To celebrate 175 years since Patek Philippe was founded, it is hosting a one-off event at the Saatchi Gallery in London, The Patek Philippe Grand Exhibition. The event only runs for twelve days (May 27th to June 7th) and is something that is unlikely to be repeated. The exhibition takes visitors through a well crafted and presented journey from company formation to its current crowning achievements in the form of its anniversary timepieces.
I had the opportunity to visit the exhibition last Sunday, dodging the rain and the crowds on the Kings Road my partner and I ducked into the Saatchi Gallery and we were warmly greeted by the Patek Philippe representatives. We handed in our coats and bags, were given free headphones made for the event to use with guide app and stepped through into the immaculately presented exhibition.
As we entered, a short video introducing the exhibition and the Patek Philippe company was shown, guided on from there by attentive staff (this continued throughout the exhibition) into a recreation of a turn of the century theatre (right down to original seating) we were shown a more personal and historical film about the history of the founders, Antoine Norbert de Patek(1839) and Adrien Philippe (1845).
Moving on we found ourselves in the first collection room, and this was a room fit for a King or Queen. The Royal Room as it is called recreates in style the 1851 Great Exhibition at The Crystal Palace, a defining moment of the time and one where Patek Philippe first introduced the revolutionary keyless winding watch, a marvel of technical expertise for the era. This was the same exhibition where Queen Victoria purchased one of Patek Philippe’s watches, a watch that was on display today in all its splendour. Sitting along side it an equally impressive selection of antique pocket watches that have been owned by monarchs from all over Europe.
They may have not been by royal appointment but the link with monarchy and Patek Philippe is strong and at the time must have been very influential.
Heading upwards through the gallery we were presented with a brief history of the Patek Philippe headquarters in Geneva, a retrospective about the building and its architecture. This prepared us for the next exhibition rooms, the Current Collection Room and the Napoleon Room, these are recreations that represent the Historical Salon at the the Rue du Rhone in Geneva. They are were both elegant and well finished rooms that made a faithful representation of the original. The current collection room with its display cases set into the walls and vintage red leather sofas, tempts you to sit, relax and take in the collection, if you can… This was as expected an extremely busy room (but not the most), with visitors vying to look upon the current offerings of Patek Philippe, the audio guides in this room were particularly good with an audio description and history to each presentation cabinet. I learnt a lot here about the history of each collection and this alone was worth the guide. Leading on from this room was the Napoleon Room which recreates the view over Lake Geneva by projecting a video that was filmed form the windows of the actual salon, a wonderful effect that was quite captivating.
Leaving Napoleon behind we were guided to the Museum Room, an area dedicated to bringing over 100 pieces directly from the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. A collection that boasts over 2,000 exceptional timepieces, automata, miniature portraits on enamel and objet de vertu. This although only a small subset of the collection, was one to behold, the intricate craftwork especially on the automata was staggering – especially when you consider the craftsmen did not have access to the modern day tools we take for granted. The epitome of this was the Alpine Landscapes cage with singing birds and a watch. The automata activated on the hour or demand and incorporated five birds singing and flying, it is one of the most complicated ever designed.
The collection was clearly presented like a standard museum exhibition rather than a themed room, there was no complaint in this and if anything it pulled you into observing the pieces themselves. This was also the first room that I realised staff had been brought over from Geneva, this was a nice touch and they were very polite and knowledgable with any questions answered easily.
One of the gems, quite literally of the exhibition was the next room, The Rare Handcrafts Room, this was a demonstration of the outstanding talent, art and precision of the enamel painters, engravers and gem setters who work for Patek Philippe. There was some truly outstanding skill being shown and the mind boggled at the steady handiwork of these people. It is a rare thing to see this kind of craftsmanship in watchmaking up close, let alone from such a luxury brand. When you see hand-painted watches it is sometimes very easy to overlook the skill that goes into them, or to not look at them in the same way you may look at a painting hanging in a gallery (which you should) this room brings back to earth the artisan skill of these workers and makes you appreciate hand detailing all that more.
Passing back down the hallway we headed to the sister room of the current collection, the Complications Room, here presented as reified works of art rotating on plinths inside glass cases are some of the most complex, rare and enthralling of the watches in this modern collection, minute repeaters, sky moon tourbillon and chronograph pieces were all on display here. With out a doubt the watch that made me smile the most and wish I was far wealthier than I am was the Star Caliber 2000, the third most complicated watch in the world. Boasting 21 complications and an absolutely stunning design it only rightly had it’s own section, darkened and surrounded by stars, it was undoubtably overshadowed by a piece to come but if I had to choose just one watch, I would have taken this home with me. I am not sure the burley security would have let me get far but it did make me think…
The next room showcased every movement from the current collection presented in rotating plastic frames, well lit and easy to examine you could get up close and personal with some of these famous and highly regarded technical marvels. There was even a desk with a boule setup and three microscopes so you could examine the movements in detail. At the microscopes desks you had one to one instruction from Patek watchmakers explaining the various prepared watch elements. Also in this room were demonstrations with large scale replica movements of how a chronograph and a perpetual calendar mechanically work. We stood and chatted to the demonstrator from Geneva as he showed us on a brightly coloured mechanical replica how a perpetual calendar keeps date without adjustment for over 100 years. It was fun and enlightening and made for very enjoyable part of the exhibition.
As we started to move to the next area we noticed that a queue had started to form, other than the current collection room this area was the busiest we had seen all morning, a few steps further and it was clear why this was the case. We had almost reached the pinnacle of the exhibition and the only area that had strict controls on how many people could enter at a time, we were approaching the 175th anniversary Grandmaster Chime: a watch specifically conceived, developed and crafted for Patek Philippe’s 175th anniversary. A watch that was seven years in the design and making. To this date only three of the seven commissioned have been made, two are in private collections and the remaining was tantalisingly close.
Now before we were placed face to face with this marvel we stopped at the interactive theatre, this was met with profuse apologies by the staff who were trying to fixed the stuck iPad that had crashed and was not allowing them to play the presentation. We should have been presented a fully interactive view inside the Grandmaster Chime with accompanied commentary by the staff. They were kind enough to spend some time talking to the few of us who had waited to see if the issues could be fixed and we had an almost one to one chat about the watch, its design and its complexities. In some respects I think that was far better than any interactive presentation would have been.
Rejoining the queue it was not long before we were ushered into a small but wonderfully presented room with intricate wood walls adorned with gold leaf effect and ornate detailing. Rising up from the centre of the room was a wooden plinth, equally ornate and detailed, on it sat a glass case, polished and clear who’s content rotated slowly for the four occupants to gaze upon. The Grandmaster Chime, the worlds most complicated wristwatch ever made. This in itself is no small statement, it is the embodiment of the Patek Philippe philosophy that started with them producing the worlds first keyless pocket watch and has brought them to here, yes it is a grand gesture a flourish to celebrate 175 years but its one hell of a flourish.
The watch itself is a monster, both in size and complexity, it is 47.4mm across and 16.1mm thick, it rotates between its lugs to show both faces and is each one is hand engraved over almost all of its surface. It encompasses 20 complications with the emphasis placed on the five chiming mechanism functions. This includes the Grande Sonnerie as the pièce de réistance and as a horological world debut. The watch as mentioned is double faced, both for aesthetic and practical reasons, it would be hard to imagine how you could fit as many complications in a single face and still have an elegant and usable wristwatch. Controlled and powered by the new caliber 300 movement, a mind bending 1,366 individual parts make up Patek Philippe’s flagship, it is hard to understate the complexity of construction and I can understand why only seven will be made.
I wont list all of the complications here but I will link you to the official page and you may peruse at your leisure, Hodinkee also has an excellent write up on the whole anniversary range including the Grand Master Chime, they have had hands on time so I shall defer to them for those looking for a watch review.
Having had a brief time to gaze upon the watch I was very impressed but still found myself thinking about the Star Caliber… Leaving the anniversary area we got a short glance at the wooden presentation box that the Grandmaster Chime is sold with, a lavish and ornate box with styling much like the room we had been in, maybe I could just buy the box? Loitering in exit area before we moved back downstairs we watched a video detailing the Grandmaster Chime and its construction it was very captivating and goes along way to demonstrate its complexity, the same video is on the Patek website here.
We were nearly at the end of our exhibition journey, but like all good things we like to save the best to last. (Some disagreement maybe had on what is best) . Our final room was the Watchmakers room, watchmakers from Patek were setup and running demonstrations of their craft, they had display areas showing projected magnifications of what they were working on allowing you to observe the intricacies of their work. They were arranged into four areas and they actively encouraged you to interact, ask questions and generally chat. I got the opportunity to observe and chat to one of the watchmakers, Steve, about servicing, his training in Geneva, the level of perfection that Patek expects and watchmaking in general. This area was a hub of activity, it was very lively, with questions and wide eyed interest from all that passed, and what a brilliant way to bring an exhibition to an end.
A final thank you was given in the form of our exit from the gallery, we were presented with a goodie bag containing a weighty tome, a wonderfully presented and illustrated guide to the exhibition, something I would have gladly paid for and a reminder of a drizzly morning spent in Chelsea looking at watches from probably the best manufacturer in the world.
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