In today’s watch market there are boutique edition pieces and then there are pieces like this rare top-winding Patek Philippe reference 421 from circa 1924 —
old-style boutique pieces made especially for a retailer by exclusive arrangement. Marvelous in its discretion, this watch conceals its serious horological
bona fides. Only the wearer, of whom there are scant few, knows it’s a Patek. This is a great piece for collectors who know you don’t need to be loud to
make a statement. — Chris Greenberg
A single signature
This 421 is, in part, identifiable by its single Tiffany & Co signature; Patek’s name is nowhere on the dial. An extract from the Patek archive
confirms Patek manufactured this watch in 1924 and sold it on Halloween day in 1935. The case and movement are signed Patek, Philippe & Co., even
though this dial is not. This has quite a lot to do with a relationship that began informally in 1847. That relationship was formalized by contract in
1854, making Tiffany the exclusive agent of Patek watches in North America. That partnership was enhanced in 1878 when Tiffany built an American
watchmaking facility in Switzerland.
The jeweler and the watchmaker
As noted in an earlier deconstruction, Tiffany, Young & Ellis (as Tiffany & Co. was formerly known) began stocking Patek pocket watches (as well as
other Swiss and English brands) upon opening its second store in New York, in 1847. Only a decade old, the jeweler was already enjoying a growing
international reputation for its silver and exquisite objects and the move to offer Swiss timepieces provided its clientele an alternative to American
brands like Waltham and Elgin. Creating Tiffany-branded pieces was the next step, and in 1874 Tiffany opened a watchmaking factory in Place de Cornavin,
which is also the location of the Geneva train depot.
A short-lived experiment
The Tiffany factory was an interesting, albeit short-lived, exercise. It made a splash with the Swiss press (an American watchmaking facility in Geneva!)
but was ultimately something of a misstep for Tiffany. Manufacturing watches proved an expensive proposition that diverted time, attention, and resources
from what had made Tiffany famous: the silver and jewelry trades. So in 1878 it sold the factory to Patek. The agreement provided that Patek would supply
Tiffany with movements of the highest order and that Tiffany would '...attend to the interest of Patek Philippe & Co. in America as if it were their
own.' The jeweler retained the exclusive right to sell Pateks in the US.
At that time, Patek was already leasing a building in Geneva (that it ultimately bought and still uses, now as the Patek salon) as its headquarters and
manufacturing center. The Tiffany facility was kept separate — only movements bound for Tiffany-branded pieces were produced there. This 421 was either
manufactured at Patek headquarters or the Place de Cornavin; the missing ‘Patek’ on the dial makes Cornavin a good guess, as watches made there were
singularly signed Tiffany & Co.
The first two decades of production wristwatches (1900 - mid 1920s) were highly experimental in design terms. The twentieth century was faster paced than
the world was before it, and busy men began accepting the idea of wristwatches as tools of convenience. (Wristwatches were originally made as jewelry for
women.) World War I indirectly furthered men’s interest, thanks to returning soldiers who touted the benefits of trench watches (small pocket watch type
pieces affixed to straps). Patek, Vacheron and Cartier particularly excelled during this era with stylized cases and dials, and all three later embraced the
Art Deco movement. This 421 was cased just prior to that style’s ascendance; it’s a bit more conservative. But the top-crown design is a special, rarely
Given that crown placement, a collector would be forgiven for thinking this 421 was a converted pocket watch. On closer inspection, at 26mm (small even by
1924 wristwatch standards) it would have been unthinkable for a man as anything other than a strap watch — and it was, indeed, originally designed for a
man. The lugs are also noteworthy: Thick and articulated, they're more architectural than functional. On a watch this small the benefit of movable lugs is
minimized, but they're an uncommon and comfortable design choice.
The sector dial
Based on auction catalogs and other research, this seems to be one of the earliest sector designs found on a wristwatch. While there isn’t a standard
definition, a 'sector dial' generally describes a dial that displays individual hour, minute, and sometimes seconds chapter rings. They were popular in the
1930s and ‘40s in chronographs and time-only pieces, and the stalwart Swiss firms of the day produced examples that are coveted in today’s vintage market.
Modern sectors are still made, but to less frequently: Patek references 5296 and 5396 are good examples.
This particular sector dial has lovely, raised gold dot indexes at 12, 3, and 9 o’clock, and a two-tone silver subdial, inversely toned when compared to the
main dial. If you look closely, the seconds track of the subdial is the same tone as the center of the main dial; by contrast the center of the subdial is
the same tone as the hour and minute chapter rings of the main. Depending on the viewing angle, the contrast between these separate areas can be quite
subtle or very pronounced. Another nice detail is the contrasting gold feuille (leaf-shaped) hour and minute hands with the blued-steel sub-seconds hand.
Images by Austin Considine for Christie's