The tales behind the world’s most famous watches

Nicholas Foulkes has been obsessed with clocks since boyhood. His new book traces mankind’s attempts to seize control of time, and the tales behind the world’s most famous watches

The Patek Philippe Supercomplication, at almost £18m the most expensive watch ever sold at auction
The Patek Philippe Supercomplication, at almost £18m the most expensive watch ever sold at auction

An understanding of time is arguably what makes us human; it is unsurprising that we value it and the machines that calibrate it for us. Indeed, the very story of human civilisation can be told through our ever-developing concept of time and the instruments with which we have interpreted it. 

No one knows who invented the mechanical clock, but its arrival in 13th-century Europe brought with it the Renaissance and, a little later, the period of European world domination known as the Age of Discovery. For Karl Marx, its importance was in no doubt: “The clock is the first automatic machine applied to practical purposes,” he wrote to Engels in 1863, “and the whole theory of production of regular motion was developed on it.” Even though abstract, time had become the ultimate economic object. For Marx, the factory clock had become a symbol of depersonalisation and the commoditisation of human effort. 

The pursuit of time – and efforts to capture it with machines – has involved strong personalities and great characters who, through their stubborn perseverance, innate genius or sheer eccentricity, have written their names into the history of timekeeping: from prehistoric humans with their baboon bones to astronauts.

Those who surrender to their appeal enter an endlessly engrossing world: a mechanical microcosm of components capable of the humble task of telling the time or the lofty one of predicting the movements of the stars. The fascination is the same for all – whether Pharaoh, 18th-century French queen, 20th-century tycoon or, in a much more modest way, me, when I was growing up in the 1970s. 

At that time, battery-powered watches were all the rage and old mechanical examples could be had for pennies in junk shops and jumble sales. I wore them until they broke or until I found another I liked. They were everyday objects, yet I felt they possessed a beauty that, when on my wrist, ever so slightly improved my experience of life. They also amazed me in the way that they compressed their untiring functionality into a space about the size of a coin. Their dials boasted about the number of jewels they contained, their “automatic” self-sufficiency, and their pride in being “Swiss Made”, while their casebacks proclaimed their impregnability with a list of attributes: waterproof, shockproof, dustproof, anti-magnetic… 

I succumbed to their magic and have been under their spell ever since.

Just how many watches I accumulated became clear a couple of years ago, when my younger son retrieved a carrier bag full of old timepieces from the shed in the few square feet of open space behind our house that we ironically refer to as the garden. He was able to enjoy them just as much as I once had, and with this rediscovered haul we recreated our own budget version of the Patek Philippe advertisement reminding you that you never really own a watch, but merely look after it for the next generation (or, in this case, put it in the shed and forget about it for 20 years until the next generation comes across it by accident). 

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, from £3,750
Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, from £3,750 | Image: Alex Teuscher

Sadly, my early excursions into watch-buying were spectacularly uninformed, so there were no Patek Philippes stashed in the shed. The reason that this advertisement has been so successful and has become so familiar, even to those who will never own – sorry, look after – a Patek, is that, while the time of day is freely available wherever we look, we continue to associate timepieces with an intrinsic value. (Why else do we clothe them in gold and jewels like a medieval reliquary?) 

If nothing else, they are travellers from another time. I can never hear the chimes of the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster without thinking of the Victorians who built what we slightly erroneously know as Big Ben and placed it literally and figuratively at the heart of the world’s largest empire. The empire is long gone, but the clock remains a visual shorthand for an entire nation and, along with the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, Taj Mahal, Colosseum and Great Wall of China, is one of the most famous structures ever built by the hand of man. There is some unseen alchemy that transforms these mechanical objects into vessels of emotion. Sometimes those emotions intensify to such a pitch that a timepiece can inflame the passions of people willing to part with millions (almost £18m in one memorable case) for the privilege of being its custodian and the chance to write themselves into the object’s history. 

Extracted from Time Tamed: The Remarkable Story of Humanity’s Quest to Measure Time by Nicholas Foulkes (Simon & Schuster, £25).

Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication

Known simply as “the Graves”, after its first owner Henry Graves Jr, the son of a successful Wall Street financier, the Patek Philippe Supercomplication weighs more than half a kilogram and comprises 900 components, the interaction of which results in two dozen horological complications. 

Its perpetual calendar accommodates years of varying length and shows the day of the month, the days of the week, the months of the year, phases and age of the moon and a moving celestial map depicting the changing night sky over New York. However, it is the audible functions that really distinguish this extraordinary timepiece: a minute repeater with Westminster chimes, grande and petite sonnerie, plus an alarm function. To hear its crystalline chiming of the hours, quarters and minutes is like listening, in miniature, to the bells of a country church pealing out over a silent winter landscape. 

Its construction – it took eight years from 1925 to 1933 – and subsequent fame would do much to establish Patek Philippe as the world’s foremost watchmaker, but it was also destined to be the last in a breed of tycoon-status watches that became extinct on Tuesday 29 October 1929, when the American stock market collapsed. Once an item of technological wonder, it became instead an heirloom.

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By the time the Graves came up for sale in Geneva five years ago, however, it was rumoured that Sotheby’s was seeking a minimum of $15.6m, which, if achieved, would put a Patek Philippe pocket watch on the same level as paintings by the masters of modern art.

And so, at around 6.30pm on a winter evening in 2014, at the Beau Rivage hotel in Geneva, a 12-minute financial duel began. As the price moved past SFr20m, two tenacious collectors continued to fight it out in an atmosphere akin to that of the deciding game of a Wimbledon final on Centre Court. When at last the gavel came down and the room exploded with applause, the winning bidder had paid SFr23,237,000. At the time of writing, it remains the most expensive watch ever sold.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso

There can be few tales from the Raj that involve a Swiss denture maker, but in 1930 a businessman by the name of César de Trey was in India watching a polo match, when he overheard players complaining that the glasses covering the dials of their wristwatches were constantly becoming damaged while playing. 

Trey had made his name and fortune in the manufacture of gold and porcelain dentures. He was also a horologist manqué, and by the late 1920s he was able to open a small watch business in Lausanne. Musing on those polo players’ disgruntlement, Trey realised what was needed: a watch that could protect itself – a watch that, in the words of patent application No 712868, filed at the French Ministry of Trade and Industry on March 4 1931, “can be slid in its support and completely turned over”. 

The subsequent watch was the result of a collaboration between Parisian instrument-maker Edmond Jaeger and Swiss movement-maker LeCoultre. Jaeger engaged designer René-Alfred Chauvot to render the idea practical, and he duly designed a rectilinear watch in perfect harmony with the streamlined, hard-edged art deco aesthetic. He created a system as pretty as it was practical; in addition to protecting the glass of the watch, when turned over it presented a surface fit for engraving and enamelling.

In general, the Reverso remained a jazz age phenomenon and by the end of the war it was almost forgotten. It hibernated in the archives for half a century until it was discovered and put back into production, rescuing Jaeger-LeCoultre from what had appeared to be extinction during the era of battery-powered and quartz-regulated watches. It can be argued that the Reverso was the first sports watch – its functionality created to overcome the demands made of it in the highly competitive environment of the polo field.

Rolex GMT-Master, from £7,150
Rolex GMT-Master, from £7,150 | Image: Rolex

Rolex GMT-Master

On July 15 1954 the skies above Seattle saw the first test flight of the prototype for what would become the Boeing 707, an aircraft that would change the world. Four years later, when it was put into service by Pan American World Airways, the jet age had begun. 

In 1884, the International Meridian Conference in Washington had tidied up the way the world told the time. Now mankind faced a different problem. With the arrival of the jet aircraft, the world’s time zones were crossed so rapidly and frequently that it was easy to forget which one you were in. Those piloting these new jet airliners wanted a watch that could inform them of time in two zones simultaneously, at a glance. It was to meet this new and hitherto unimagined need that in 1955 Rolex presented a new type of wristwatch that looked just as eye-catching as the new jet airliners. In addition to the hands that told the hours and minutes, there was a hand that made one revolution every 24 hours. With a Rolex GMT-Master on the wrist, navigation had never been so chic: it was the official timepiece of Pan Am pilots and the unofficial watch of a new social elite known as “the jet set”.

In a society that was still largely defined by executive hierarchy and gender stereotypes, airline pilots enjoyed a position that was at once prestigious, well remunerated and glamorous. Firmly grounded deskbound executives with their three-martini lunches and Cadillacs may have enjoyed the compensations of the Eisenhower boom and the thriving military industrial complex, but they could be forgiven for wanting to appropriate a little bit of “airline pilot cool” with a GMT-Master. 

Today, in the age of the hell of crowded airports and cramped budget flights, all that remains true to the memory of those intoxicating days when air travel was the acme of glamour is the Rolex GMT-Master.

Cartier Santos

At about a quarter to three in the afternoon of October 19 1901, all eyes in central Paris were turned skywards, hoping to catch a glimpse of a cigar-shaped object. Airships had become a familiar sight in the skies above belle époque Paris, and suspended perilously below the balloon that autumn afternoon was a short, slightly built, elegantly dressed man known affectionately as Petit Santos. Parisians watched as the yellow airship made dignified, but surprisingly rapid, progress from the Aéro-Club de France in St Cloud to the Eiffel Tower, which it circled before commencing the return leg of its journey in pursuit of the Deutsch prize, which would award Fr100,000 to the first man to complete this aerial circuit in under 30 minutes. 

Cartier Santos, from £3,100
Cartier Santos, from £3,100

Albert Santos-Dumont arrived over the Aéro-Club 29 minutes and 15 seconds after he had left. He made a sweep of the airfield, and it was another minute and 25 seconds before workmen had caught and tethered the guide rope.

The aeronaut himself did not know the time. “Have I won the prize?” he shouted as he neared the ground. “Yes!” replied the jubilant crowd.

The Count de Dion, however – one of the judges – looked up from his pocket watch and said, “My friend, you have lost the prize by 40 seconds.” According to the recently amended rules, the airship should have returned and landed within the 30 minutes.

Eventually, after several days of heated debate, he was awarded the prize, but not before the news of his triumph had been reported around the world, with the caveat that there was doubt as to whether he would be awarded the prize money. “I do not care for the Fr100,000,” he remarked flamboyantly. “I intended to give it to the poor.”

Flying was an aesthetic and sensory diversion from the futility of human life, and when done the Santos-Dumont way the inflight service was as good as dinner at Maxim’s. In fact, it was while celebrating his victory over dinner at Maxim’s that Santos-Dumont is said to have had the conversation that would lead to the most profound change in the watch for centuries. He had very nearly failed to win the Deutsch prize because, in part, he had been unaware of the time, and spoke about how difficult it was to time his journeys while simultaneously piloting the balloon. Luckily, the man to whom he said this was Louis Cartier

The solution to Santos-Dumont’s timing dilemma was appropriately daring and futuristic: Cartier moved the watch from the fob-pocket to the end of the arm. He made his friend a small, straight-sided, curved-cornered watch about the size of a postage stamp that could be fastened to the wrist by means of a leather strap and consulted with just a flick of the wrist. There had been wrist-worn watches before the 20th century, and there are various instances of women wearing timepieces attached to bracelets – among them Queen Elizabeth I. In extremis, men had also worn time on the wrist: during the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, British soldiers had worn pocket watches in cup-like wristbands. However, with what he made for his friend Santos-Dumont, Louis Cartier created the first timepiece designed expressly for wear at the end of a man’s arm, rather than in his waistcoat pocket.

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