Time after time

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By Alicia A. Herrera
Associate Editor

ANYONE with an interest in telling time — whether a connoisseur or a regular Joe — who is heading to Singapore anytime before Oct. 13 should drop by the Marina Bay Sands’ Sands Theater to see Patek Philippe’s Watch Art Grand Exhibition Singapore 2019. As one would expect, the exhibit features the watches of the brand, which is the last family-owned independent watch manufacturer in Geneva, but there is much, much more to it than static displays of the latest wristwatches. There are watches, both new and very old, artisans showing off their incredible skills, and even a bit of virtual reality. It is, more than anything else, a showcase of the company’s tradition of high-precision watch manufacturing and Haute Horlogerie.

The Watch Art Grand Exhibition Singapore 2019 is the fifth of a series of major exhibits by Patek Philippe, starting in Dubai in 2012, and on to Munich in 2013, London in 2015, and New York in 2017. The Singapore edition is the largest Grand Exhibition to date, with over 400 watches on display.

Spread out over 10 rooms purpose-built into the theater, the visitor gets an initial idea of what is in store at the theater’s foyer where a special exhibit — called the Singapore Historic Room — made up of booths cunningly decorated with paper art by Studio Marianne Guely, show off stunningly crafted clocks and watches. Each booth has a theme like “Strong National Identity” and “Unique Flora and Fauna,” and rotating dome clocks, wristwatches, and pocket watches featuring fine enamel work and marquetry by Patek Philippe.

Entering the exhibit space, there is a small theater showing a two-part film on the history of the brand which serves as a foundation for what one will see further on.

After picking up an audio guide, one enters a bright pink room featuring the current collection of Patek Philippe watches — from its Calatrava Collection, to its Annual calendar Watches, the complicated World Time pieces, the elegant Gondolos, and its famed Nautilus — plus the limited-edition watches that were created especially for this exhibit. The watches are set up in show windows, and one can use the audio guide to learn more about their history and features. The room was designed to replicate the Patek Philippe Salons on the Rue du Rhone in Geneva.

From the present one then enters the past — a replica of the ornate Napoleon Room at the Patek Philippe Salons, with its heavily decorated walls and view of Lake Geneva, is a glimpse of history from a company whose roots extend back to 1839

The past comes into even greater focus in the Museum Room which features a selection of 119 watches from the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. Viewed together, they tell the story of the personal timepiece and how it developed (to be clear, not all the watches in this section were created by Patek Philippe).

As the collection’s catalog explains, “The ‘Antique Collection’ presents a magnificent panorama of the history of horology, with treasures including some of the very first portable watches, dating from the mid-16th century, together with richly enameled pocket watches, musical automata, and technical timepieces signed by the greatest European watchmakers.”

There is the Compass Rose pendant watch that dates back to 1548, a Renaissance verge clockwatch from 1560, and a gorgeously decorated “Love and Fidelity” pocket watch with chatelaine circa 1775, among many others. Quite a number of the watches feature automatons — moving figures — and were originally created with the Chinese market in mind. Among these are a pair of repeater pocket watches (circa 1815) which play music and have automatons in this case of “Venus Binding Cupid’s Wings,” and another pair made to look like roses (circa 1820) which also have music and automatons.

“The Chinese emperors always liked automatons and clocks,” explained Peter Friess, the Director and Curator of the Patek Philippe Museum, to visiting members of the Philippine press. “What the Swiss people in the 19th century, so 1810 around, they built little pocket watches but instead of having little dials showing the time, they put in the automatons. The Chinese were just crazy for these pieces.”

Also in this section is Queen Victoria’s Pendant Watch — decorated with lapis blue enamel and a bouquet of rose-cut diamond set roses, created by Patek Philippe around 1850. She liked it so much that she also got one for her beloved husband Prince Albert — in sky blue. They are both on view in the exhibit.

Important Patek Philippe watches can be found here. There is a movement incorporating Jean Adrien Philippe’s first stem-winding and setting mechanism (1842) — a system that is used in all mechanical watches, no matter what brand, today.

There is the very first Patek Philippe wristwatch (1868), which, according to the show’s catalog, “may be considered one of the first modern wristwatches,” a highly ornamented piece with enamel and diamonds, which was made for a woman.

And examples of the early versions of mechanical developments — day and date pendant watches, early perpetual calendar pendant watches, a grand complication pocket watch with minute repeating, split-seconds, chronograph, perpetual calendar and retrograde date… all the way up to the Calibre 89, a supercomplicated watch with an amazing 33 complications (a complication is any function that exists in addition to telling time).

After having seen all the beautiful timepieces, it is time to see how they are made.

First there is the Rare Handcrafts room, where artisans from the Geneva factory are bent over their work, the enameler daintily painting a tiger on a watch face with a brush as fine as an eyelash; an engraver carefully carving a bird which will be a moving part in one of the extravagant dome clocks; a marquetry artist creating the “dust,” the nearly microscopic pieces of wood that will be painstakingly put together to become a snake on the face of a wristwatch; and a guilloché engraver, using a machine that dates back to 1910 to create decorative patterns on pieces of metal which will never be seen by the watch’s owner since they will be used as part of the mechanism. They all patiently answer the curious visitors’ questions.

After watching a short movie on the various workshops, visitors step into a room which focuses on the watch movements — and where visitors sit in egg-shaped chairs, slip on a virtual reality headpiece, and, holding controllers, try their hand, virtually, to put a watch together.

In a nearby room, microscopes are set up so visitors can see all the tiny pieces that make up the various parts of a movement. Another room focuses on grand complications — which are aptly named as they are very complicated.

One then steps into a room where watchmakers are stationed, working on different sections of a watch. The young watchmakers — students at the watchmaking institute set up by Patek Philippe in Singapore — eagerly answer visitor’s questions about the work on view. When one sees just how tiny the pieces laid out on the trays they work with are, including nearly microscopic jewels and screws, one understands why watchmaking is work for the young — steady hands and clear eyes are absolute necessities for the art.

At the end of the exhibit, visitors can again try their hand at putting together a watch — a plastic model this time — have their photo taken in front of a Watch Grand Exhibition backdrop, an instant photo dropping out of a slot within seconds, and a “moving picture” sent to their e-mail addresses. Something to remember the exhibit by — unless they decide to purchase a Patek Philippe for themselves.