A Grand Complication "The race between two ambitious, complicated men in the early 1900s to create the most extravagant, complicated timepiece ever"-- Full description
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A Grand Complication
Obsession is a demanding mistress. On December 2, 1999, Philippe Stern, president of the venerable Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, found himself once again in her grasp. Keeping his steely Genevese reserve, he glanced at his watch, an impeccably crafted Patek Philippe, purportedly the perpetual calendar made in 1943, the one given to him by his father, Henri, who had preceded him as president. At sixty-one, Stern remained the very picture of understated elegance. A gentle man with thinning white hair, he had quietly slipped away from his office at the company’s headquarters in Plan-les-Ouates, a sleepy village on the outskirts of Geneva, well before the appointed hour for the auction of the legendary Supercomplication, the most exquisitely complex mechanical watch ever created. Given the time, it was probably best to take the telephone call from his family’s villa in Anières on the shores of Lake Geneva. In any event he would be more comfortable there.
The time quickly approached 8:30 p.m., nearly 2:30 p.m. in New York City. There was still some time before the auction began. It had been thirty years since the Supercomplication had last surfaced. Having already eluded the family once, the moments until bidding opened were relatively short.
Outside, the wind scythed across the lake in the spectral dark of winter. Here on Lac Léman, Stern had won a record seven regattas as a young sailor. A fierce competitor, he had also been a member of the Swiss national ski team. Along with his wife, Gerdi, herself a European mushing champion, Stern had competed in international dog sled races. The roster of pastimes enjoyed by the head of one of the oldest Swiss watchmakers, as it had been noted, all revolved around beating the clock. Stern had once described his hobbies as good business training, saying that they had taught him “to go fast and take risks sometimes.”
With the anticipation of victory, Stern put the telephone to his ear. Four thousand miles away, his aide-de-camp Alan Banbery was waiting for him.
• • •
Everyone who was anyone in the insular world of watch collecting filed into Sotheby’s ten-story glass-and-steel tower at 1334 York Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on that unseasonably warm afternoon. Just three weeks before Christmas, thermometers registered 60 degrees. At the Botanical Gardens, fragrant white blooms had broken out five months prematurely, and a ring of yellow forsythia blossoms graced the city with a touch of spring. As the mercury soared, so did the stock market. The Dow pushed past 11,000, marking the end of the millennium with record gains. The entire city appeared to levitate on its great good fortune. Watching the buoyant crowd descend upon Sotheby’s, a betting man could wager with ease that, before the day was over, more than one record would be broken.
As in previous years, the major auction houses dangled before an excitable audience the spectacle of record-smashing greatness for paintings, jewels, and objets d’art, all with impeccable provenance or rarity. Each season brought an increasing fervor. A daisy chain of superlatives wrapped around each sale. The items featured were not just rare but extremely rare. They were not merely important but the most important. More than offering desirables of a certain vintage, the auction houses were peddling history bound in shiny catalogues and generated in regularly scheduled cycles. And the press and public responded like hounds to blood.
For weeks, expectations followed the Dow over Sotheby’s “Masterpieces of the Time Museum.” Eighty-one watches and clocks were set to go on the block. Culled from the 3,500-piece collection of Seth G. Atwood, a wealthy entrepreneur and something of an eccentric, these were some of the most extraordinary and important timepieces created since man began calculating the minutes and hours and fashioning devices by which to measure them. A quick rifle through the handsomely appointed catalogue yielded numerous affirmations that the auction’s billing offered more than hyperbole. “Sometimes sales catalogues are mutton dressed as lamb,” one Sotheby’s veteran dryly noted at the sale. “This was not the case.”
By any measure the sale was unprecedented. Fascinated with the art and the science of time, Atwood had become one of the world’s most significant collectors and horological scholars. He hailed from an old-line Illinois family that made its fortune in manufacturing, banking, and real estate, which afforded him the leisure to pursue his interests wherever they took him. He had spent the past three decades circling the globe, cherry-picking the most important clocks and watches in history, mounting a private collection that came to rival that of the British Museum—in importance if not scope. To house his collection, Atwood had constructed the Time Museum, located in his hometown, far from all known capitals (horological or otherwise), in the basement of his Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois, a green little pocket of nowhere straddling the Rock River, off Interstate 90.
While universally acknowledged as an endearingly kind and charming fellow, Atwood had rightfully earned a reputation as a bull in the world’s china shop of clocks. Rivals collapsed when he was in the game. And once a timepiece was in Atwood’s possession the game was over. Knowledgeable horophiles accepted that it was as likely that the sun would change course and rise in the West as that Atwood’s collection could ever be broken up and sold in lots. Yet at age eighty-two, Atwood had resolved to do just that. He was shutting down his museum (a process that would be filled with a number of unforeseen twists and turns and take several years) and, somewhat unsentimentally, deaccessioning its priceless contents.
Few could recall an auction of this caliber and range. Atwood’s assemblage represented an astonishing array of ancient astrolabes, astronomical chiming clocks, musical automata, and other devices of wonder from every period, important watchmaker, and country from the beginning of timekeeping. “It was mind-blowing,” described one British dealer who arrived with instructions to bid on a number of the lots on behalf of his deep-pocketed clients. “Just looking at it set the heart aflutter.”
Lot 22 contained the famous Ormolu-mounted red boulle Sympathique no. 128, made in 1835 by the House of Breguet for the Duc d’Orléans. Watchmaker to Louis XVI, Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, the Swiss-born Parisian Abraham-Louis Breguet remains the greatest watchmaker in history. It was Breguet who invented the tourbillon, circa 1795, an ingeniously delicate and tiny gyroscope-like device that turns about every minute to compensate for gravity’s pull on a movement, dramatically improving accuracy and revolutionizing timekeeping. The wittily inventive Sympathique was designed with a removable pocket watch that rested in a cradle atop the main clock. A series of pins locked the pocket watch into position, while overnight a mechanism inside the clock movement rewound, readjusted, and reset its companion with jumping hours, a quarter repeater that chimed precisely on the quarter hour, and a power reserve indicator. The clock was one of only eleven ever produced.
Even in the seventeenth century, when the manufacture of any timepiece was far from routine, the final lot, the Tompion no. 381, was quite something. A gilt-brass, mounted red tortoiseshell table clock featuring both grande sonnerie and quarter repeating chimes, it was one of only three such pieces manufactured by the brilliant seventeenth-century British clockmaker Thomas Tompion. The Englishman first earned a name in 1676 when King Charles II commissioned him to create two faultlessly accurate clocks for the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, which notably became the center of world time in 1884. By the time of Tompion’s death in 1713, the eminent clockmaker had become a national treasure and was buried with royalty in the nave of Westminster Abbey.
In an auction with many rare and ingenious instruments, the sale’s crown jewel belonged to Lot 7. Known as the Graves Supercomplication, the double-dial pocket watch was a miniature masterpiece of mechanical engineering. First commissioned in 1925 by the enigmatic New York financier Henry Graves, Jr., from Patek Philippe & Co., the pocket watch, measuring three and a half inches wide and scarcely one inch deep, was the storied Geneva watchmaker’s magnum opus, requiring three years to contemplate its design and nearly another five to produce.
Elaborately constructed in eighteen-carat gold and jeweled pivots, the Supercomplication boasted the skill and expense expended by Patek Philippe. The watch’s enamel dials were protected by crystal with the hardness of sapphire, penetrable only by a diamond. Crafted at a time when watchmakers hand-tooled their own parts, the Supercomplication consisted of over 900 individual pieces—most no bigger than a grain of rice or thicker than a strand of hair. An orchestra of 430 screws, 110 wheels, more than 120 various movable parts, and 70 jewels produced a symphony of 24 complications. This dazzling array included a different chronological function for each hour of the day, a perpetual calendar (requiring resetting only in the year 2100), and a split-second chronograph. Smaller sub-dials indicated the exact time of sunrise and sunset calibrated for New York City, while another measured the phases of the moon. A minute repeater struck the hour, half-hour, and quarter-hour, playing the same tintinnabulary melody as heard ringing out from Big Ben, the great bell clock rising over London’s Palace of Westminster. These were but a fraction of the watch’s virtues. A midnight-blue celestial chart also mapped the nighttime sky over Manhattan, complete with the exact magnitudes of the stars and the Milky Way gliding across the sky in tandem with the actual heavens.
For this horological Willy Wonka factory in miniature, Graves paid 60,000 Swiss francs, the equivalent of $15,000 at the time, a staggering amount. Measured in 1999 dollars, the price equaled some $265,000, but in effect such an undertaking would cost closer to $2 million.
The Supercomplication was more than just a golden toy for the Gilded Age. In the history of timekeeping, less than a handful of grandes complications—including Breguet’s fabled Marie-Antoinette, the crystal pocket watch made for the ill-fated French queen—have reached the highest levels of haute horlogerie, earning the title of a “supercomplication.” Possessing twenty-four complications, the Graves eclipsed them all. Even with the march of years and the advent of modern technology, the watch is a technological achievement of the highest order. Entirely calculated and crafted by hand, the Supercomplication was a powerful computer of time before there were computers.
Produced on a dare, Patek Philippe’s tour de force inspired marvel and desire. It was as if Merlin captured Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven, encased their essence in gold, and then slipped the mechanism inside a man’s waistcoat, where their collective genius might tick through eternity.
In the annals of timekeeping the Supercomplication loomed large in any important collector’s understanding of the field. Its technical triumph, however, was only part of its luster. The pocket watch had been the victor in a strange contest that took place long ago between Graves, a fiercely private society tycoon, and his rival, James Ward Packard, the automobile magnate, during the early years of the twentieth century, when enterprising Americans amassed huge fortunes in banking, auto making, coal, oil, steel, and the railways. Their newly minted prosperity soon eclipsed the lucre accumulated over a millennium by European royalty. Keen to demonstrate the cultured face of capitalism’s excess, America’s moneyed moguls scooped up European patrimonies, paying enormous sums for Old Master paintings and sculptures, antique tapestries, ancient manuscripts, and ingenious mechanical pocket watches.
Throughout history, these beautiful instruments represented the most innovative, extravagant gadgets that money could buy, available to an elite few. King Farouk I of Egypt, intrigued by their beauty and exotic novelty, possessed a collection of erotic automata pieces. On one of his most famous, the king calculated the time by counting the number of sexual thrusts executed by the figures inside the watch’s movement, visible with the press of a button on the lid. In the early seventeenth century, Swiss, French, and English watchmakers flocked to Constantinople, vying for the patronage of the sultans who acquired thousands of highly ornate timepieces as astrological amusements.
Once the prerogative of the aristocracy, watches had become the ultimate status symbol of wealth, and America’s financial princes found themselves not merely bewitched by their beauty but transfixed by their illustrious pedigrees. The country’s most powerful banker, the cigar-chomping John Pierpont Morgan, spent enormous sums to purchase 240 European timepieces dating to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In love with his own legacy, Morgan eventually bequeathed his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Henry Graves, Jr., a private man of fine tastes and even grander possessions, and James Ward Packard, the brilliant engineer, both possessed the passion and limitless purse to acquire the finest instruments ever produced. Timepieces from antiquity scarcely roused their attention, but over the course of three decades the pair engaged in a surreptitious collecting duel to own the most complicated watch of their era. Their patronage spurred Swiss watchmakers, chief among them Patek Philippe, to craft ever more innovative and ingenious timepieces, pushing the boundaries of mathematics, astronomy, craftsmanship, technology, and physics. Their contest produced a series of transcendently unique grandes complications. Almost a century later, very few of their timepieces had ever come to market. The rather gauzy tale of how “the Graves” ended up in the hands of Seth Atwood added another layer to the watch’s already considerable mystique.
Among horophiles, the Supercomplication was considered the Mona Lisa of timepieces, and most believed they were likely to see Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece appear on the market before the Graves ever went under the hammer. Should the legendary piece leave the Graves family and come onto the open market, it was widely accepted that it would land in Patek Philippe’s private collection. Yet in a stunning reversal, Seth Atwood acquired the Supercomplication on March 26, 1969. Thirty years later, even the Stern family had to admit that the pocket watch’s path from Henry Graves, Jr.’s Fifth Avenue vault to Sotheby’s wood-paneled seventh-floor salesroom was as unexpected and random as the watch was obsessively crafted and meticulously built.
• • •
Surveying the room, Daryn Schnipper, Sotheby’s director of worldwide watches and clocks, found it difficult to contain her composure. Securing the Time Museum sale and with it the Graves had been a coup for the auction house. For nearly twenty years, the petite, bright-eyed brunette had traveled between Europe and New York and, more recently, Asia, building up Sotheby’s slice of the growing global watch market. When she first joined the auction house in 1980, t...
"Stacy Perman has pulled off a remarkable feat in this book. In telling the story of the most complex watch ever made, she writes about a device that not only tells time with exquisite percision but also, in her capable hands, opens up a revealing window onto an entire age." (Toby Lester, author of The Fourth Part of the World and Da Vinci's Ghost)
"A unique competition between two scions of the Gilded Age is the driver for this fresh look at the mores of the rich and powerful. The aim of the competition was to acquire the world's most complicated timepieces. She effectively combines these different strands, providing a compelling social history...A masterful approach to composition combines with a fascinating plot and makes its subject entertaining as well as compelling." ( Kirkus, starred review)
"Lively" ( Publishers Weekly)
“A story artfully told and illustrated with rich historical detail. (New York Times Book Review)
“That Perman has crafted a compelling tale that tells several stories at once and will appeal equally to readers inside and outside of the insular watch-collecting community is a testament to her considerable skills…. Perman's pacing makes the tale feel downright suspenseful.” ( Los Angeles Times)
"Imagine an Edith Wharton novel crossed with Dava Sobel's Longitude." (Nick Foulkes, author of High Society)
“Stacy Perman provides a captivating view of high-flying, other-era wealth and privilege and the enduring appeal of artifacts that tumble down through history with the fairy dust of titans still attached. This book makes a Rolex seem a piker’s toy.” (Les Standiford, author of Desperate Sons)
“Stacy Perman’s A Grand Complication is a masterfully layered tale of the lives of two incredibly wealthy men and their obsession to conceive and own the most fabulously constructed, incredibly complex, exquisitely made watches on the face of the earth. And like the ‘complications’ she writes about, it all works.” (David Tripp, author of Illegal Tender)
“Engrossing… Perman brings it alive.” ( Dallas Morning News)
“A lively account…provides a window into [watches'] role as status symbols during an age of conspicuous consumption.” ( Columbus Dispatch)
"Perman packs in so much detail about the lavish lifestyles of the pre-Great Depression rich that her book can sometimes read like The Great Gatsby on steroids. But there’s no obscuring the real stars here, the triumphs of Gilded-Age nanotechnology brought to life by the obsessions and money of Packard and Graves." ( MacLean's)
"The duel between two wealthy Americans to build and own the greatest timepiece ever constructed is meticulously narrated by journalist Perman. Spanning the Gilded Age to the Great Depression, the story ... will attract both watch enthusiasts and readers interested in the Gilded Age, as it examines the fascinating technological complexity of timepieces... Sparkling historical details enliven the account considerably… Pays homage to the crowning achievements of a lost world of wealth, privilege, and culture." ( Booklist)
“Jazz Age drama… Perman’s attention to detail evokes Jack Finney as she carefully reconstructs daily life in fin de siècle America and the Roaring Twenties. Her obvious passion keeps the pages turning." ( Civil Engineering)
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