In the world of watches there is no provenance stronger or more desirable than that of Henry Graves Jr. , arguably the most important and prolific watch collector of the 20th century. A provenance to perhaps Patek Philippe’s greatest ever client immediately tells even the casual observer that they are beholding a very special timepiece indeed, one of the best of the best.
Unknown until its emergence from the estate of Graves’s grandson, Reginald H. Fullerton J., in 2012, the present watch, regarded by world-renowned scholars of Patek Philippe as the most important minute repeater wristwatch, is highly significant in several ways.
First, unlike the majority of Henry Graves Jr.’s purchases from Patek Philippe, which were delivered to him at Tiffany & Co. In New York, the present watch was bought by him, in person, at Patek Philippe’s headquarters in Geneva in 1928. Fur-thermore, this supremely elegant, almost understated minute repeating wristwatch, of large size for the period, was also Henry Graves Jr.’s very first Patek Philippe minute repeating wristwatch and the only one made for him in yellow gold.
Added to this is the historical importance of the watch in its own right as one of the earliest-recorded Patek Philippe minute repeater wristwatches, one of the rarefied group of less than 20 known pieces (some known only from archival photographs), the so-called “pre-referenced” minute repeaters. Among this group, only three watches have tonneau-shaped cases; two, the present watch, and a platinum version of 1929, were made for Henry Graves Jr.
The third is known only from an archival photograph Illus Brunner, page 39. Consistent with the other Patek Philippe watches made for Henry Graves Jr., extra attention was placed on every last detail of the manufacture for each of their most important patrons’ watches. The quality of finish was above and beyond everything in the film’s production, another level reserved for their foremost clients.
The movement – The movement features the highest grade of watch making of the early 20th century; signature elements of top quality Patek Philippe calibers are in full fruition, including the easily recognizable condition of the polished angels on each bridge and most notably the hand-made escapement with the compensated bimetallic balance.
The Gong – The art of gong making is raised to a new level with this watch made for the demanding ear of Mr. Graves .When one engages the repeating slide, the result is a harmonious striking that can only be described as angelic. The sound that emanates from the watch today amplified by the gold listened to for the first time when he picked up his new trophy almost a century ago.
The Gold Dial – The charismatic gold dial with hand-engraved numerals shows no signs of any restoration; the indelible enamel is consistently raised and perfectly preserved. The hands are the original hands fitted when the watch was sold in 1928, elegantly proportioned to perfectly align within the tonneau case.
The enameled numerals made by Stem Freres, outer railway minutes scale, signature, and subsidiary seconds dial were first engraved by hand by an engraver artist. The enameler would then fill the engravings and “bake” the dial at around 900 degrees. The reverse of the dial is hand scratched with the movement number “97’589”. The celebrated Stem Freres turned the dial production into a real art. The present example is a paradigm of simplicity and elegance.
The Case – The case, of unusually large size for the period, displays full proportions; the engraved coats-of-arms to the caseback are still incredibly deep. The traces of oxidation to the band, a typical sign for watches that have not been used in a very long time, underline the fact that the present watch was a “sleeping beauty” for many years.
The Three Patek Philippe Minute Repeating Wristwatches of Henry Graves Jr. and his wife Florence set sail for Europe aboard, quite naturally, the greatest ocean-going liner of the time, the RMS Olympic. At this time, Graves had at least three complicated pocketwatches on order from Patek Philippe, and he had also commissioned the now-legendary super-complication watch three years before, for which the had, after three years’ work, now completed the final drawings.
Upon their eventual arrival in Geneva, Graves went along to Patek Philippe’s headquarters at 41, Rue du Rhone to check upon the progress of the pieces on order and to give final approval to the technical drawings for the super-complication, so that its construction could begin.
It was during this significant visit to Geneva that Graves purchased his first serious wristwatch – the present watch- a minute repeating tonneau-shaped watch in 18k yellow gold with the family crest and motto “Esse Quam Videri” (to be, rather than to seem) engraved on the back. It is an exciting thought that this very watch was the starting point of Henry Graves’ Patek Philippe wristwatch collection, which eventually grew to 13 exceptional watches including three minute repeating wristwatches.
Early Minute Repeaters 1925-1939 – In the 1920s, with the advent of wrist watches, most prominent clients asked for extraordinary watches such as repeaters, calendars or chronographs. Among all those, the repeating complication was the most difficult to achieve and of course the most expensive.
With already close to 200 authorized dealers around the world and knowing the importance and the means of Patek Philippe clients, one can easily imagine how exclusive it was to get one of those technical marvels. It is even truer when you understand that approximately a dozen minute repeating wristwatches were manufactured from the mid-1920s to the end of the 1930s.
These watches are called “pre-references” by collectors. Immediately after the foundation of Patek Philippe in 1839, the first quarter repeating pocketwatches were produced; the earliest minute repeater dates from 1845. It was and still is today one of the firm’s specialities. Repeating watches strike the hours, quarters and minutes on demand. This fascinating function is one of the most difficult complications to execute and among the greatest horological challenges.
The Auction – The Henry Graves wristwatches is being offered during Christie’s Rare Watches auction that takes place on Nov.11 2019, at Christie’s Geneva.