You may not be on the list to buy one of the new in-demand Patek Philippe wristwatches, but as company president Thierry Stern has reminded us in the past: “There is more to Patek Philippe than the Nautilus.” There is, for example, the annual Rare Handcrafts collection of exceptional pieces, all hand-decorated over hundreds of hours by artisans who are themselves as rare as a reference 5711. Few people in the world possess the skills required to create a collection like this—which this year includes 67 pocket watches, table clocks, and wristwatches.
The works are usually exhibited during the first two weeks in April, overlapping the week-long Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva. Journalists and retailers from around the world take time out to make an annual pilgrimage to the company’s Rue du Rhone salon to view the Rare Handcrafts collection, and, by the way, anyone is welcome to stop by and take the tour. You won’t be disappointed. There is no better way to understand the extent of Patek’s standard of perfection when it comes to decoration and finish. Most of the pieces are inspired by nature and the outdoors, rendered in a flourish of outstanding realism and brilliant colors. They demonstrate the pinnacle of watchmaking’s mètiers: enameling, miniature painting, gem setting, engraving, marquetry, and guilloché—arts that require years of apprenticeship to master.
The showrooms come to life in a burst of flora and fauna, with pieces depicting lush landscapes, pouncing leopards, birds, airplanes and dragonflies in flight, elephants, sailboats, sunsets, and, on most of the clocks, life-sized flowers. It is enough to make anyone temporarily forget where they are, or even notice that they are also in the presence of some of the world’s finest minute repeaters, tourbillons, and clockworks.
Some of the highlights:
A full gem-set version of Patek’s most complicated wristwatch, the Grandmaster Chime, with 20 complications, including several chiming functions and a perpetual calendar. It is decorated with sapphires and diamonds, in baguette and tapered baguette cuts.
The Leopard pocket watch is rendered in wood marquetry, hand-engraving, and champleve enamel. The marquetry consists of 363 tiny veneer parts and 50 inlays, cut out and assembled by the artist. A palette of 21 species of wood in different colors, textures, and veining was used. The bezel and caseback are embellished with a hand-engraved border of tropical foliage. The watch is displayed on a handcrafted stand.
The Calatrava 194 Nations Grand Prix wristwatch (pictured at top), with a dial depicting the race of the same name held in Geneva from 1946 to 1950. The dial is made using grand feu cloisonné enamel in 17 colors, and enriched with a silver leaf under the paillonné enamel, with a background rendered in miniature enamel painting. It is one of a series of pieces depicting human adventures.
Some of the dome clocks were made using a technique called Longwy enamel (named for the town in France where the technique originated) on faience (a type of ceramic), which involves applying a thick glaze that is then carved in relief. Colored enamel is then applied in a way that imitates cloisonné compartments. The motifs are mainly flowers, and the textured relief makes them seem to blossom in 3D.
Patek Philippe’s Rare Handcrafts are no easier to obtain than the company’s rarest watches. Most are one-of-a-kind or produced in very limited editions. Each of the dome clocks is a unique piece. None will ever be seen at retail. Obtaining a work from this collection is akin to scoring one of the company’s minute repeaters, involving if not an interview with Mr. Stern, at least a solid relationship with a Patek Philippe retailer. If you don’t see the pieces in Geneva, or manage to obtain one, these photos are as close as you’ll ever get. In fact, the company only released two images to the press (the lion pocket watch and the Calatrava 194 Nations Grand Prix wristwatch), the rest of the photos are our own.