Swellboy on… the Patek Philippe Grand Exhibition

Our man’s wannabe watch geek takes over

Image: Brijesh Patel

And so to Munich for the Patek Philippe Grand Exhibition…

One of the underappreciated assets of Patek Philippe is its museum, in the centre of Geneva in an art-deco building that was at one time the company’s workshops – it really does repay a visit. There is the chance to see such eccentric Patek Philippes as the Louis Cottier-designed, linear-display mechanical watch with its integrated textured-gold bracelet. Only ever made as a prototype, it remains one of the greatest unproduced watches of the 20th century. But there are also pre-Patek timepieces of great beauty and historical value: Blois enamels, Renaissance drum clocks, one of the early chronographs that used a drop of ink on the dial to mark elapsed time, and other things that I would quite like to own myself, but will never be able to. And yet, incredibly, only 35,000 people a year visit this horological trove.

Therefore, Patek made the commendable decision to take the museum on the road. Only, being Patek, it approached the task with the thoroughness that you expect from Swiss watchmakers and it is not just the highlights of the museum that have been sent out as ambassadors, but the entire range of current production, plus the movements. Then there is a belle-époque cinema showing a film about the history of the firm; and even the historic Rue du Rhone salon is recreated, with a panoramic-filmed view of Lake Geneva and the Jet d’Eau.

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As a child I liked the Jet d’Eau, because it was the most memorable thing about the title sequence for The Champions, a TV show by Lew Grade’s ITC. In Britain of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lew Grade peddled a sort of jet-set never-never land with shows like this and The Protectors featuring Robert Vaughn and Nyree Dawn Porter. And I am lucky in having been able to complete two childhood experiences – I am in Geneva most months and a couple of years ago I met Mr Vaughn and found him utterly delightful.

It seemed that a fair old number of Munichers, Müncheners, or whatever they are called, felt the same way about the Jet d’Eau, as I noticed couples sitting, holding hands gazing in rapt wonder as the filmed fountain shot its water skywards. Indeed, it seemed that the citizens of this delightful southern German city had an overwhelming interest in Patek Philippe; just a few days after the opening, the total number of visitors exceeded the annual attendance figures at the museum proper – which, I have to say, does not reflect well on the citizens of and visitors to Geneva.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the Grand Exhibition was the news that my friend and colleague Gisbert Brunner was taking tour groups. Gisbert is a six-foot-six, bow-tie-wearing former legislator whose passion is watches – he can talk for hours about 17th-century watchmaking without referring to a single note… although, to my shame, I have to admit that my knowledge of horology in the 1600s is so embarrassingly patchy that I would be unlikely to be able to tell if he made an error. But Gisbert is not the sort of chap given to mistakes; he is a massive human hard drive crammed with watchmaking knowledge. If it ticks and tells the time, then Gisbert can tell you all about it – and I mean all about it. An editor friend of mine commissioned an article from him on the Valjoux 7750; he wanted 1,000 words, he received about 7,500, and I suggested that he print the lot as a four-part series.

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Anyway, you get the picture… in the world of the watch geek, Gisbert is a god, and Bavarians by the dozen were presenting themselves to exhibition staff and demanding to be given a “Gisbert Spezial”. Of course, given the precarious nature of my livelihood and my Sisyphean struggle to feed, clothe, house and educate my children, I spotted an opportunity for when the Grand Exhibition comes to London in 2015; after all, I am half-German, and in a bow tie with buskins, or on small stilts, I might pass, at a distance at least, for the fabled Brunner and present myself as a tour guide. I just hope that none of my guidees want to know anything about 17th-century watchmaking…

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