I was recently in Geneva for the 260th anniversary celebrations of Vacheron Constantin (about which more will follow in the physical pages of How To Spend It), where the respected local maison brought out a stunning pocket watch of around a kilo in weight that boasted 57 complications (if you count the tourbillon).
It was highly impressive and historically important, but if I had to walk away with one watch from that event, it would have been the 1934 Vacheron Constantin Grande Complication made for King Farouk of Egypt, which was also on display as one of Vacheron’s greatest horological hits of the past.
Farouk inherited the love horological from his father King Fuad, among whose timepieces was a pocket watch that had been presented to him by the Swiss community in Egypt. Made by Vacheron Constantin, it featured a split-seconds chronograph, perpetual calendar, moonphase, petite sonnerie and grande sonnerie.
During the middle years of the 20th century, King Farouk was a synonym for decadence and pleasure, a reputation that would in no small part contribute to his overthrow by Colonel Nasser. He seemed to know that he was doomed, once quipping that soon there would only be five kings left: the king of England and the kings of hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs. Into numismatics, philately, fast cars (Hitler gave him a Mercedes-Benz 540 K as a wedding present) and much else besides, he appears to have formed collections of anything. He had to abdicate in such a hurry that, among other things, he abandoned 1,000 suits and, according to one report, a collection of pornographic ties.
In his final years he loafed around the resorts and casinos of Europe and died entertaining a young woman to supper in a restaurant in Rome. “At his death hospital officials found on his person the dark sunglasses that he seldom abandoned, a pistol, two gold cufflinks, a gold wedding ring, a gold wristwatch and $155,” recorded the New York Times in its 1965 obituary. I do wish they had told us what gold wristwatch he was wearing.
Last year one of Farouk’s timepieces, a 1518 by Patek Philippe, came up for auction at Christie’s, and he is also associated with a particular Ref 1593, a rectangular watch with concave sides. The dial, depicting a map of Egypt, is executed in cloisonné enamel, and – as a bit of cartography de luxe – the diamonds to mark Khartoum and Cairo add a nice touch.
Farouk was an informed collector. Once, when in Geneva, he insisted on visiting the Vacheron Constantin factory and was shown around by Charles Constantin, who was astonished at the young prince’s horological knowledge. “But Monsieur Constantin, I dismantled so many watches when I was a child” – came the reply – “unfortunately for them.” However, it appears he resisted the temptation to dismantle the 820 components of the split-seconds chronograph, perpetual calendar, moonphase, minute repeater grande and petite sonnerie with power reserve indicator that the City of Geneva presented to him on an official visit in 1934, leaving it intact for Swellboy to admire half a century after his death in Rome.
He may have been a terrible monarch, but he had great taste in watches.