WHEN DEVELOPING the new Watch Art Grand Exhibition: Discovering the World of Patek Philippe, Peter Friess, the director and curator of the Patek Philippe Museum, had to decide which watches to bring to Singapore.

“The selection process is a long process because we asked our staff working here in Singapore: what are you interested in? We asked what would you like to see here, what do you think are the people mostly interested in? It was a process of many people over a year or more to select those pieces and every watch we brought here has its own history,” he told members of the Philippine press who visited the exhibit just before it officially opened on Sept. 28.

“There are certain pieces which are absolute musts when it comes to the history of Patek Philippe, like the first perpetual calendars, the Calibre 89, the first wristwatch made by Patek Philippe in the late 19th century. They are pieces I would bring everywhere because they are so essential,” he said.

“But then there are pieces like the automatons, the little pocket watch automatons, we did not have in America so much, in New York,” he said, referring to the Patek Philippe exhibit in New York in 2017. The watch company — the last family-owned independent watch manufacturer in Geneva — held the first Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Dubai in 2012, whose success led to presenting the exhibit in Munich in 2013, London in 2015, and New York in 2017.

There are quite a number of automatons in the Singapore exhibit and this is due to their history in the region, he explained.

“The automatons, in the 17th century, the Jesuits they went to China and in order to get access to the emperor, they brought clocks,” said Mr. Friess. “They brought the clockmakers with them because it’s like today, when you sell weapons, you have to bring the technicians otherwise you cannot use them. They had to bring the clockmakers in order to keep them running all the time. For the Jesuits, it was a nice way to have personal contact with the emperor because they were living in the palace.”

Mr. Friess noted that “The Chinese emperors always liked automatons and clocks. What the Swiss people in the 19th century, so 1810 around, they built little pocketwatches but instead of having little dials showing the time, they put in the automatons. The Chinese were just crazy for these pieces.”

It is this bit of horological history plus a knowledge of what is of interest in the Asian market that led to the choice of watches to display. “We thought this would be a good thing to bring here because it’s closer to the society than anything else. We brought a large number of this kind of watches with nice enamel painting, with pearls, which kind of meets the taste of what you’re used to here. That’s why we brought so many of those,” said Mr. Friess.

Mr. Friess noted that although they have been putting up Watch Art Grand Exhibitions for several years, it is not just a matter of repeating what they had done in the past. “This is a concept we’ve been using since 2012 so the look and feel of the show is — everywhere we go — kind of the same. But it’s always specifically adapted, even the architecture — the architecture you see here, you cannot use somewhere else,” referring to the gigantic Sands Theater where this year’s exhibit has been set up.

“I would say from one show to the next, we need two years to organize the location, to get the permits, to find the right place, to make it a really nice event for everybody who is coming. That takes about two years, and everybody who works on this exhibition has to do other work as well. It’s not our top priority and we do this on the side,” he pointed out.

What is unique in the Singapore exhibit, he said, is its focus on handcraft.

“We focus a lot on handicraft because we see that there is a craftsmanship, there’s a skillset in that region, which people resonate to. That’s why we focused very much on our craftsmen. We brought even more craftsmen and artisans here than we ever did before. You have the marquetry here now; they bring their tools and they work all day long. When you look at the watches we brought specifically, we brought watches that we did not show in New York or Munich. We address the interests of the market.”

And that market is not necessarily made up of watch connoisseurs.

“Everything we do here, like the audio tours, are addressed to the people who are seeing the watches the first time. We expect that they can read the time but beyond that, we start always at zero,” said Mr. Friess.

Even non-connoisseurs can appreciated one very important Patek Philippe invention.

“I think that every mechanical watch you buy today, no matter which brand, does have a crown… which you pull for adjusting the hands,… push in for winding the watch. [This] is an invention from Mr. Philippe and that’s how the company started. That’s the big message. Whenever you see a crown, you have to think about Patek Philippe — no matter which brand you buy.”

The Watch Art Grand Exhibition: Discovering the World of Patek Philippe is ongoing until Oct. 13 at the Sands Theater, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. — A.A. Herrera