The Beauty of Time

I rarely, if ever, think about watches. Especially in this digital age, they often seem more trouble (and certainly more expense at the high end) than they’re worth. But the Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition has me reconsidering that point of view.


This exhibition is approximately 1/3 marketing extravaganza, 1/3 art gallery, and 1/3 educational display. I’ll have more on that last third in a later post — and I’ll take the heavy-handed sales pitch if it comes with so much interesting information and aesthetic delight. Just the opening foyer is worth the trip down to Marina Bay:


This installation, made by Tokyo-based artist Emmanuelle Moureaux, is made of 11,500 paper flowers …


… in 100 different colors.


The whole lobby is filled with giant displays of paper cuttings, the rest made by the Marianne Guely Studio in Paris.


Each panorama frames a different timepiece theme. For example, as an entryway to an intimate display of watches and timepieces depicting enameled flora …


… and fauna …


Domed Patek Philippe clock from the Singapore National Museum, inspired by early 19th century botanical watercolors commissioned by Singapore’s first Resident, William Farquhar

… we have this elaborate jungle scene:


For fish watches (yes, there is such a thing as a fish watch) …


… we have an underwater scene …


… and for timepieces depicting trade …


Swiss clock made for the Chinese market, 1830

… we take to the Seven Seas:


A watch bought in 1897 by Chulalongkorn, King of Siam …


… sits tucked in behind this unusual paper mash-up of Singapore and Bangkok, old and new:


It’s clear that a lot of time and thought went into the varied displays in all of these galleries — as you progress past the lobby and into the heart of the exhibition, you’ll wander through everything from a dimly-lit “Napoleon Room” …


… to a pretty pink salon …


… past this skyscape …


… and an exuberantly lit painting of fireworks over Marina Bay:


Indeed, Singapore gets a lot of play in this exhibit. It’s clear that Patek Philippe knows where its wealthy markets are (and where this exhibition is), because you’ll find everything from domed clock with all of the various facets of Marina Bay ..

… to a domed clock with a rather scary-looking Merlion …


… to a table clock with a map of Singapore’s city center in cloisonné:


You can spend a lot time investigating the watches in Patek Phillipe’s current collection …

… or you can do what I did and run straight through to the Museum room.fullsizeoutput_507d.jpeg

This, to me, was the grand showstopper. The Museum room holds timepieces flown in from the Patek Phillipe Museum in Geneva, Switzerland, which boasts a collection of over 2,000 watches, clocks, and other assorted time-telling devices. The oldest piece that I saw was the Compass Rose (all gold, third from the left below), a German watch from 1548 (made roughly thirty-five years after the first watches ever recorded):


In the sixteenth century, portable timepieces weren’t at all accurate — without some kind of balancing mechanism (called an “isochronous regulating organ”), watches could lose up to several hours a day. So these two watches — a dolphin watch from 1660s Switzerland and The Way of St. James watch from 1590s Italy — would have kept iffy time:


Watches at this point were all about ornament — you didn’t care so much what time is was so much as you cared to show people that you had a very expensive piece of jewelry. And when the French Huguenots introduced the crafts of enameling and painted enamel to Switzerland during the Protestant Reformation, watches became pieces of art.


Watches from Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Switzerland, 1650-1690

Religious subjects were popular (here, the Adoration of the Magi) …


… as were mythological figures (here, a pair of cupids):


Technological limitations in timekeeping precision didn’t keep watchmakers from continuing to experiment, adding new parts and innovating all along the way. One of the biggest areas of watch development came in the arena of “complications” — calendars, alarms, and anything else that goes beyond the simple telling of time. Here, for example, is a 1660 watch with a striking mechanism and calendar:


The real cry for better watches came from the shipping industry, which wanted precision timepieces to determine longitude at sea (these would become known as marine chronometers). With the invention of the balance spring by Dutch physicist Christiaan Huygens in 1675, watches became far more than mere ornament. Here’s a British ship’s chronometer from 1796:


Now watches could be both beautiful and functional. Watchmakers began to experiment with dials — of note here are the “tactile dial” on a blue pocket watch from France (1805) and a dial invented by Ben Franklin, third from the front, based on the form of the Archimedes spiral (1790):


In this same time period, we see all sorts of developments in unusual watch settings, including a watch set into a étui (Switzerland, 1800) …


… a watch tucked into the end of a telescope (Switzerland, 1820) …


… and, just a bit later, a watch set into a lorgnette case (Switzerland, 1850):


My very favorite dials were those set with automata — tiny pieces that moved (and sometimes even sang) on the hour!


So in the watches above (all Swiss), the tightrope-walker would balance, the lady on the swing would start swinging, and the actors on stage would start performing. These tiny little scenes were like miniature bits of magic. And in the marvel pictured below, Moses strikes a rock with his staff on the first chime — and then the scene opens up to show a waterfall with moving water on the second!


The demand for automata was driven, in part, by a newly developed Chinese demand for luxury good from the West. Chinese emperors and empresses often bought watches for favored officials and merchants, and a mini-watch frenzy led to the development of an array of different pieces (all of these are Swiss, manufactured between 1810 and 1825):

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Of course, aristocrats in China weren’t the only ones who wanted in on the watch action. Queen Victoria bought one of these watches and was gifted the other in the early 1850s:


Not to be outdone, other European rulers were soon to get in on the action. The museum has a display of what I like to call “watches that belonged to slightly less important ruling persons.” Here, from left to right, we have the pocket watch of Oscar II, King of Norway; a pocket watch with a portrait of Draga Mashin, Queen of Serbia; and the pocket watch of Umberto I of Savoy (I love each and every one of those names):


Of course, the Swiss saved some of the very best work for representing their own country. I love that each of the Swiss cantons is represented by a different tiny woman in a different traditional dress!


But women themselves usually didn’t wear or carry watches — instead, they had watches set into rings, pins and chatelaines (long, heavily ornamented pendants that often also held other stuff):


The museum has much more than this — if you’re into complications, you can really geek out here — and I’m so glad I went. Who knew that watches could be so wonderful?


One response to “The Beauty of Time

  1. Pingback: To Make a Watch | Traveler Tina·

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