You Are There: Patek Philippe (And Virtually Everyone Else) Comes To New York, A Collector’s View
New York, New York! Teeming metropolis, center of commerce and culture, and for two dizzying weeks in July 2017 the epicenter of the watch-related world as Patek Philippe’s Grand Exhibition shone a spotlight on the past, present, and future of haute horlogerie.
When the exhibition was first announced earlier in 2017, several of my watch-crazed buddies and I resolved to make the trek East. When we got there we found that we certainly weren’t alone as an international array of collectors and watch industry personalities was on the scene.
On the street, it seemed as if it was all Patek all the time as hundreds of taxis sported rooftop advertising signs for the exhibition and the exhibit site itself, Cipriani 42nd Street, was both in the center of things geographically – directly across the street from Grand Central Terminal – and adorned with a massive sign heralding the event.
The Grand Exhibition itself
Where to begin? Perhaps by saying that in my opinion the curation of the collection presented, the clarity of presentation, the physical environment mirroring the Patek Philippe Museum and Geneva Salon, and the access to expert craftspeople and watchmakers could not possibly have been better.
Our tour group had the great good fortune to be accompanied through the display of museum pieces by the museum’s director and curator, Peter Friess, who imparted knowledge on pieces such as the first-ever perpetual calendar watch (seen below) with both clarity and humor.
One really meaningful moment for me was the opportunity to compare my Reference 1526 perpetual calendar with the contemporaneous, and unique, Reference 1527 worn by Charles and Henri Stern. I wasn’t so sure about the catalogue description of the 1527, though: while the catalogue refers to a second hand (and you can make out the gold one on my watch that is co-axial with the date and moon phase) I saw neither a second hand nor a chapter ring on the Sterns’ watch.
The display of Patek Philippe pieces owned by famous Americans was another highlight. I loved seeing and reading about General George Patton’s watch, apparently bought for a substantial discount after negotiation with the retailer.
One of the real appeals of the display of historical watches for me was that the selection was not too large and it was possible in a couple of visits to appreciate them all. I’ve been to the Patek Philippe Museum several times, and the depth and breadth of the collection is almost overwhelming.
The New York display brought to mind the thought that it would be interesting to see special focused exhibits from time to time at the museum in Geneva that explore a single topic in depth and draw from the behind-the-scenes treasures owned by the museum as well as items regularly on display.
The “fine handcrafts” demonstration area featured enamellers, engravers, guillocheurs, and the world’s only marquetry maker specializing in watch dials and cases.
The fineness of the skills required to make something as small as a watch dial from hundreds of minute pieces of wood was mind-blowing, and the finished products, many of which were unique pieces for sale as part of the Grand Exhibition, were just gorgeous.
Watchmaking demonstrations took place in an upstairs space that included explanations of watch complications using large-scale plastic models and a presentation of Patek Philippe’s most complicated watches along with a “movement room” filled with small panes containing each of the brand’s calibers.
One really impressive thing for me was the way that information was presented was neither oversimplified nor condescending; for instance, the explanation of how a perpetual calendar mechanism works using a large-scale model, shown below, was compelling enough to draw, and hold, a crowd.
I wasn’t so sure that I would like the virtual reality tour through the Grandmaster Chime movement, but once I had the headset strapped on I couldn’t believe the sensation of soaring through the chiming complication and watching the racks and levers operate.
In true Patek Philippe style, watchmakers hosted even the virtual reality viewings, and I’m pleased to report that the white-coated fellow in the photo below is a Quill & Pad fan!
In my view Patek Philippe also did a good job of integrating its current offerings into the exhibition without being overtly “salesy”: the display of complicated timepieces upstairs was consistent with the presence of the watchmaking demonstrations, and the re-created Salon rooms downstairs containing the remainder of the current line along with the unique offerings developed specifically for the New York event fit right in.
Speaking of the special New York pieces, I’m sure that demand will far outstrip supply for all of them, from the very simple steel pilot’s watch to the super-complicated world time minute repeater in an edition of just ten pieces. I have to confess that none of them called my name, but I do have my eye on a couple of other references!
They’ve all come to look for America
One of the emphases of the New York Grand Exhibition was the long-standing relationship between the Stern family and the United States, and we were treated among other things to a comparison of the maps of cross-country treks made by succeeding generations of the Sterns to visit with their retailers.
If I had one small disappointment about the Grand Exhibition, however, it was that the portrayals of America in the special New York pieces seemed to me to suggest a country made up of a vibrant, modern city on the Hudson River combined with a remaining territory stuck in the distant past.
This was more Americana than American in my view.
For instance, my birthplace of Pittsburgh was represented by a pocket watch engraved with a panorama of paddlewheel steamships and belching smokestacks, rather than showing it as the high-tech center it has become today with its soaring architecture and riverfront fountain that recalls Geneva’s Jet d’Eau.
And while the pieces showing Native Americans and rodeo cowboys were beautifully and (in my view) respectfully done, it was all a bit too much Swiss-goes-Wild-West for me.
Surrounding events and activities
The front-running satellite event to the Grand Exhibition was a concurrent (and officially unrelated) online auction and consignment sale at Christie’s at Rockefeller Center. John Reardon and Eric Wind of Christie’s were very generous to our group with their time, taking us through the broad assortment of Patek Philippe watches for sale as well as a number of remarkable display-only items.
While Christie’s watch department has been focusing for a while now on private placements that match seller and buyer outside of the auction setting, to my knowledge this was the first large-scale event at which the company has applied a model in which Christie’s and a given seller agree on a net proceeds amount and Christie’s then places the watch on sale on a first-come, first-served negotiable price basis.
Reardon seemed quite excited about the experiment, and judging from the early transactions closed as of the day we visited Christie’s, achieved some notable results.
Coinciding with the opening of the exhibition, both Patek Philippe and its retailers hosted a number of activities and parties. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend the black-tie gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur exhibit, but a good friend of ours was and spent the evening torturing us with photos.
We didn’t go hungry, though, as Patek Philippe’s Geneva Salon and San Francisco authorized dealer Shreve and Co. hosted small collector dinners during the weekend. Shreve also arranged very enjoyable side events including a watchmaking class with the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie (FHH) and a docent-guided visit to some of the current exhibits at the Met.
It’s all about the people
As always, there are watches involved but it’s all about the people!
Over the four days I was in New York City with my pals we ran into an amazing assortment of people, from Thierry Stern himself to principals of the major auction houses, noted watch journalists including Quill & Pad’s own Elizabeth Doerr, and of course enthusiast collectors of all stripes.
One particularly enjoyable interlude was my first-ever visit (alongside Elizabeth’s first visit) to a gathering of RedBar New York, where an “average-sized” crowd of 50 or 60 folks spent the evening passing around watches, catching up, and making new friends.
And, it was great to hang out throughout the weekend with other clients of Patek Philippe’s Geneva Salon – and to strap on their watches, too!
Shop ‘til you drop
If you’re going to New York City, you need to shop, of course.
We took our responsibilities seriously, visiting folks we know at several brand boutiques and dropping by a few spots in the Jewelry District where the windows and cases were filled with pre-owned items ranging from super-complicated Patek Philippes to a Harry Winston Opus 7.
Given the theme of the weekend, we also visited a noted Patek-only vintage dealer, where among other things we saw a very rare salmon-dialed Reference 3940 sealed in its plastic bag.
There were a couple of points about the packaging that didn’t seem entirely correct, however, and after careful inspection of the plastic with a loupe (which I’ll confess was a first for me) we concluded that it may have been re-packaged, which is a shame as the underlying watch looked to be in perfect condition. Moral of the story: buy the seller as much as the watch!
Why the Patek Philippe Grand Exhibition mattered
As far as I’m concerned, the Grand Exhibition was a landmark event for watches in America for several reasons:
- For those who already loved watches, it provided an opportunity to learn more and to reinvigorate one’s enthusiasm in the presence of other like-minded souls
- It made the history and heritage of timekeeping very real by bringing important historical pieces to a place where they could be seen close-up and in person
- For people who are new to the horological arts, including younger people not yet engaged with the watch world, it provided an accessible and extremely impressive introduction that engaged and excited
- It created awareness (at least in New York) on a massive scale, with lines stretching down the block at times
- Both in the historical watches shown and in the special New York editions, as well as in the participation by watchmakers and artists, there was a significant emphasis on the role of women as watch owners, patrons of watchmaking, and integral participants in the creation of important pieces
For Patek Philippe and other leading brands, the spotlight placed on horology by the exhibition will almost certainly have a beneficial effect on interest in high-end watches in the United States for years to come. And for Patek Philippe and the Stern family, the even greater benefit will be that in the aftermath of the Grand Exhibition, for many of those who attended there is now a name they see as synonymous with fine watchmaking: Patek Philippe.
For more information, please visit www.patek.com/en/communication/news/the-art-of-watches-grand-exhibition-new-york-2017.
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