Usually, September isn’t the most exciting month of the year for watch collectors and lovers of fine horology. Following the summer break, business resumes at a rather slow pace, and there are no worthy international shows or auctions. This year, however, the month of September was a particularly “sunny month” for watch aficionados, making me think of an old Swiss German country lore that says “If September is mild and sunny, it is a blessing for the remainder of the year”. Or something of the sort.
The sunniest day of the month was September 17th when Vacheron Constantin presented the world’s most complicated pocket watch ever built, known as reference 57260. Enough has been written by historians, watchmakers, marketing specialists and story-tellers that I do not need to repeat how utterly impressive it is and, despite its massive dimensions, how actually very beautiful in appearance. Instead, I want to share with you what thoughts and feelings first came to my mind, months ago, when I was given the privilege to discover what was then still called project “Tivoli”. And, what the impact is on watch collecting as a whole.
Firstly, it is my sincere desire to extend my congratulations. Certainly, my deepest respect goes out to the anonymous collector who joined forces with Vacheron Constantin’s management and team of skilled watchmakers to embark on a nearly decade-long journey. How many of us can wholeheartedly say that they have once in their life agreed to wait nearly a decade until a product was completed and delivered to them? We may wait a few months for a bespoke suit, a piece of jewellery or a work of art. Maybe even more than a year for a house to be completed. But over eight years? Such achievements are only possible if the project is not considered a project, but a mission. And it fills me with immense joy that there is a distinguished collector out there and an important manufacturer who together wrote horological history by considering it as such.
Secondly, the creation of reference 57260 shows that watches, or rather, handmade mechanical watches, are not (only) loved for their practical value but are, more importantly, considered works of art, worthy of being exhibited alongside fine paintings, sculptures, extraordinary furniture and historical motor cars.
Thirdly, the genesis of this super complication reminds me of how the world’s greatest watches were built in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. The competitive circumstances of their original owners add to the overall mystique that surrounds these treasures. Reference 57260 is now joining the ranks of other historical pieces made by the most distinguished European watch manufacturers, no matter whether they were (or still are) based in London, Paris, Glashütte, le Brassus or Geneva.
Only five days later, on September 22nd to be precise, one of the finest collectors’ watches in existence was offered at auction. The unique and historically important “Churchill Victory Watch”, manufactured by Louis Cottier and Agassiz & Co., was presented around Christmas in 1945 to Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
If you ask 100 collectors the reason why they are passionate about watches, their answers will fall anywhere in a spectrum ranging from the fascination for engineering, the craftsmanship, the finishing, the design and the functionality, to the exclusivity and the prestige. When asking a collector of vintage watches, an entirely new dimension emerges, as factors such as time and history make the scene. This brings the watch to a completely new level of emotional gravitas and, given the smaller output in the past, a new degree of rarity.
The “Churchill Victory Watch” could compete in any “Olympic” discipline of watchmaking. Entirely handmade, it pleases collectors of complex mechanisms thanks to its ingenious world time mechanism invented by Louis Cottier. At the same time, it ticks every box for those who are looking for the aesthetically captivating, artistic and even unique appearance. The enamel dial made by Maison Stern is an incredible work of art and the inner dial disc alone is easily worth the equivalent of a semidetached house. But the discipline where this watch can hardly be beaten is when it comes to historical meaningfulness and provenance. Hardly any moment in the 20th century has been of such significance to the further development of our entire planet than the victory achieved by the allied forces against the Nazi regime. Moreover, no one shaped this victory as much as the four allied leaders, namely President Truman, General de Gaulle, Marshall Stalin and Prime Minister Churchill. These four leaders each received in December of 1945 a uniquely finished world time watch as a token of esteem and gratitude from a group of citizens from Geneva.
The list of superlatives for this timepiece can hardly be matched. Consequently, I was little surprised when the slightly humorous (conservative!) pre-sale estimate was so quickly surpassed. Selling for close to half a million pounds, this historical collectors’ watch brought yet another day of sunshine to the month of September.
So, if there is any truth in the Swiss German farmers’ foresight, then the world of watch collectors can look forward to an enjoyable horological autumn season, overall serene and blessed with sunshine with good winds. Personally, I think the farmers may actually have been right.