In Geneva, Switzerland, on November 11, 2014, the hammer fell, signaling the end of a highly anticipated Sotheby’s event that would once again return the famous and completely unique Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket watch to the auction block. In the hours after the end of the auction, a bevy of luxury lifestyle and financial world journalists eagerly reported on the record-setting value not only of the Supercomplication watch itself, but of any previously auctioned timepiece. The final price, bid via proxy for an anonymous entity was 23,237,000 Swiss Francs – an amount that converts to over $24,000,000 USD.
With 24 complications, it has previously been styled as the most famous watch in the world, but it comes with a very human story attached and illustrates how the Swiss watch industry worked in the early 20th century.
The watch is the result of a competition between two phenomenally wealthy men: Henry Graves, a New York banker, and James Ward Packard, a car manufacturer from Warren, Ohio. Both loved watches and engaged in a gentlemanly contest to determine who could commission the most complicated Patek Philippe watch. (A “complication” is any function on a watch other than telling the time of day, such as a calendar, chronograph, minute repeater, and so on.)
In 1916, Packard was ahead with a 16-complication pocket watch. In 1925, Graves countered by challenging Patek Philippe to create a watch with 24 complications—the most complicated watch ever produced until that point, which the Swiss company delivered to Graves’s Fifth Avenue home in January 1933.
However, the competition had ended sadly almost five years earlier, on Mar. 20, 1928, when Packard died. Had Packard devised a plan for besting his rival? We will never know. What we do know is that Graves grew unhappy with the attention the watch attracted and feared that his grandchildren might be kidnapped and held for ransom. He considered throwing the watch in a lake. Fortunately, his daughter Gwendolen, convinced him to hold on to the Supercomplication and it remained in the family until 1969.
The dials on the Supercomplication bear the name Patek Philippe but that doesn’t mean the watch was designed and built in the company’s Geneva workshops. In 1925, producing the watch was beyond the capabilities of any one enterprise. Historically, Geneva-based watch brands outsourced (to use a contemporary term) devising and producing complications to specialist companies in the Swiss watchmaking heartland of le Vallée de Joux, an often snow-clad region about 30 miles north of the city.
In Geneva the complications were added to the base movement, and cased. The Sotheby’s catalog records nine workshops involved in manufacturing the Supercomplication, including one for project management, one for the case, and another for the winding mechanism.
The name of the company that produced the dials, Stern Frères, adds another twist in the story of the Supercomplication. The Stern brothers, Charles and Jean, purchased Patek Philippe in 1929.