Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe celebrated its long-standing relationship with the iconic US city in an exhibition that also paid homage to its incredibly rich history and heritage in haute horlogerie
Ten magical days in July, 27,449 visitors and over 450 watches shown in a 1,220 sq m space — Patek Philippe’s The Art of Watches Grand Exhibition New York 2017 was nothing if not a resounding success, and got New Yorkers talking about the event for weeks afterwards. Within the grand interiors of the iconic Cipriani on 42nd Street, Patek Philippe — one of the last family-owned Genevois watch companies — organised a most breathtaking public exhibition that showcased the manufacture’s tradition of high-precision watchmaking and gave an insight into the company’s 178-year history and its heritage in the domain of haute horlogerie.

Founded in 1839 in Geneva, Patek Philippe shares a long and interesting history with the US, beginning when co-founder Antoine Norbert de Patek travelled stateside from Switzerland in 1855. He secured illustrious firm Tiffany, Young & Ellis as Patek Philippe & Co’s official agent.

In 1932, Patek Philippe was acquired by the Stern family. A little more than a decade later, in 1946, Henri Stern founded the Henri Stern Watch Agency in New York as part of his responsibility to manage the distribution of the company’s timepieces in the US market. Henri returned to Switzerland in 1958 and took over from his father to become the company’s president. His son Philippe joined the family-run firm soon after, becoming general manager in 1977.

Today, it is Philippe’s son, Thierry, who is Patek Philippe’s president. Here’s an interesting anecdote — it became tradition for members of the family to train at Patek Philippe’s New York office, which Thierry also did, so New York has both personal and professional significance for him.

“New York was a logical choice for the US Grand Exhibition, as this was one of the first landing spots for Patek and [French watchmaker Adrien] Philippe in the 1800s when they began to explore the new world,” says chatty and warm Larry Pettinelli, Patek Philippe’s president for the US. “We are tremendously proud to have been allowed this rare opportunity to educate the public, not only about Patek Philippe but also the historical significance of timekeeping through the ages.”

“It took two years of preparation and it was interesting to see the result — I am very proud of how the exhibition has turned out. Yes, it would be nice if it was longer, but good things are often like this,” Thierry adds with a smile. “I am very proud that American visitors are able to learn more about the historic and contemporary ties between our company and the American market.”

Within Cipriani’s rich and opulent space — truly, no other location in New York had quite the same gravitas for an event like this — a two-storey structure hosted 10 thematic rooms that brought to New York a taste of Patek Philippe’s particular brand of heritage, luxury and craftsmanship.

The exhibition began at the Film Theatre Room, where a film on the history of the brand was screened. Next door, in the Current Collection Room, the brand’s recent collection was displayed in a space designed to replicate the Patek Philippe Salon on the Rue du Rhone in Geneva. Within the Napoleon Room, where limited-edition timepieces created specifically for the US market were showcased, viewers had the chance to experience the exact view of Lake Geneva that they would see if they were at the salon.

The Museum Room, structured much like the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva, was divided into two sections. The Antique Collection (1600s to 1900s) presented some of the greatest historical timepieces of the last five centuries, while the second section highlighted historical Patek Philippe timepieces dating back to the brand’s inception in 1839.

In the Rare Handcrafts Gallery and the Watchmakers Room, craftsmen from Geneva showcased the painstaking skills required to bring Patek Philippe watches to life. In the former, artisans demonstrated the techniques used to decorate enamel timepieces and dome clocks, while in the latter, master watchmakers showed visitors the inner workings of mechanical timepieces.

The Rare Handcrafts Gallery was Thierry’s favourite. “I like the rare handcrafts. I grew up with a passion for enamelling and engraving — there are so many secrets associated with these crafts. It’s so beautiful because it’s about dreaming, creativity and pleasure, not business,” he smiles.

The Grand Complication and Movement Rooms gave visitors a rare glimpse of Patek Philippe’s most complicated and innovative timepieces. Visitors learnt about the technical prowess required to construct the movements, ranging from the more basic calibres to those created for some of the most complicated timepieces in the world.

The US Historic Room, specially created to showcase significant timepieces from historic collectors, was easily one of the favourites of the exhibition for its absolutely fascinating displays, teeming with personality and pedigree. It was also the most important room in the exhibition because it gave context to Patek Philippe’s relationship with the US, putting actual watches and their owners in the spotlight.

One of the most Instagrammed exhibits in this room was likely a quartz Patek Philippe desk clock that John F Kennedy kept in the Oval Office. The piece of horological art was his for a few precious months before his tragic assassination. “We actually have the prototype of the clock in our museum, and we found out that the original was in the John F Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum, which is where it’s on loan from,” says Pettinelli.

Another watch that was quite popular was a chronograph from 1948 — one of Patek Philippe’s first — that was once owned by baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, who was also famous for his marriage and lifelong devotion to screen siren Marilyn Monroe. Other highlights included 11 timepieces owned by banker Henry Graves and automobile manufacturer James Ward Packard.

At the end of the tour — which could take anywhere from an hour to three, depending on individual levels of interest — a café was a great way to complete the experience. A dedicated area for children, replete with an interactive watch-assembly game that was quite popular, was part of a holistic educational experience for the whole family.

“The purpose of a free and open event like this is to educate people,” Thierry says. “What I hope is that when people come for this, they will understand the difficulty of creating a high-complication watch. Maybe they can’t buy a Patek Philippe today, but in the future, they might.”

Here are our picks from the collection of special-edition models unveiled during the exhibition

World Time Minute Repeater Ref 5531 New York 2017 Special Edition
The new Ref 5531 is the first Patek Philippe watch that unites a minute repeater and the World Time function. Unlike other World Time minute repeaters that acoustically indicate home time even when their owners are located at the other end of the world, the Ref 5531 always shows the local time. To accomplish this feat, Patek Philippe developed the new self-winding calibre R 27 HU movement that is protected by an elegant rosegold case with pierced lugs. This masterpiece of craftsmanship pays tribute to New York and depicts the Manhattan skyline by day and by night, in limited editions of five watches each. All 10 watches have a sapphire-crystal caseback with the engraved inscription PATEK PHILIPPE NEW YORK 2017 as well as an interchangeable back in solid rose gold with the same engraving. All the watches in the new special-edition collection bear the same inscription.

Ladies’ Minute Repeater Ref 7000/250 New York 2017 Special Edition
Patek Philippe has combined sublime watchmaking prowess with gemsetting artistry for the Ladies’ Minute Repeater, which stands out with a blue enamel dial that sparkles with the fire of diamond hour markers. Its white-gold case features a flamme setting composed of 160 flawless Wesselton diamonds. This setting technique, proprietary to Patek Philippe, amplifies the radiance of the precious stones. The watch ticks to the tune of the ultra-thin self-winding calibre R 27 PS, which sounds the hours, quarter hours and minutes on two gongs when the slide in the case flank is actuated. This irresistibly feminine grand complication comes with a sapphire-crystal caseback and an interchangeable solid white-gold caseback.

Dome table clocks New York 2017 Special Edition
Dome table clocks are the perfect canvas for refined decorations in cloisonné enamel using transparent, opaque and opalescent enamel paints. In The Gold-Seekers, a one-off piece, a panning scene has gold spangles that represent gold nuggets and silver spangles. On the Brooklyn Bridge by Night table clock (pictured), the artist has captured the nocturnal seductiveness of New York with grisaille enamel and Limoges white. Meanwhile, the Baseball table clock takes finesse a step further, reproducing the timeworn effect of old baseball cards with portraits of famous veteran players.

Ladies’ World Time Ref 7130 New York 2017 Special Edition
This watch is available in two 75-timepiece editions — one in white gold and the other in rose gold. The relief-embossed skyline of New York adorns the opaline blue dial centre, and is illuminated by the fire of the bezel set with 62 flawless rare white Wesselton diamonds, complemented by 27 diamonds on the prong buckle that secures the dark blue alligator leather strap. The lavishly finished selfwinding calibre 240 HU movement can be admired through a sapphirecrystal caseback.

Men’s Calatrava Pilot wristwatch Ref 5522 New York 2017 Special Edition
Cased in steel — rare for a watch outside the casually elegant collection — the grand taille Ref 5522 Calatrava Pilot New York 2017 Special Edition comes in a limited 600-watch edition and features an exclusive dial reminiscent of vintage Patek Philippe aviator’s watches. Its inimitable blue colour recalls the livery of American fighter planes in the 1930s. The large applied Arabic numerals in white gold and the broad baton hands in blued steel have a luminescent coating that assures excellent legibility. The brown calfskin strap with contrast stitching was inspired by the harnesses paired with classic flight suits. The selfwinding calibre 324 S can be admired through the sapphire-crystal caseback.

Anandhi Gopinath is an assistant editor with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia

This article appeared in Issue 800 (Oct 9) of The Edge Singapore.