Rebecca Ross, Christie’s watch specialist in New York, on an encounter with an incredibly rare minute repeater — offered in New York on 13 June — which she describes as ‘like unearthing the Patek Philippe DNA’
‘In the 1930s — which for me was the golden age of watchmaking — Patek Philippe didn’t make these watches for everyone,’ explains Rebecca Ross, with considerable understatement. The specialist in Christie’s watch department in New York is referring to an 18k gold cushion-shaped minute repeating watch, which is one of no more than 40 wrist repeaters made by Patek Philippe in the first half of the 20th century. Of those 40, the whereabouts of only around half of them is known.
In the 1920s and early ’30s, wristwatches were still in their youth. Manufacturers were resistant to making complicated wristwatches and very often, watches were the result of modified pocket watches or of movements being re-cased. Watches fitted with minute repeaters are the most coveted and difficult complications in watchmaking, and pieces from this period can therefore be considered holy grails of horology.
‘There is arguably more “opportunity” for someone to have a comparable watch made for them today,’ adds Ross. ‘But this gorgeous Patek stems from a time when such massive status symbols were the preserve of tycoons: people like William Boeing, the aviation pioneer, James Ward Packard, creator of America’s first luxury car, and perhaps the greatest of all watch aficionados, the financier Henry Graves Jr.’
Graves commissioned more than 30 Patek Philippe watches, only four of which were fitted with minute repeating mechanisms. In 2014 Christie’s auctioned a similar watch to the one above, which is offered in our An Evening of Exceptional Watches auction on 13 June in New York. Owned by Graves and featuring the same cushion-shaped case and applied Breguet numerals, but fashioned from platinum rather than gold, it realised CHF 1,205,000 — around $1,132,215.
Ross’s first contact with this gold minute repeater came in February of this year, when she was contacted by three siblings who had inherited the timepiece from their mother. As soon as she saw a photograph of it, she jumped on a plane bound for San Francisco.
‘It was one of those occasions when you know you are being offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ the specialist recalls. ‘I’d heard of these watches, of course, but I’d never had the privilege in my five years at Christie’s of being anywhere near to one of them. It’s a real discovery piece.’
‘To have such a beautiful timepiece as this one appear fresh to market is almost unheard of’ — Rebecca Ross
The 29mm-wide Art Deco watch was made in 1930, and purchased in 1939 in Manhattan from Isaac Stern & Co. It was presented as a gift to the purchaser’s mother, who was visually impaired, and who would come to rely heavily on the delicate chimes of the minute repeating mechanism to identify the passing hours, quarter hours and minutes.
‘The watch has remained in the family for more than 70 years, which is impressive,’ says Ross. ‘It’s never been seen in public before. To have such a beautiful timepiece as this one appear fresh to market is almost unheard of.’
The Patek’s owners had known that they were in possession of something special — but not quite how special. ‘I felt very happy for them,’ says Ross. ‘They were surprised to learn how much it was worth, and it made the decision to sell it, in spite of the watch’s sentimental value, a lot easier.’
That encounter in San Francisco turned out to be unexpectedly affecting for Ross, too. ‘When I held this watch in my hand, I felt as though I understood the craftsmanship that had gone into it. It was like unearthing the Patek Philippe DNA,’ she says. ‘It’s a magnificent timepiece that you can only really understand when you hold it, and turn it around in the palm of your hand and see how compact it is.
‘We’re talking about making engines, so to speak, that were very, very complex, with these extraordinary movements that were able to chime the hours, quarter hours and minutes. And you had to make them small enough to fit in a case that is just 29mm wide. It was no easy feat — and that’s the main reason that Patek produced only 40 of them.’