This immensely attractive and enigmatic vintage chronograph has recently been the focus of rigorous academic research in order to establish both its historical context within Patek Philippe’s production during the Second World War and its exceptional significance to watch collectors as the only example of a reference 1491 chronograph known to exist.
Analysis reveals several distinct aspects to its uniqueness encompassing both its design and construction which come together technically and aesthetically in this very impressive one-of-a-kind chronograph.
The Only Known Reference 1491 Chronograph
The classic vintage reference 1491, known as “scrolled lugs” to collectors, is a time-only watch that was available with either subsidiary seconds or sweep seconds, produced from 1940 to at least 1965 it was made in yellow gold, pink gold and occasionally in white gold, no platinum examples are known to date. Around 400 pieces were made in total. The dials were made by Stern Frères, usually silvered with gold applied hour markers.
Made upon special request in 1942, the present watch stands alone among reference 1491s as the only known chronograph of the reference. Adding to its uniqueness, it is evident that in order to accommodate the chronograph movement, the case was custom-made by Patek Philippe in a slightly larger size than the standard time-only 1491 case. Furthermore, the dial is of unique asymmetrical design with subsidiary seconds and 30-minute register dials of different sizes, the smaller seconds at 9 o’clock and the larger 30-minute chronograph register at 3 o’clock.
This chronograph can be considered as a prototype or perhaps a test piece. The Extract from the Archives fully confirms the watch in its present incarnation, i.e. a yellow gold reference 1491 chronograph with movement no. 860’508 and case no. 627’201, it further states that the date of manufacture was 1937 and sold on February 18th 1938 and that “the original case was replaced by the above-mentioned one during a servicing in 1942”. However, this statement belies the real significance and importance of the watch, far from being a simple re-case, in fact by using this original and previously sold chronograph movement Patek Philippe then specially created a prototype model for a reference 1491 chronograph which had not existed before, therefore, it is a timepiece of considerable historical importance.
Research shows that at this very same period during the tenure of Mr. Charles Stern at the helm of Patek Philippe, several special watches (Ref. 1527 Q, 1527 Q CC) and a perpetual American calendar clock all with cases and/or dials differing from the standard series watches were ordered directly by and for him, these pieces were all created between 1942 and 1944 in a similar manner to the present watch using watch movements that had been earlier cased, some were perhaps his own watches, watches bought back from clients or still in stock. Interestingly, these special pieces often had Roman hour numerals like the present watch which seem to have been his preferred numeral style. It therefore seems logical that this watch was similarly created upon Charles Stern’s request either for himself, for Patek Philippe as a test watch or directly for the former owner, an American sports journalist whose particular interest was boxing.
Charles Stern’s son Henri had, as it happened made a long trip to North America just before the outbreak of World War II presenting a possible introductory connection to the watch’s subsequent owner. For the gentleman in question, a sports journalist, the need for large chronograph counter makes complete sense and this unusual dial configuration would certainly suggest it was designed with a specific client or purpose in mind.
It also has to be considered that at the height of World War II, it would have been quite problematic to have a Swiss watch physically delivered to the United States. Firstly due to Switzerland’s geographical position being surrounded by countries under German occupation and secondly by the United States’ very high taxes levied on imported goods during the war to protect home manufacturers. Patek Philippe’s American customers would therefore have to either pay a levy of up to fifty percent to receive a watch in New York or arrange somehow to take delivery in Europe. Recent research would suggest that the former owner’s son, Jimmy, whose inscription “To Dad From Jimmy” is engraved on the back of the watch was indeed in Europe during the War and bought the watch back for his father at that time.
The Custom-Made Unique Dial
The one-of-a-kind dial is naturally the focus of close scrutiny as it represents a huge departure in layout from standard references. Consistent in manufacture for a Stern Frères dial made in the 1940s. Asymmetrical yet visually harmonious, the layout consists of an oversized 30-minute register designed to be as large as possible to allow better and quicker observations. Also of note is the lack of tachymeter scale which allows more space for the lay-out and therefore a clearer view of the subsidiary dials. Interestingly, the gold applied hour markers are not usually seen on the standard reference 1491 dials which
instead bear dots and much shorter or much longer indexes. The outer minutes and seconds scale, the two subsidiary dials and the signature are engraved and hard-enamelled.
The subsidiary dials themselves are of particular interest, the seconds at 9 o’clock is itself much larger than that seen on all other references, the 30-minute register at 3 o’clock is incredibly almost exactly double the proportions and size of standard chronographs.
Examination of the reverse of the dial shows repair marks that indicate at least three overhauls in the 76 years since it was fitted to the watch in 1942. The silver dial plate by Stern Frères was restored by Patek Philippe and the silvered dial surface refinished, however, the engraved hard-enamelled scales, signature and asymmetrically proportioned sunk subsidiary dials remain original as do the applied gold hour numerals.
The Custom-Made Unique Case
The unique case was made by François Markoswsky (Geneva master case-maker mark number 8 in a key), one of the best case-makers of the period. Markoswsky produced work for Patek Philippe from the 1920s until the at least the 1960s specializing in shaped cases, he made the cases for several of Patek’s most important references.
Significantly, the present three-piece case is 35.1mm diameter and 10.84mm thick, more than 1mm larger and thicker than the standard reference 1491 case. This means that it was specially made to receive the chronograph movement with its pushers. Upon close inspection of the case details both inside and outside, for instance under the lugs, or where the lugs attach to the case, it can be seen that the finishing of the details are made for one watch only, as a prototype. The profile has been modified, the bezel is different and the lugs are much thicker and heavier, of truly unique construction.
This fascinating and highly important wristwatch offers the collector the rare opportunity to possess a one-of-a-kind vintage Patek Philippe that is not only technically and historically impressive but also eminently wearable.
This watch is published in: The Blue Book 1, Studies on Patek Philippe wristwatches, by
Eric Tortella, 2018 edition, pages 316-317.
We are grateful to Eric and Gabriel Tortella for their kind assistance in researching this piece.