Patek Philippe, a magnificent and important 18k pink gold World Time wristwatch with enamel dial depicting the eastern hemisphere. Ref. 1415, manufactured in 1949. Estimate HK$8,000,000-24,000,000.

From Paris to New York — via Tahiti: how Patek Philippe gave us all the time in the world

Ahead of major watch auctions in Hong Kong and Geneva, horological writer Bill Prince charts the evolution of Patek’s World Time complication — one of the most innovative and highy prized of all time

If necessity is the mother of invention, then paternity in the case of the World Time watch is a matter of dispute. Those responsible could include Samuel Morse or Alexander Graham Bell, whose advances in wireless telegraphy sufficiently shrank the globe in the mid-19th century as to require a move to standardised or ‘universal’ time.

The midwife, however, was without doubt the Scottish-Canadian railway engineer Sir Sandford Fleming, whose interest in the smooth running of locomotive timetables led to the establishment of 24 internationally recognised time zones in 1884.

After which the race was on to create a complication that could display, as well as switch between, all 24 time zones, a feat that ultimately defeated Swiss watchmaker Emmanuel Cottier, but was eventually achieved 40 years later by his son, Louis.

Cottier’s work was explored by others, but it was with Patek Philippe that he collaborated to refine his invention, starting with the Ref. 515 ‘HU’ (denoting Universal Hours) in 1937, and eventually progressing to the iconic ‘two crown’ Ref. 2523, produced between 1953 and 1965.

An entirely new calibre was introduced in 2000 in the Ref. 5110, updated in 2006 and 2008 in Refs. 5130 and 5131 respectively.

‘The World Time represents Patek Philippe’s ability to attract the best craftsmen to make the best products’ — specialist Remi Guillemin

Today, Cottier’s fiendishly simple solution to showing the world’s time is highly prized by collectors, says Christie’s Geneva watch specialist Remi Guillemin: ‘Vintage pieces from Patek Philippe’s World Time complications are the ones that tend to bring the most at auction.’

By way of example, Guillemin cites the platinum Ref. 1415 HU of 1946 (below), offered on 22 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong. When it last sold, in 2002, it achieved CHF6,603,500, making it at the time the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at auction.

Patek Philippe, a unique and important platinum World Time wristwatch. Ref. 1415 HU, manufactured in 1946. Sold for HK$14,650,000 on 22 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Patek Philippe, a unique and important platinum World Time wristwatch. Ref. 1415 HU, manufactured in 1946. Sold for HK$14,650,000 on 22 May 2021 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

‘Since the beginning, Patek Philippe’s philosophy has been to make the best watch possible,’ adds the specialist, ‘with the finest movement, the finest quality cases, the finest dials. The World Time represents Patek Philippe’s ability to attract the best craftsmen to make the best products.’

Produced for a New York client and housed in a rectangular, Art Deco case reflective of the era, the Heures Universelles (Ref. 515) of 1937 established the principle on which all future World Time Patek Philippes would work: an outer display imprinted on the dial shows the names of cities, against which a 24-hour disc linked to the hour hand travels at half-speed anti-clockwise to display the local time in each territory.

However, it is with the 37mm dress (or pocket) watch, Ref. 605 HU, that we see the judicious fusion of quality, beauty and function on which the brand built its reputation.

In all, 95 pieces were produced between 1939 and 1964 under the supervision of Cottier, which extended to the design of the hands, characterised by the use of a circular-cut hour hand and a dagger-form minute hand, a style still in evidence today.

A World Time watch from 1944 (above), in 18k gold and engraved with the coat of arms of American industrialist Henry Graves Jr. (of ‘Supercomplication’ fame), is offered in Rare Watches on 10 May in Geneva, alongside an example (below) manufactured four years later, featuring a cloisonné enamel dial depicting the North American continent, one of only four in 18k pink gold to do so.

The emblematic layout of the Ref. 605 HU’s tripartite dial may have proved harder to replicate in wristwatches, as the first series-produced World Time wristwatch, Ref. 1415 of 1939, used instead a unidirectional bezel engraved with 28 cities (later rising to 42) on its 31mm case.

After 1948, small numbers of the Ref. 1415 were offered with cloisonné enamel dials; and this month Christie’s Hong Kong is offering one of only two examples in pink gold depicting the ‘Old World’ or ‘Vieux Continents’ on its dial (below).

Patek Philippe advertised Cottier’s world-shrinking creation as ideal ‘for the man whose interests go beyond the horizon’, arguing that ‘for men with international interests, it is indispensable’.

With the emerging jet age, a new, more streamlined model was produced: 1953’s Ref. 2523, with its distinctive two crowns, one for setting the hands, the other to advance the outermost ring inscribed with the reference cities — now usefully housed within the case.

Further refinements came in 1957, with the more ergonomically styled Ref. 2523/1. The unique 1965 example below, offered on 22 May in Hong Kong, features luminous hands and a yellow gold bracelet.

Besides their technical complexity, aesthetic appeal and great rarity, Patek Philippe’s World Time references offer collectors a fascinating glimpse into the geopolitical as well as the horological past.

The places cited on these watches were apt to change depending on the travelling proclivities of their owners, or by dint of a city’s arrival onto — or disappearance from — the global stage.

Idiosyncrasies abound. For example, despite the fact that Paris switched to Central European Time (CET) in 1940, some post-war dials continued to show it sitting on the Meridian line alongside London, suggesting either a surfeit of unused bezels or an unheeded call for Paris to rejoin GMT.

Perhaps aware that playing catch-up with world events was far less interesting than presenting new product, Patek Philippe ceased production of the Ref. 2523 in 1965, by which time a simplified two-time-zone movement designed by Louis Cottier, dubbed the Travel Time, had been in production for 15 years.

It would be another 35 years before the World Time reference would reappear, by which time Patek Philippe was challenging the rise of quartz by concentrating on mechanical timepieces that reflected its commitment to ‘slenderness, dependability and aesthetics’.

Launched in 2000, the all-new Ref. 5110 may have alluded to the past with its concentric dial and refined 37mm case, but it came fitted with a new automatic 240 calibre and featured the patented clutch system used to advance the Travel Time mechanism.

For the first time, travellers were able to change their reference time zone by using the single pusher at 10 o’clock, which advanced the hour hand whilst simultaneously moving both the 24-hour and city discs — all without disturbing the accuracy of the minute hand.

Following the recent sale of a circa-2002 platinum piece with two-tone dial (above) in Rare Watches New York: Online, an elegant example in pink gold dating from 2001 (below) will be offered in Geneva. Featuring a silvered dial and guilloché centre, it carries an estimate of CHF11,000-17,000.

In 2006 the Ref. 5110 was replaced by the Ref. 5130, with an increased 39.5mm case size. In 2008 the Ref. 5131 saw the reintroduction of cloisonné enamel dials, with a letter appended to denote the territory depicted (J for Atlantic region, G for Europe/Asia and R for Pacific).

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Patek Philippe’s World Time references go beyond the brand’s commitment to performance and practicality: rising to the challenge of organising the world’s sometimes idiosyncratic approach to timekeeping, they remain some of the most exquisitely covetable objects ever imagined, often produced in vanishingly small numbers.

That’s why Guillemin believes this sometimes overlooked complication requires reassessment. ‘For me, World Time is one of the most important complications ever devised,’ he says. ‘Patek Philippe has used it time and again over the years — and it continues to do so today.’