Timepiece Chronicle

In-depth, passionate and entertaining articles that explore the stories behind great watches

Recommended Reading: A Grand Complication

Recommended Reading: A Grand Complication

This article was originally published for 8past10.com. You can find the original post here and you should sign up (if you haven't already) whilst you are there.

As the saying goes knowledge is power, but when it comes to watches where do we get that knowledge from? Information on current pieces is usually obtained directly from the brands or retailers, but what about information on vintage pieces? If you're anything like me then it's a mixture of sources (some more reliable than others) with a dash of Hodinkee here, a pinch of excessive Googling there and a light sprinkle of watchuseek.com forums. There are of course print publications, but they are not cheap - with the “Rolex Encyclopedia Volume I” priced at $900, “Moonwatch Only” setting you back close to $300 and Hodinkee's “Breguet biography” costing $75. So it's with great pleasure to recommend a watch book that won't break the bank: “A Grand Complication” by Stacy Perman, currently $20 on Amazon

I doubt there is a single person reading this who isn't aware of the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Jr. Super Complication, but for the uninitiated it is simply one of the greatest timepieces ever created. On the double sided pocket watch there are 24 complications including an astronomical sky chart, grande and petite sonnerie, equation of time and central alarm, yet this book is about far more that just one watch; in fact, the super-complication doesn't truly appear in the book till two thirds the way through. The Henry Graves Super Complication was a culmination of a game of horological brinkmanship that went on for decades, so it's only fitting that we have an accurate description of the events leading up to it's creation. What sets “A Grand Complication” apart from simply being a reference book is that the author spares no expense in tracking the story of the two men that made the Super Complication a possibility, James Ward Packard and Henry Graves Jr.

Beneath the reference numbers, “A Grand Complication” isn't afraid to make you contemplate the greater meaning behind the two men's quest. One of the most touching moments happens when a bedridden Packard receives his greatest commission from Patek, a pocket watch with an astronomical chart of the stars over his hometown in Ohio, along with two dials showing the times of sunrise and sunset for that location. Despite his imprisonment to his hospital bed Packard was able to have the feeling of being home one last time before the end.

Another favorite section of mine was when during the early days of the quartz crisis, Patek Philippe tasked Alan Banbery with obtaining important pieces and bringing them back into possession of the brand. One particular encounter stands out when he happened to be at the New York office of the Henri Stern Watch Agency and was asked to authenticate a watch for a woman who was very impatiently sitting in the foyer. Far more concerned with getting to the nearby Cadillac dealer to pick up her new car, in her hands she played with a ladies pendant set with diamonds and rubies on a red enamel dial with a minute repeater striking the hour, quarter and minute on two miniature gongs. After learning that the woman had no attachment to the piece, Mr. Banbery shrewdly offered an unreported sum of money to ease the process of purchasing the new car and the two parted ways happily. It was later discovered that this watch was once worn by Princess Henriette of France, the eldest child of King Louis XV. It is small embellishing stories like that which augment and elevate this book from mere reference to an exciting tale of horological discovery and enchantment.

If I had one criticism to make it’s that in the early sections the book does dwell on cars a bit too much. James Ward Packard was the designer and inventor of America's first luxury car, so there has to be some mention of automobiles, however there is only so much talk about carburetors, time trials and pistons I can stomach. I know it's almost high treason to admit to the watch community that one just isn't a "car guy" (my father is equally as disappointed) yet despite this I actually found myself far more interested in the supposed "loser" of this watch war than Graves himself. Packard was a self-made man who taught himself engineering and was forever fascinated in knowing exactly how things work, and he would frequently go into great detail with Patek Philippe about the intricacies of his orders. Graves' wealth on the other hand came from his trust-fund and society family, and sometimes it seemed that he cared more for the status that watches provided rather than the engineering accomplishments. 

About a year after the book was published in 2013, the Super Complication was seen in public for the first time in 15 years and broke its own record for the most expensive watch ever bought at auction - selling for $24,000,000 compared to $11,000,000 in 1999. For such a low price yet a huge wealth of information, I cannot recommend “A Grand Complication” highly enough. Do yourself a favor and buy it.

If you enjoyed this article then be sure to check out my writing both here at Timepiece Chronicle and over at 8past10.com.

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