Aviation pioneer William Boeing’s unique split-second chronograph is one of many highlights in a sale celebrating the 175th anniversary of Patek Philippe
An aficionado of rock’n’roll who also collects vintage automobiles meets his theoretical nirvana when faced with the possibility of owning Elvis Presley’s 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III. For devotees of the great composers who also happen to covet historical garments, perfection is one of Brahms’ ink-spattered shirts.
And so to the point of this elaborate conceit: when the worlds of aviation and haute horlogerie collide, you arrive at the logical zenith when teaming up William E. Boeing with legendary Swiss watchmakers Patek Philippe. More specifically, you arrive at the aviation pioneer’s very own Patek Philippe watch — a watch set to be one of the highlights at a Christie’s auction in Geneva on 9 November.
The Boeing founding father’s wristwatch is just one of 100 historical lots, with a focus on vintage masterpieces, that will go under the hammer as part of a much-anticipated sale to commemorate the highly-collectable Swiss brand’s 175th anniversary this year. An extremely rare single button split-seconds chronograph in 18 carat gold, the timepiece, which Mr Boeing bought from Cartier New York on 9 June 1939, has an estimate of $440,000 — $890,000.
‘The Boeing Patek Philippe is a piece of horological history for both Americans and the Swiss,’ says John Reardon, the International Head of Christie’s watch department. ‘It represents the ultimate height of technology in watchmaking in the early 20th century and is the only watch of its kind known to the market.’
To understand the significance of the Boeing watch first requires a little knowledge of Patek Philippe’s place in the highest echelons of Swiss watchmaking. The company dates back to 1839 when Polish exile Antoine Norbert de Patek set himself up in the watch business in Geneva; after something of a shaky start, he teamed up with French watchmaker Jean Adrien Philippe, whose solid reputation as an innovator in the field of mechanical pocket watches helped them flourish. Thanks to the pair’s commitment to making the finest watches that money could buy and their trailblazing business trips to the USA, Russia and key European cities during the 1850s, their watches were soon winning the attention of serious collectors.
As with many of their contemporaries, the Patek Philippe story is not without its low points — the brand only survived the Great Depression of the 1930s thanks to a buyout by one of their suppliers; nor were they entirely immune to the ravages of the so-called quartz watch crisis of the 1970s. But once the dust of that horological nadir had settled and the appeal of an exquisitely-made mechanical watch was rediscovered, the Patek Philippe name was the one that excited collectors the most. As watch aficionado and luxury lifestyle writer Nicholas Foulkes notes: ‘A kind of mythology has been woven around the brand.’
But why? The answer in part lies in the company’s rich catalogue, but there is also the subtle, understated elegance as well as the fact that the company is Geneva’s oldest independent family-owned Swiss watch manufacturer. A vintage Patek Philippe is manna for the watch-loving connoisseur: indeed it is one of the brand’s creations which holds the record for the most expensive timepiece ever sold at auction.
When Mr Boeing purchased his Patek Philippe watch from Cartier New York in 1939 he was, perhaps by accident, buying his own little slice of the story, the sale serendipitously coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the brand. It was — and remains — a remarkable timepiece: as well as being one of only a handful of early split-second chronographs (of which just four are known in the round, Reference 130 style case), the watch’s Cartier signature, Breguet numerals and absence of a tachymeter scale make it unique.
But there’s something else: the addition of three tiny red stripes to the minute hand — painted on at Mr Boeing’s request — imbue the watch with a dash of mystery. Theories include the notion that the stripes could allude to airline pilot uniforms introduced in the 1930s which featured three red stripes. Or perhaps they represent the Model 40 aeroplane which Boeing built for US mail delivery in the late 1920s (red stripes are a key feature of the aircraft’s top tier). Alternatively, they may have been added to represent Mr Boeing’s interest in nautical racing and yachting, the signal flag for starting a code at sea being a white flag with three red stripes. Some even believe that the stripes relate to Boeing’s passion for horse racing.
The story behind these tiny crimson bands was lost when Mr Boeing passed away in 1956, four decades after he had founded a company that continues to lead the field in aviation and beyond to this day. Schooled in Switzerland and then a student at Yale, Mr Boeing was an entrepreneur, an adventurer, an acclaimed breeder of thoroughbred racehorses, and was inducted into America’s National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1966. His Patek Philippe watch, engraved on the case back with the legend ‘W.E. Boeing, Seattle, Wash.’ was along for some of that ride.
Words by Mike Peake