’s historical production’

If only this 18k gold Patek Philippe reference 1491 chronograph could talk, it would surely be able to tell us a remarkable story. Our research has given us some tantalising glimpses, but perhaps to get a true sense of it, you would need to have it in your possession — although that’s likely to set you back somewhere between half a million and a million dollars. Quite simply, there is no other timepiece on the planet quite like this one.

‘I have had the pleasure of personally inspecting thousands of vintage Patek Philippe watches in my career, and nothing else quite like this ref. 1491 chronograph has ever passed through my hands,’ says John Reardon, International Head of Watches at Christie’s. ‘It is a watch so unique, so surprising and so unlike any other watch in Patek Philippe’s historical production.’

The classic vintage reference 1491 — known as ‘scroll lugs’ to collectors — is a time-only watch that was available with either subsidiary seconds or sweep seconds. Between 1940 and 1965, around 400 pieces were made in total in yellow gold, pink gold, and occasionally in white gold. The Patek being offered in Dubai on 22 March, however, stands as the only known chronograph of the reference. Furthermore, in order to accommodate the chronograph movement, the case was custom-made by Patek Philippe in a slightly larger size than the standard time-only 1491 case.

‘This is the kind of watch that surprises and delights with its unique shape, design and function’ — John Reardon

During the Second World War, a decade on from Henri and Charles Stern’s acquisition of Patek Philippe in 1932, several special prototype watches were ordered directly by and for Charles Stern. These pieces were all created between 1942 and 1944, and used existing movements, but with modified or altered dials and casing. Some were perhaps Charles Stern’s watches; others, watches that had been bought back from clients; and others still, watches that remained in stock.

Since these prototype watches generally featured the Roman hour numerals that Charles Stern preferred, it seems likely that the watch coming to auction was similarly created upon Charles Stern’s request — either for himself, for Patek Philippe as a test watch, or directly for the former owner, an American sports journalist whose particular interest was boxing.

The official Extract from the Archives

The official Extract from the Archives

The official Extract from the Archives tell us that the watch (movement and dial) was originally made in 1937, and sold a year later. It was only housed in the present case in 1942, after it had been returned for routine servicing.

The dial, made by Stern Frères, is markedly different from any other chronograph dial produced by Frères for Patek at that time. The absence of a tachymeter scale has allowed more space for the layout. The asymmetric arrangement of the subdials is striking: the oversized 30-minute register — almost exactly double the proportions and size of standard chronographs — is designed to be as large as possible, to allow for better observations. It almost overshadows the fact that the seconds subdial is also larger than typical.

The unique case was made by François Markowski (Geneva master case-maker mark number 8 in a key), who created cases for several of Patek’s most important references. It measures 35.1 mm in diameter and is 10.84 mm thick —having been specially made to receive the chronograph movement with its pushers, it is more than 1mm larger and thicker than the standard reference 1491 case.

‘This unusual watch is an anomaly at first sight that checks out fully upon further investigation,’ confirms Reardon. ‘It is the kind of watch that surprises and delights with its unique shape, design and function.’

The watch was originally owned by the sports editor of a major New York newspaper, and bears an inscription from his son, Jimmy

The watch was originally owned by the sports editor of a major New York newspaper, and bears an inscription from his son, Jimmy

The caseback of the watch comes with the engraving ‘To Dad from Jimmy’, which raises some intriguing questions about its early history. Delivering a Swiss watch to the United States in the midst of the Second World War would have been far from straightforward. Switzerland was, of course, surrounded by countries under German occupation. Goods imported into the United States would also have been subject to very high taxes, in order to protect domestic manufacturers.

Patek Philippe’s American customers would therefore have had to either pay a levy of up to 50 per cent to receive a watch in New York, or arrange somehow to take delivery in Europe.

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We know that Charles Stern’s son, Henri, had made a long trip to North America just before the outbreak of the Second World War, which suggests a possible introductory connection to the watch’s subsequent owner. Our research also suggests that the former owner’s son, Jimmy, was in fact in Europe during the war, serving in the US Armed Forces, and would therefore have been able to bring the watch back and present it to his father in person. If this watch could only talk, it would surely be able to describe a very touching scene as father and son were reunited. 

In the words of Rémy Julia, Head of Watches in the Middle East, India & Africa, ‘This is not only a sublime example of the watchmaker’s art, but also a piece with real emotional resonance. After meeting with the current owner, I wore it on my own wrist for around 45 minutes, to try to get some sense of its 82-year-long story. It’s an extremely special timepiece, with a very powerful presence.’