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Meet the curator of the best watch collection in the world

Dr. Peter Friess, Director and Curator of the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva, talks to Christie’s John Reardon about his lifelong love of watchmaking, an early encounter with Steve Jobs and the art of ‘strategic collecting’

John Reardon: What is it like to work for Patek Philippe?

Dr. Peter Friess: Working for Patek Philippe is, simply put, the perfect job for somebody with my interests. It is an honour to work for a manufacturer whose watches tick on the wrists of the world’s most famous people, and it's truly inspiring to be part of a company that employs the smartest people in their field. If you stroll through the workshops where the watches are individually made you can’t help but feel the passion and the knowledge of the craftsmen. They match skills grounded in hundreds of years of watchmaking with today’s technology to build watches — or, better said, pieces of art — for the next generation.

JR: What's the best part of your job?

PF: The best part for me is to explore the history of our timepieces. It is a joy for me to weave our watches into stories that bring them alive for our visitors. Each watch plays a major role in the 500-year history of the portable timekeeper. Our collections include priceless historical timepieces (1530 to 1850), watches made by Patek Philippe (1839 to 2000), and enamelled paintings showing portraits of famous people, not to mention one of the premier horological libraries in the world. It is a tremendous advantage to have the owner’s full support to acquire watches at auctions and from world-famous collectors, which enables us to fill gaps in our collection.  To have the resources to publish comprehensive catalogues in gorgeous colour is the icing on the cake. It’s a curator’s dream.

When he arrives for work Dr. Peter Friess takes a walk through the Patek Philippe collection ‘for the sheer pleasure of it all’
When he arrives for work Dr. Peter Friess takes a walk through the Patek Philippe collection ‘for the sheer pleasure of it all’

JR: In the beginning, what brought you to the world of watches?

PF: I come from a family of watchmakers and, as a child, I loved taking apart my toys — sometimes even putting them back together! There was never a question of what I would become. When I was an apprentice watchmaker, the guild organised an excursion to the Bavarian National Museum in Munich. At the end of his tour, the curator, Dr. Klaus Maurice, asked if anyone was interested in working on an exhibition his museum was then preparing. I raised my hand and got a six-month contract — a contract that launched me on my life’s work. Working in and for museums around the world became my passion — one that sustained me for more than 30 years. I started out as a conservator of watches and clocks, then got trained as a historian, and eventually became a manager and museum director.

JR:  Your curatorial work brought you to the U.S., first to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and then to the Getty Museum in Malibu and The Tech Museum of Innovation in Silicon Valley, California.

PF: At the Getty I was part of a team tasked to catalogue its clock collection. I had a fantastic time in Los Angeles, working in the villa of J. Paul Getty himself with all the other curators and conservators working on the project. What a joy it was to take these pieces apart and examine them for as long and as closely as we wanted. After finishing my Ph.D. in art history the great Deutsches Museum in Munich gave me the rare opportunity to build a satellite museum for it in Bonn, which was then still the capital of Germany. Some years later I was recruited by some of the founders of Silicon Valley to direct and reorganise The Tech Museum of Innovation.  Running a museum is a big, complicated business in today’s media-driven world, requiring more than just curatorial skills. I was on a very fast learning curve. I was much inspired by American museum professionals, especially colleagues in the field in Silicon Valley.

‘I showed [Steve Jobs] how to take a watch apart. It was a day that I will never forget’

JR: With your background, you seem a natural fit for the Patek Philippe Museum. How do you use today’s technology as a tool to educate about technology from the past?

PF: Watches are extremely complex devices, and difficult to display since you only see one aspect — it’s almost a black box to the uninitiated. Do you want to focus on the dial, or the case, or the movement? You can’t focus on them all. Thankfully, we now have technology available to enrich the experience of the museum visitor. Smartphones and tablets allow us to show a watch from all angles, to focus in, for instance, on enamel paintings that many of the old ones have; on the movement; and on its various functions. We can create animations of the escapement; we can show how the automatons go through their motions; we can provide sound; and we can explain it all by audio. There are now so many opportunities we just never had before, and we use all of them to make the visit an emotional experience for our visitors, from technical experts to aficionados — even for the young generation.

JR: How does your day at the museum begin?

PF: When I arrive in the morning, I usually stop the elevator on the first floor to take a walk through the Patek Philippe collection for the sheer pleasure of it all. Even after three years, I never tire of doing this. These contemplative moments in the morning pique my imagination and give me the energy to manage the day.

JR: Can you explain your deep interest in computers?

PF: The interplay of the parts in an analogue watch movement has almost the same precision as a digital computer — errors in the programme or in the wheel-work can have fatal consequences. Computers are a blessing for creating a powerful visitor experience. Fortunately I was born at just the right time to benefit from this revolutionary technology. In 1980, I already owned my first laptop computer, and I have to admit I really enjoy programming. The first time I made use of this computing power was at the Bavarian National Museum in order to compare various types of Swiss watches. I took them apart, measured them, counted their teeth, etc, then put the data into a computer file and wrote a programme that created a cross section of its mechanics. I achieved good results. By comparing a few hundred movements, I was able to attribute unsigned 18th-century watch movements to particular watchmakers — based not on guess-work but on hard facts. In 1982, when I wanted to have a more powerful computer, I called Apple, when the company was still in its early stages. Two days later, Steve Jobs dropped by at my workshop at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.

‘There are a number of watches on my list still remaining to be found’

JR: To visit you personally?

PF: Yes. He came with two Macintosh Plus computers and said, ‘Peter, here is one for your interesting work, and there is one for the director general’.  We spent some time at the bench and I showed him how to take a watch apart. It was a day I will never forget.

A pocket watch by Piguet & Meylan recently bought at Christie’s. The motif is based on a painting by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, which Dr. Friess stands in front of at the Museum of Art and History in Geneva

A pocket watch by Piguet & Meylan recently bought at Christie’s. The motif is based on a painting by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, which Dr. Friess stands in front of at the Museum of Art and History in Geneva

JR: What do you consider the Mona Lisa of the Patek Philippe collection?

PF: If I ever dared to elevate one of our almost 3,000 pieces on display to the level of the Mona Lisa, all of the others would protest by ticking as loudly as they could to insist that they are equally as important! Honestly, every piece in our collection is part of a bigger story, and we depend on all of them at some point. 

JR: What do you want the experience to be for first-time visitors?

PF: First of all, to better understand the concept of time. Secondly, to get an idea about the emergence of the portable timekeeper in Europe over the last 500 years. And last but not least, to get a feeling for Patek Philippe, the company which creates the best and most interesting mechanical watches in the world.

JR: How many visitors do you have in a given year?

PF: Right now we greet around 50,000 visitors a year, which is just about the right number to enjoy the visit — enough not to feel lonely, and not too many, to allow room and time to contemplate and savour these beautiful objects.

Dr. Friess inspects some of the many rare pieces on display from the Stern Collection
Dr. Friess inspects some of the many rare pieces on display from the Stern Collection

JR: What is the holy grail of watch collecting? What is the one elusive piece, Patek Philippe or non-Patek Philippe, that you’ve been searching for?

PF: When we were trying to explain the evolution of the perpetual calendar, a complication you find in many Patek Philippe watches, we found we were missing important historical pieces in the line of development. For quite a while we scanned the world market, and, lo and behold, just recently we discovered the critical missing piece: a pocket watch made in 1762 by Thomas Mudge, which had the first perpetual calendar ever made for a portable timekeeper. I call this strategic collecting, and there are a number of watches on my list still remaining to be found.

JR: Many people are surprised to learn that the museum is not actively buying Patek Philippe watches for its collection at international auctions. In fact, you’re looking for pieces that are important historical firsts — pieces that pre-date Patek Philippe’s founding in 1839. Are there any examples you can tell us about?

PF: We acquire important pieces for the Patek Philippe collection from time to time, although perhaps not as often as we used to, since our collection is already quite complete. As a company, we don’t want to be seen as pushing up prices for vintage Patek Philippe watches. At this high level it is probably wiser to be modest and, for the sake of all collectors, not to interfere in the market. For our collection of historical non-Patek Philippe watches we recently acquired a pocket watch made by Piguet & Meylan, featuring two barking dogs, an automaton on the front dial, bought from Christie’s. This motif is based on a painting by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, which is part of the Museum of Art and History here in Geneva.

‘It’s an honour, a pleasure, and a high responsibility to work with the founder of a collection of this magnitude’

JR: It sounds as though your job is like being a part-time treasure hunter. Does it ever feel like that?

PF: I have a clear idea of what I would like to suggest to Mr. Philippe Stern for acquisition. Over the past few years I’ve developed a huge network of ‘watch people’. So, in addition to buying through auctions, I now have access to private collections that I didn’t know about before, and we sometimes acquire very interesting pieces that way.

JR: The museum has assembled the most important horological library in the world. How is this library used by you and horological scholars around the world today?

PF: The library is an essential part of our museum. We could never have published our catalogues as quickly and efficiently as we have if we didn’t have it at hand. I only need to travel 10 metres to have the key books by the most important authors in my hands. It’s extremely convenient, and a huge asset and resource. When we get requests, we have the option of opening our shelves, even the books in my office, to researchers. They’re always impressed. 

Peter Friess with Philippe Stern, Honorary President of Patek Philippe, whose personal collection of watches housed in the museum is widely regarded as the finest in the world

Peter Friess with Philippe Stern, Honorary President of Patek Philippe, whose personal collection of watches housed in the museum is widely regarded as the finest in the world

JR: Many people believe the museum collection is Patek Philippe’s corporate collection, which I understand is not true. These watches are Mr. Philippe Stern’s personal collection, and it continues to grow.

PF: For a curator, it’s an honour, a pleasure, and a high responsibility to work with the founder of a collection of this magnitude, one regarded as the best collection of watches in the world. Adding new pieces to it, organising it, and keeping it alive is a huge privilege.

JR: Mr. Philippe Stern, in my opinion, embodies the spirit of what collecting is all about — searching for the best and the finest, and using informed academics and trusted partners to find these timepieces. Are there any comments you’d like to add about Mr. Philippe Stern’s collecting life or collecting philosophy in respect to the museum?

Dr. Friess with a copy of The Emergence of the Portable Watch, the catalogue of the Patek Philippe Museum

Dr. Friess with a copy of The Emergence of the Portable Watch, the catalogue of the Patek Philippe Museum

PF: The museum has several purposes that distinguish it from any other museum I know of. First of all, the Patek Philippe Museum is a keystone institution within the cultural infrastructure of Geneva, since there is no other museum for watches in this capital of watch manufacturing. Philippe Stern has done something very significant with this collection over the last 35 years, an endeavour started by his father Henry Stern and which Philippe’s son Thierry Stern will carry forward. Secondly, the museum provides an extensive overview of watches from 1500 — when Leonardo da Vinci first introduced the concept of the mainspring for driving the watch mechanism, and replaced the weights to make the watch a wearable device — up to the present. Thirdly, the museum is a crucial reference resource for the people who work at Patek Philippe — for the designers of the cases, the watchmakers who create the Patek Philippe watches of tomorrow, our sales forces who need this knowledge to sell Patek Philippe watches worldwide in our salons and stores. And, finally, for all of us at Patek Philippe, it provides the foundations for our corporate culture. 

JR:  What is it you hope people who visit the museum will take away with them?

PF: The beautiful designs of the watch cases (you have to know I was trained as an art historian). The multitude of ways in which time can be indicated on a dial. And a passion for the mechanical watch in our digital age. Of course, it is important that our visitors come away with a new appreciation of the many dimensions of value a watch from Patek Philippe has.

JR: You recently completed the catalogues of the Patek Philippe Museum pre-1839 collection, which are already considered to be some of the most important horological books ever to be published, and The Emergence of the Portable Watch, a survey of the development of timekeeping from 1500 until the early 1800s. What did you find most surprising when undertaking this project?

JR: I have worked on many books before, but producing two volumes and an index on 1,093 watches in just two years was an especially challenging undertaking.  The project needed to be attacked strategically, requiring a top team and a carefully coordinated approach. I realised that very quickly, otherwise it could easily have taken five or 10 years. I am also happy to admit that I stood on the shoulders of illustrious predecessors.

JR: How much do the volumes weigh?

PF: We used top grade paper and there are 1,381 pages, so it ended up weighing, I think, 11 kilograms. We wanted to show collectors not just the front of the watch, as most conventional catalogues do. With an enamelled piece, for example, we would photograph all the beautiful miniature paintings it contains, which could be as many as six. The book has 4,204 photographs. All the watches had to be taken apart, partially cleaned and prepared for the photographers, with watchmakers always present. Photographing all the watches was in itself a two-year process.

JR: Patek Philippe celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Nautilus watch this year. How do you think the Nautilus will be recognised at 100 years old, given your understanding of watch design evolution over the past 500 years?

PF: The Nautilus is an iconic piece. It was developed as Patek Philippe started to brand the company with a very specific design. It was not alone — branding was pursued by most watch companies at the time. I consider the Nautilus a top piece of the genre — it is a piece of art, pure and simple. It is a milestone in the design history of watches. I know that sounds like a bold statement, but I think this watch has what it takes to be seen as a turning point in design, even 100 years from now.

Jacob Auch, circa 1790, Heliocentric Planetarium with Calendar dial
Jacob Auch, circa 1790, Heliocentric Planetarium with Calendar dial

Planetarium with Calendar
Planetarium with Calendar

JR: Christie’s is 250 years old this year. If our company founder James Christie walked into the Patek Philippe Museum today and looked at some of your 18th-century pieces, would there be a watch that he might pick out for himself?

PF: Let me congratulate Christie’s on reaching this monumental anniversary. In 1761 and 1769 a very rare astronomical event known as the transit of Venus, in which the planet Venus passes across the face of the Sun, took place. In preparation for this spectacle in the sky, excursions and expeditions were organised around the world. James Cook sailed to Tahiti, carrying extremely precise timekeepers to measure the time it took for Venus’s passage. This was scientifically important for helping us determine our distance from the Sun. It happens that we have a very interesting piece crafted by the German watchmaker Jacob Auch. His watch includes a ‘planetarium’, a miniature model of the solar system with the inner planets, showing Mercury, Venus, and the Earth, together with its Moon, rotating around the Sun. If Mr. Christie had been here, I definitely would have recommended that piece to him. He would have had the universe in his pocket!

JR: Thank you.