Swiss watchmaker

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on July 17, 2017.

The Grandmaster Chime Reference 5175: A double-faced reversible wristwatch. Photos by Bloomberg

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Everyone passionate about watches and clocks is on a first-name basis with Patek Philippe & Co, the Geneva house founded in 1839. These fanatics will require little persuasion to see “The Art of Watches Grand Exhibition New York 2017”, a clumsy title that is in direct opposition to the elegance of the timepieces on display.

The show — open through June 23 at the Bellini-and-Prosciutto pleasure dome known as Cipriani 42nd Street — is rife with horological delights. It is free for the public to enter. It is expensive for emirs, oligarchs, and tycoons to buy the current Patek models on display, such as the New York 2017 Special Edition Ref 5531, which combines a minute repeater and a world-time mechanism behind a dial that celebrates the Manhattan skyline at its cloisonne-enamel centre of its dial. But someone’s got to do it.

The real treat here, however, is the older stuff, gathered largely from the house’s museum in Geneva, designed in 1919. Other timepieces come from such institutions as the John F Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, and a few were made available from private collections. The meticulous toil of Patek’s artisans has ensured that even visitors who don’t especially care about watchmaking in itself will nonetheless thrill to witness its results.

Look, for instance, to the US Historical Room, featuring a svelte chronograph (Ref 130J), measuring only 35mm in diameter, owned by Joe DiMaggio. The Kennedy Clock owned by the 35th president is also here. There’s even some from people who never hooked up with Marilyn Monroe.

Other American Patek owners represented include red-white-and-blue bloods such as jazz titan Duke Ellington, who owned a split-seconds chronograph; early Coca-Cola executive Asa Griggs Chandler, whose rectangular gold watch with Art Deco engraving is a mere 26mm wide; and General George S Patton, whose parents gave him a pocket watch when he was merely “Lieutenant George S Patton”, as the engraving on its gold case demonstrates.

Many of the stars of the show are pocket watches. While the US room houses an extraordinary collection of complicated pocket watches commissioned by banker Henry Graves Jr, elsewhere you will find such gorgeous, double-faced, super complicated models as the Calibre 89, first introduced in 1989 and making its first venture outside the Patek Philippe Museum.

But the headliner here is the Grandmaster Chime, a stunning chunk of applied artistry with 1,356 parts, some of which are devoted to its five chiming functions, inside its hand-engraved case. Patek has paired this double-faced wristwatch, which made its debut in 2014, with a virtual reality installation that lets visitors immerse themselves in its working.

A separate listening booth allows you to experience the acoustic perfection of its chime. According to the exhibition catalogue — which is, at US$20 (RM85.60), a steal — the Grandmaster Chime includes a “date repeater controlled by the perpetual calendar that indicates the date acoustically, as well as an alarm that when activated also strikes the time of day”. It might be necessary to put VR goggles on your face to get your head around that idea, at which point the bravura display of craft will ring your bell.

There’s even a moment of unintended contemporary relevance. Visitors should spare a moment to chuckle at the wall text describing Kennedy’s desk clock, given to him by the mayor of West Berlin. Its three dials display the time at the White House, at the Kremlin, and in Berlin “to signify the establishment of a direct communication line between Washington DC, and Moscow.” — Bloomberg