In 1999 the most complex mechanical watch ever made was sold at auction for a record-breaking $11 million. To the shock of the rarefied crowd at Sotheby’s in New York, the watch known as the Graves Supercomplication (and a rock band name waiting to happen) went to an anonymous bidder who beat out deep-pocketed players like Patek Philippe, the venerable Swiss company that made the watch and that was determined to acquire it as the crown jewel of its Geneva museum.
It’s possible the world has not been waiting with bated breath for a history of mechanical pocket watch connoisseurship. But Stacy Perman’s book makes me wonder if we shouldn’t have been.
The finest mechanical watches have hundreds of miniature handcrafted moving parts held together with screws so tiny a thimble could hold 20,000 of them. In their heyday, pocket watches were some of the most coveted high-tech gadgets. Unlike today’s cell phones, however, the best ones were bespoke objects intended to last for generations (rather like today’s cell-phone contracts).
Named after Henry Graves Jr., the wealthy New York banker who commissioned it, the Supercomplication was the apotheosis of a discreet but intense Jazz-Age rivalry between Graves and James Ward Packard, the brilliant, Ohio-born inventor of the luxury automobiles that bore his name. Though the two men never met, their “horological arms race … fought on velvet chairs in hushed salons” resulted in some of the greatest timepieces ever made.
In watchmaking, any feature above regular timekeeping—like perpetual calendars or minute repeaters—is called a complication (timepieces with many complications are called grandes complications). In their quest to achieve the greatest number of complications, Packard and Graves commissioned hundreds of watches over the years, spurring Patek Philippe, both men’s watchmaker of choice, to ever-greater heights of innovation. Packard’s most celebrated watch (“the Packard”) had 16 complications and was built in 1916. In 1933, the arrival of the Supercomplication, with its mind-blowing 24 complications, assured Graves of victory in more ways than one; Packard had died five years earlier.
In this contest of millionaires, it’s hard not to root for Packard. Born to a respectable pedigree, Packard earned his personal fortune through intellectual ingenuity. His love of watches grew naturally out of a lifelong obsession with mechanical perfection. According to Perman, he “approached the creation of a new watch with the mind of an engineer and the heart of a lovesick suitor.” Graves, who came from a family of bankers, inherited much of his enormous wealth; his obsession with watches stemmed from the status they bestowed.
Like the objects it celebrates, Perman’s book is a feat of connectivity that ushers us into a number of fascinating worlds, including the development of the automobile, the arc lamp, timekeeping and clocks—including an explanation of how the persecution of Huguenots in 16th century France made Geneva the Mount Olympus of watchmaking. Rich, detailed portraits of Gilded- and Depression-era New York add depth and personality to Perman’s account and balance out her technical descriptions. Indeed, Perman builds our appreciation of the timepieces to such a degree that it’s with a sense of ennui that we begin the chapter on quartz—the revolutionary crystals that, beginning in the 1950s, made watches cheap, accurate and accessible while sounding the death knell for a centuries-old art form.
Rumour has it that the Supercomplication will be back on the market this spring—a member of the Qatari royal family who has come forward as the watch’s owner apparently has a rather large debt to Sotheby’s. If that happens then Perman’s timing may prove to be as impeccable as that of the Supercomplication itself.