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Monday, July 8, 2013

The Complicated Process of Defining A Grand Complication Watch

Patek Philippe Reference 959/J Grand Complication Timepiece at Aaron Faber Gallery.

The question of what are the components that define a grand complication timepiece seems fairly straightforward and at least two members of an esteem group of panelists discussing this topic said there is an absolute answer to this question. However, the definitive explanation proved to be elusive during a discussion about this and other timepiece topics during a rainy June evening at Aaron Faber Gallery in New York.

The fact is the discussion of grand complications is … well … complicated. First, you need agreement of what is a complication. In its simplest definition a complication is any feature to a timepiece outside of the simple display of hours, minutes, and seconds (for example, a date/day display). However, that doesn't quite cut it when trying to define the term in a grand complication, considered the most complex achievement of haute horlogerie.

Grand complications panelists (from left): Gary Girdvainis, Edward Faber, Michael Friedman, Osvaldo Patrizzi and Alexis Sarkissian.

Osvaldo Patrizzi, best-known as the founder of Antiquorum, the international auction house for timepieces, is one of the most connected, most respected and best known people in the world of haute horlogerie. He said the reason grand complications are so expensive and so rare is because it’s extremely difficult to fit several complications into such a small space and because the type and number of complications in a watch will affect its appearance.

“The more complications you want the more problems you have,” he said in his Italian accent.

He noted that he was among a small group of people who worked at creating a definition for a complication in an “ultra-complicated” watch.

“We spent one day to define what is a complication on a normal size watch,” he said. “A complication is when you are able to give one (piece) of information.”

Panelists were in relative agreement on this. The next question by the moderator, Gary Girdvainis, publisher and editorial director of the publications, WristWatch Magazine and AboutTime, was: Is a toubillon a complication?

The toubillon was invented by French-Swiss watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, to (in simple terms) negate the effects of gravity on the accuracy of a timepiece. It is housed in a rotating cage that is often seen on the dial. It is a beautiful, complex device that is widely sought after among watch collectors. But does it provide information?

On this, Patrizzi, the man who in his own words helped give the definition of a complication, gave a long response that was noncommittal. 

[Update, July 24] Patrizzi clarified his statement saying that he has always considered a tourbillion a complication.

Michael Friedman, a timepiece auctioneer, a museum curator and noted expert on the history of horology, was more direct.

“The tourbillion is an incredibly complicated escapement but in my mind it’s not necessarily a complication,” he said. “It was a complicated escapement that Breguet designed to solve a very specific problem.”

The panelists, which also included Edward Faber, founder of Aaron Faber Gallery and author of American Wristwatches: Five Decades of Style and Design; and Alexis Sarkissian, founder of Totally Worth, a boutique distribution network for luxury timepieces; seemed to be in agreement. If Patrizzi was cornered I think he would agree as well.

So what are the complications that make up a grand complication? Again the panelists were in relative agreement: minute repeater, perpetual calendar, phases of the moon, grand and petite sonnerie, and split-seconds chronograph.

Friedman strayed a bit with his answer, saying a simple chronograph would be acceptable in his view.

“I’m a bit of a traditionalist for a definition. I view that it has to have minute repeater, perpetual calendar, phases of the moon (and) grand and petite sonnaire. These are the classic complications that need to be part of the grand complication,” he said. “Once we get beyond those basics, it’s a matter of definition. It’s a matter of companies marketing themselves in a particular way, whether something has an alarm, whether something has a split-second chronograph versus a standard chronograph. For me a grand complication can have a standard chronograph. It doesn’t have to have a split-second chronograph, partly because if we’re talking about a complicated watch from the 1870s, it likely would have had a standard chronograph function of a watch. So for me those are the classics.”

Friedman also noted that the same conversation would have been different if it was held at certain periods during the last 150 years.

“That’s one thing I love about this topic,” he said. “It’s a moving target and the definitions change over time.”

Panelists also discussed variations in the auction market for high-end watches, maintenance and repairs of ultra-complications watches, the increase of watch brands under corporate ownership and the need for more watchmakers throughout the world. These are all topics that need their own space.

The discussion was held the day before Christie’s was auctioning the earliest and most significant example of a Patek Philippe grand complication. The Stephen S. Palmer Patek Philippe Grand Complication No. 97912 is a minute repeating perpetual calendar split-seconds chronograph watch with grand and petite sonnerie and moon phases. It was manufactured in 1898. It has never been seen in public and it was the first time it ever appeared at auction. The watch was purchased on Oct. 3, 1900, for 6,500 Swiss francs by Stephen S. Palmer.

It sold for more than $2.25 million, a world auction record for a Patek Philippe grand complication.

Aaron Faber Gallery held a week-long exhibition that featured a similar grand complication as its centerpiece: a Patek Philippe Reference 959/J (top picture). Made in 1992, it has a perpetual calendar, moon phases, split seconds chronograph, grand and petite sonnerie, and minute repeater. 

It’s a steal at $1.5 million. 

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