I know as much about the internal workings of the wristwatch as I do about those of the internal combustion engine. And that is not much. But I do love style. That is why I drive a 1963 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III motor car. And it is why I wanted a Patek Philippe wristwatch.
Now let me confess to you at once that for most of my life I have not been a wristwatch person. At the age of 15 I decided that a pocket watch would be altogether more in tune with my self-image. At school it was a chunky silver piece on a leather strap; at Cambridge it became a gold hunter on a gold chain; now it is a gold half-hunter (the sort with a glass roundel in the top cover), so that I can peer at the time without having to go through the theatrical motions of opening the case. I like the physicality of the pocket watch and its aura of respectability and tradition. So why did I need a Patek Philippe wristwatch?
I blame the friend who explained to me that the Patek Philippe was the Rolls-Royce of wristwatches. Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Cartier – all very well, but, he insisted, for those in the know who wanted the very best it had to be Patek Philippe. Thus stimulated, I went along to the Patek Philippe shop in London’s Bond Street – a small emporium which oozes that sense of exclusivity much sought after by the super-rich. There I learnt that prices for new watches start at five and a half thousand pounds and go up and up and up… I looked, yet I was not tempted. I am sure that the insides – particularly of the more complicated pieces – must be miracles of precision workmanship. But their appearance was not to my taste. It was just too, well – modern.
Clearly, what I wanted was an old watch. But now there was a problem. As with motor cars, so with wristwatches: time takes its toll. And to me a watch which will not work is worse than no watch at all. I went to several dealers in the Bond Street area, who specialize in high quality second-hand wristwatches. I liked what I saw. Usually, they offered a 12 month guarantee on each item. But what is a year in the lifetime of a watch? Sometimes I was assured that the watch had been fully overhauled ready for sale. But who had done the work? It was back to my friend for more advice.
He told me that the only way to ensure that an old watch was in pristine condition both inside and out was to have it restored by the factory in Geneva – in which town Antoine Norbit de Patek and Jean Adrien Philippe had established Patek Philippe in 1851. He also told me that sending a piece back to Switzerland would not be cheap. The answer was to cut out the middle-man (the dealer) by buying at auction, and then spend the money saved on a thorough overhaul at the factory.
Thus it was that I began to study the Watch and Wristwatch sales at Christie’s South Kensington. (There are usually about five a year.) In time I saw the square-dialled beauty of my desires, described in the catalogue as ‘Patek Philippe & Co., a gentleman’s 18ct gold wristwatch, 1940s’. The estimate was £2,500 - £3,500. At the view I noticed that the hand from the subsidiary seconds dial was missing and that the strap was not a proper Patek Philippe strap. Nevertheless, it still shone with real class. This was the wristwatch for me.
I find bidding at auction an exciting business – and never more so than when it looks as though bargains can be had. On this day very little interest was being shown in any of the lots leading up to mine. Most, indeed, were failing to reach their reserves and were going unsold. I felt lucky. And I was. I secured the watch with a bid of £2,300 – a total, with commission, of about £2,800.
Now it was back to the Patek Philippe shop in Bond Street with my prize, to arrange for its rejuvenation in Geneva. What needed to be done? Taking apart and complete overhaul of the mechanism, restoration of the dial, a new strap in burgundy coloured crocodile and a new buckle. Cost, with VAT: £2,200. And it would be away for 18 weeks. As you need patience when you are restoring an old Rolls-Royce, so you need it when you are restoring an old Patek Philippe. Still, I was assured that to replace the watch for which I was making a total outlay of £5,000, I would have to pay at least £6,500 – so I was happy.
The long months rolled by and eventually my little beauty was ready. Like new, but with the elegance and charm of the 1940s. The 1940s? That is what the Christie’s catalogue had said. But an excellent man in a watch shop in the Via dei Condotti in Rome (being a Patek Philippe owner makes you haunt such places) told me that the design of the winder meant that it must be earlier. I contacted the Geneva factory – which keeps meticulous records (for all its movements and cases are numbered) – and, mirabile dictu, I can report that my watch was made in 1928. This makes this Rolls-Royce of wristwatches a contemporary of that most glorious of all Rolls-Royce motor cars, the Phantom II. Now, who can persuade me that I really must have one of those…?
15 New Bond Street, London W1Y 9PF, England.
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CHRISTIE’S SOUTH KENSINGTON
85 Old Brompton Road, London SW7 3LD, England.
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