Previously unknown to the market, this watch presents a rare and unusual discovery of an extremely early Patek Philippe minute repeating wristwatch. In the 1920s and early 30s, wristwatches were still in their youth, having made their appearance some 20 years before. Consequently, manufacturers were resistant to make complicated wristwatches. Very often, wristwatches were the result of modified pocket watches or of movements being re-cased. Wristwatches fitted with minute repeaters are the most coveted and difficult complications in watchmaking and from this period can be considered holy grails of horology.
In order to fully appreciate the rarity of the present timepiece, it is worth noting that these treasured horological masterpieces very rarely come to auction. Due to their masterful execution of design and technicality, in the first half of the 20th century, Patek Philippe produced no more than 40 wrist repeaters(1) of which approximately half have ever been discovered, 11 having tonneau or cushion cases, of which only five are almost identical to this watch(2).
Incredibly rare, even for Patek Philippe, this watch was a mystery. In their 1988 book, on page 239, it describes this watch but the picture inserted was in fact an archival picture of a sister watch, No. 138’147 which, although has almost an identical case, the movement is completely different. In articles about Patek Philippe repeaters the watch either was not mentioned or described as “unknown”. This is because since the day it was sold the watch has been in the same family. Very few were ever put into production and those that were produced were reserved only for the most important clients.
It is no surprise that such an exclusive and elusive watch was made for one of Patek Philippe's most important clients ever: Henry Graves Jr. Born into an affluent banking family, he soon developed a passion for complicated timepieces and became an endeared Patek Philippe client. Mr. Graves is famous for his unusual competition with Mr. James Ward Packard. Although never officially meeting, the two would compete for the most complicated timepieces and beyond allegedly saving Patek Philippe from bankruptcy during the years of the Great Depression, this antagonism is what brought to the world pieces such as the Henry Graves Supercomplication, finished in 1933 after 8 years of studies and development, and which remained the most complicated timepiece in the world until 1989, when Patek Philippe introduced the Caliber 89. Among the more than 30 Patek Philippe watches specially made for Graves, only four of them were fitted with minute repeating mechanisms: two fitted with tonneau-shaped cases, both on permanent exhibition at the Patek Philippe Museum. In 2014, Christie’s auctioned the exact same watch as the one on offer here, with cushion-shaped case and applied Breguet numerals, however it was cased in platinum and with movement number 198'095, a few digits away from the present watch. The example belonging to Mr. Graves realized 1,205,000 Swiss francs.
The vast majority of these watches were bought by wealthy American industrialists or financiers such as Mr. Graves. Other notable clients include Ralph Teetor, a blind automotive engineer, the inventor of the cruise control, who paid 10,000CHF for his (No. 112057)(3), and Albert Clement Middleton of RCA. Highly desirable, in 1930 when very successful businessman Eldridge Johnson asked his attorney, Floyd Bradley, if he would prefer a car or a watch for a present, Bradley chose a watch, a sister to this one, No. 198’213, delivered in 1931. In addition to the large value paid in 2014 for Mr. Graves’ example, No. 975’89 sold in 2012 for $2,994,500.
In addition to its impressive history embedded in the DNA of Patek Philippe, the watch itself is a stunning example of craftsmanship. The earliest wrist repeaters were based off of women’s pendant repeating movements. They came in four sizes, from 10 to 14 lignes (22.5-31.5 mm). With the advent of wristwatches, a new movement was needed that would be slim enough to make the watch easily slide under a shirt sleeve. The earliest ones were of 26 douziems(4) (4.9 mm). They were too thick for wristwatches. However, in the beginning of the 20th century, as Patek Philippe explained in their publication Minute Repeaters, there was a big breakthrough in component miniaturization achieved by Victorin Piguet, a traditional supplier of complicated raw movements to Patek Philippe, which allowed them to produce movements that were well fitted for wristwatches(5). Victorin Piguet started working on the idea of the miniaturization already in the 19th century. Around 1890 they developed a very characteristic 10 ligne movement with the center bridge going all the way to the edge of the main plate and following the curvature of the setting bridge(6). They were used in women’s pendant watches, such as, for example, No. 97’012 (1892)(7). The company continued using them for about a quarter of a century(8) as demonstrated by the first Patek Philippe wrist repeater, No. 174’603 from 1916(9). As with all breakthroughs, the path to perfection took time. During the quarter of a century Victorin Piguet made considerable advances to the design. The diameter was enlarged to 11 lignes (24.80 mm) and the thickness lowered to 20 douziemes (3.76 mm)(10). The architecture of the movement was also changed. The subject of the movement architecture, virtually never discussed, was very important. Horological architects had two goals; practicality and aesthetics. The design team of Patek Philippe and Victorin Piguet(11), after a quarter of a century, had made a magnificent creation. The winding/mainspring bridge was separated into two bridges. All bridges followed the shape of the adjoining ones to please the eye. They were made of a special alloy, Maillechort(12) for durability, and all of them were decorated with the Geneva stripe pattern (côtes de Genève)(13).
Not many of these movements were produced and all were put into very special watches, including the most complicated wristwatch of the time, minute repeater with perpetual calendar, Patek Philippe, No. 198'340 (finished in 1930 and sold in 1939). One of those movements was kept by the company for over half of a century and used in 1986 making it another record breaking wristwatch; a minute repeater, perpetual calendar and a chronograph (No. 866'787)(14).
It’s cushion-shaped case with generous bezel proportion grants this watch a presence on the wrist that well exceeds that of other timepieces of similar size. The design of the case was entrusted to the most famous Geneva casemaker, Edouard Wenger who surpassed everyone’s wildest dreams, it was so much ahead of its time. It was constructed differently than any other case before and after. The bezel and the band were stepped for the superb fit, almost like a jigsaw puzzle, the slide was inserted in a specially milled groove for the same reason. Everything in this watch is an ode to understated elegance. In a time and place when excess was the norm, the roaring Art Deco period in America, the owner of this wristwatch favored an incredibly advanced timepiece which would not impose its importance to the world, rather it would be a treasure understood only by a very select few.
Gifted the watch by her daughter in 1939 who purchased it at Isaac Stern & Co. in Manhattan, the original owner of this watch was visually impaired and relied heavily on the minute repeater to tell the time as it chimes so clearly the hours, quarter hours and minutes of each day with a simple slide fitted to the case side. It is notable that the mechanism which was so difficult to produce at the time was incredibly valued by its wearer, a direct descendant of President John Adams and Priscilla Mullins & John Alden of the ‘Mayflower”.
This presents an opportunity to own a true horological masterpiece belonging to a single owner and kept in her family for the last 70+ years. The present watch is the last from the series, having 40 years of improvements (1890-1930), bringing it to the top of the most marvelous series of wrist repeaters of the Art Deco period. A treasure of Patek Philippe’s early production of complicated wristwatches which are almost never seen on the open market, its scarcity is a product of artistry as perfection.
The information comes from the forthcoming Patek Philippe Repeaters by Philip Poniz.
1. This includes two 5-minute wrist repeaters. There are also a few conversions from pendant watches, some done by Patek Philippe itself, such as a pendant watch, No. 138227, sold in 1909to Mrs. Packard and converted for her in 1931 into a wristwatch, or No. 65468 sold in 1890 and converted by Patek Philippe into a wristwatch for the grandson of the original owner. There are also few conversions known by independent watchmakers.
2. Nos. 198094, 198095, 198212, 198136, 198213, in addition to this watch, No. 198378.
3. And the watch had an old style movement from 1890’s.
4. A douzième (0.188 mm) is 1/12 of a ligne (2.255 mm). It was the basic measuring system used in traditional European continental watchmaking. For a 26 douzième movement the notation was 26/12.
5. Patek Philippe, Minute Repeaters, Geneva 2017, p. 18
6. A very similar layout was used by another ebauche maker, Charles Piguet.
7. Unlike others converted into wrist watches, this one has a case changed from an original plain gold one into a bi-color platinum and gold American-made case entirely set with diamonds and rubies (Patek Philippe Museum, Inv. P-128).
8. With very slight modifications, mostly to the architecture of the movement. It was produced in two versions, savonette and verre (hunting or open face).
9. Now in Patek Philippe Museum, Inv P594.
10. The company made also large pocket watches with the same layout, including Grande Complication, such as, for instance, No. 174992.
11. In majority of the cases, Patek Philippe took an active role in designing raw movements (ébauches) even if they were produced by other companies.
12. An alloy of copper, nickel and zinc with good machinability, low oxidation, and high durability developed in 1819 and used for some of the best watch movements.
13. This was not just to please the eye. It was observed that after years of wear, dust that enters the movement adheres to the roughest spots. Therefore, the plates were grooved in a miniscule pattern to catch the dust that would otherwise enter the working parts. The pattern was designed also to please the eye.
14. Enlarged to 13 lignes, to accommodate the chronograph, now in the Patek Philippe Museum, Inv. P-620.