5 minutes with… Henry Graves Jr.’s gold Patek Philippe minute repeating wristwatch

Getting on for 100 years old, this rare minute repeater was the first Patek Philippe wristwatch ever owned by the 20th century’s most celebrated watch collector. Sabine Kegel, Head of Watches in Geneva, explains why it is such an important object

On 16 June 1928, Henry Graves Jr. walked into the headquarters of Patek Philippe in Geneva — located then, as now, at 41 rue du Rhône — and collected the watch pictured above, a yellow gold tonneau-shaped Patek Philippe minute repeater, which he had ordered a year earlier. 

Graves had another three complicated pocket watches on order from Patek Philippe at the time, as well as the Supercomplication, which would become for 56 years the most complicated watch the world had ever seen. But the man was insatiable. His passions ranged from paperweights to motorboats to Old Master prints. Yet more than anything, he loved to collect watches.

‘He was American aristocracy, the son of the financier Henry Graves Sr., and became extremely rich through banking and investments in the railroad,’ explains Sabine Kegel, Christie’s Head of Watches in Geneva, where the watch will be auctioned on 11 November. ‘Among watch collectors he is a legendary figure.’ 

The Supercomplication for which he is most celebrated had a remarkable 25 complications — including a sky chart that displayed the correct spacing of the stars in the Milky Way above his Manhattan home at 834 Fifth Avenue.

Patek Philippe, a unique yellow gold tonneau minute repeating wristwatch made for Henry Graves Jr., 1927. Estimate CHF 3,000,000-5,000,000. Offered in Rare Watches on 11 November at Christie’s in Geneva

Patek Philippe, a unique yellow gold tonneau minute repeating wristwatch made for Henry Graves Jr., 1927. Estimate: CHF 3,000,000-5,000,000. Offered in Rare Watches on 11 November at Christie’s in Geneva

Between 1922 and 1951 Graves ordered no fewer than 39 watches from Patek Philippe. To realise them, the manufacturers engaged the services of not only the finest master watchmakers of the first half of the 20th century, but also the most brilliant astronomers and mathematicians. It’s probably fair to say that Graves’ commissions would help to keep the company afloat after its finances were damaged by the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

‘After three years in development, Graves needed to sign off the final drawings for the Supercomplication,’ Kegel continues. ‘Graves and his wife Florence sailed for Europe in the RMS Olympic, the sister ship to the Titanic. It was in the midst of doing this that he acquired this minute repeater — his first Patek Philippe wristwatch, and also thought to be the first minute repeating wristwatch made by Patek Philippe. 

Sabine Kegel, Christie’s Head of Watches in Geneva, with the watch
Sabine Kegel, Christie’s Head of Watches in Geneva, with the watch

‘Bear in mind that wristwatches had only evolved some 20 years previously, and were often little more than modified pocket watches,’ the specialist continues. ‘A wristwatch fitted with a minute repeater, in an age when watches were entirely made by hand, presented enormous challenges.’ Indeed, throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Patek Philippe is thought to have made fewer than three dozen minute repeaters.

Graves owned three of them. In 2014 Christie’s sold a Patek Philippe with a cushion-shaped platinum case for CHF 1,205,000, then equivalent to around $1.34 million. Another platinum minute repeater, but tonneau-shaped like this gold one, is housed in the Patek Philippe Museum Collection. Which means that the Geneva auction represents possibly the last opportunity to purchase a Graves minute repeating wristwatch for a very long time.

The Graves family motto, Esse Quam Videri, translates as ‘To Be Rather Than to Seem’

The Graves family motto, Esse Quam Videri, translates as ‘To Be Rather Than to Seem’

‘Not only is it a very good-looking watch, it is also an attractive size,’ says Kegel. ‘At that time men’s watches were smaller, more like the size of women’s watches today. This is huge — almost 4cm long — even by today’s standards.

‘It has the added advantage of improving the sound of the minute repeating mechanism, which is also enhanced by the relative softness and malleability of gold, in comparison to platinum.’

Sign up today

Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

John Reardon, Christie’s Senior International Watch Consultant, is equally enamoured of this rare treasure. ‘Few watches capture my imagination more than this one — it was Henry Graves Jr.’s first wristwatch repeater, and it was a watch that he actually wore on his wrist and used occasionally, unlike his pocket watches, which were typically hidden away,’ he comments.

‘Everything about Henry Graves Jr. was discreet, and the understated elegance of this watch is trumpeted with the Graves family crest and motto, Esse Quam Videri  [To Be, Rather Than to Seem] on the caseback. For watch collectors, owning a piece from Henry Graves Jr.’s collection is the ultimate grail. To be able to own an oversized complicated wristwatch owned by Graves surpasses even that dream. The forthcoming auction in Geneva promises to be a truly extraordinary occasion.’