Few watches in the world are so prominent that when scholars, amateurs and collectors discuss them, they do not need to describe them or mention their makers, but can simply refer to their names. Examples include the Marie-Antoinette (by Breguet), the Henry Graves Jr. (by Patek Philippe), the John Shaeffer (by Audemars Piguet) and the James Schulz. Whereas the first three gained a very high profile internationally thanks to their prominent first owners, the James Schulz ultra-complicated wristwatch was originally designed for the maker himself-James Schulz.
Sometime in the late 1920s, Schulz, independent New York-based manufacturer of custom watches, developed the idea of making the world's most complicated wristwatch. At that time, when sales of pocket watches still outnumbered the upcoming wristwatch, Schulz's ambitious project to fit the functions of a complicated pocket watch into a much smaller wristwatch probably caused head-shaking and disbelief amongst experts from the watch industry. Around 1930, less than a handful of distinguished Geneva watch manufacturers started making a very limited series of complicated wristwatches. Often cased in the then fashionable and typical cushion-shaped cases, these exclusive watches either featured single button chronographs, minute repeating or perpetual calendar mechanisms. However, none of these watches united all these complications. Schulz's dream was to make a wristwatch with all the three functions. What started as a courageous idea came true years later. The making of the movement alone took several highly skilled watchmakers some three years to complete. Schulz identified Les Fils de Victorin Piguet in Switzerland's Vallée de Joux, home of numerous long-established movement manufacturers. Les Fils de Victorin Piguet were also suppliers of complicated movements to Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, but never actually received such a challenging order. The dial for his ultra-complicated wristwatch was a special order from Stern Frères, Geneva's most prestigious maker of dials.
In the midst of the turmoil of the Great Depression, Schulz was finally able to call himself maker and owner of the world's most complicated wristwatch - a most elite market niche which was home to the finest and best established manufacturers like Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Breguet and Audemars Piguet. Schulz did regularly use his masterpiece in his catalogues and advertisements, but refused repeatedly to sell it. The Schulz ultra-complication was prominently featured in an article published by Life Magazine in December 1940 (Watches - These are the best built in the world), which gave the watch national exposure and made it a coveted trophy. Its price tag was an impressive $10,000, a multiple of several fine Patek Philippe watches listing between $200 and $2,100.The most important watch featured in Life Magazine's article was the Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication, said to have been bought by a private collector for $15,000. Some 60 years later, in 1999, the Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication was sold at auction for the all-time world record sum of over $11,000,000. Among those interested in buying the Schulz wristwatch was sportsman Henry J. 'Bob' Topping Jr., heir to a tin-plate fortune and later married to Lana Turner. Topping's brother Dan was best known as the owner and president of the New York Yankees.
It wasn't until 1946 when Schulz and Topping, during a luncheon at New York's '21' club came to an agreement. Topping eventually enjoyed the watch for over a decade (six years longer than his marriage to Lana Turner) until consigning it to auction at around 1958. Until today, only four further private collectors owned the Schulz. Each of them knew at the time of their purchase that there was no other wristwatch in the world so complicated. In fact, it wasn't until 1982 when Philip Stern, president and owner of Patek Philippe, instructed his team of skilled watchmakers to make a watch with the same function. This unique piece took four years to make and was not completed until 1986 when, after over half a century, the James Schulz Ultra-Complication finally met its match.
Today, the Patek Philippe is prominently exhibited at Geneva's prestigious Patek Philippe Museum.
For another wristwatch signed James Schulz see lot 363 in this auction.