On 12 November 1872, Patek Philippe sold its first
watch to the Rio de Janiero-based retailer Gondolo & Labouriau. Until 1927, when the relationship ended, approximately one-third of Patek Philippe’s
entire production was sold through this Brazilian retailer. Thousands of watches were made that are now known as Gondolo watches and that represent some
of the most coveted Patek Philippe watches ever
made. Originally sold to exclusive members of the ultimate watch collecting club, the Gondolo Gang, the quality of these timepieces is as impressive as
their unique history.
To be a member of Gondolo’s collecting club in the early 20th century was the ultimate expression of having ‘arrived’ in Brazilian society. The Gondolo
Gang was made famous by members’ straw Patek Philippe hats, lavish outings and shared obsession to own the finest watches ever made. The retailer devised a
brilliant marketing scheme to attract members to its collecting clubs — a selling strategy called the ‘Plano do Club Patek Philippe System’. Each member of
the 180-person club would commit to buying a pocket watch with a retail price of 790 Swiss Francs. They would be required to make a 10-Franc payment every
week for 79 weeks until the watch was paid for in full.
And here is the hook: Gondolo held 79 consecutive weekly lottery draws, in which the lucky winners were released from their future payment
responsibilities. For example, the first weekly ‘winner’ would get his Patek Philippe for free, the second would only pay 10 Francs for his watch, the
third winner, only 20 Francs, and so on. The remaining 101 members would pay full price for their watches. The system allowed for members of the ‘gang’ to
circumvent the Brazilian ban on gambling, since the clubs were considered private societies.
Of the hundreds of pocket watches made for Gondolo & Labouriau clubs between 1900 and 1927, now known as Chronometro Gondolo watches, the great
majority were similar in design. Four basic requirements were requested by Gondolo & Labouriau to distinguish the watches made for them from those made
for Patek Philippe’s regular production. Firstly, the watches were made with gilded brass plates and featured the elegant S-shaped fourth wheel patented by
Patek Philippe on 13 January 1893. The S-shaped minute train bridge is now considered one of the company’s hallmark designs. Secondly, a Swiss moustache
lever escapement with bi-metallic compensation balance featured on each watch to meet high precision standards. Thirdly, the fourth, intermediate and
minute wheels of each watch were made in 9k rose gold. Lastly, a square socket was necessary in each of the mainspring barrels.
‘Approximately one-third of Patek Philippe’s entire production was sold through this Brazilian retailer.’
Chronometro Gondolo pocket watches were made in several different sizes and design configurations. Occasionally, certain examples were fitted with centre
seconds of a chronograph. The product line sold to Gondolo was extensive – nine different caliber sizes ranging from 10–22 lignes. The dials were typically
white enamel with roman numerals, with some examples featuring the name of the owner below 12 o’clock.
When Patek Philippe began regular production of the wristwatch in 1910, the movements of Gondolo wristwatches had the same technical requirements as pocket
watches. However the wristwatches were made in an array of designs, available in circular, square, rectangular, cushion, and, of course, tonneau shapes.
Some had impressive sizes: the largest Gondolo wristwatch boasted a length of 48 mm including the lugs.
Today Gondolo & Labouriau is a distant memory. It imported its last Patek Philippe in 1927 and this powerhouse of a retailer is long out of
business. But its name lives on: Whenever a Chronometro Gondolo watch surfaces at auction, watch connoisseurs compete to own one of these fine examples of
Swiss watchmaking with a unique South American story. (Patek Philippe offers a complete line of wristwatches today that are inspired by the original
Gondolos.) The Gondolo Gang lives on, and the watches of the past become objects of desire in the present.
Lead image courtesy of Patek Philippe SA; click here to browse and buy fine
Patek Philippe watches on Christie’s Watch Shop.