The legendary 2017 Patek Philippe “Grand Exhibition” in New York City took place four years ago next month. It was the high-water mark for pomp, circumstance, and – surprisingly – accessibility for the North American watch collector scene. Journalists, major collectors, and curious locals were welcomed with equal warmth by the Patek and Henri Stern staff. It’s a cliché, sure, but a good time was had by all. Today, I’m revisiting my summer 2017 review of the event.
Retrospective: Patek Philippe Brings Geneva to Manhattan
Patek Philippe’s “The Art of Watches Grand Exhibition New York 2017” in New York City proved equal to its ambitious moniker. For eleven days, the 177-year-old Geneva manufacture regaled jaded New Yorkers with a display of artistry, history, and engineering virtuosity never seen outside the bounds of the factory walls. Widely acclaimed by accomplished collectors and warmly embraced by the general public, the open-admission Exhibition succeeded in its goal of bringing old world horology to a New World audience.
The grandeur of Patek’s stateside gala was born of a longstanding and deep bond with U.S. collectors. Patek Philippe’s earliest iteration, “Patek, Czapek & Co.,” sold its initial pocket watches to U.S. customers during the 1840s. Later, stronger bonds took the form of authorized dealer designations, volume sales, and ultimately, an 1854-1855 mission to New York by Antoine Norbert de Patek himself. Since the 1932 acquisition of the company by the Sterns, each generation of Patek’s controlling family – three in all – has trained in the United States prior to assuming control of the manufacture in Geneva.
In modern times, the United States has emerged as Patek Philippe’s largest single national market, and U.S. authorized dealers of the brand amount to 96 of Patek Philippe’s 440 global retailers.
While the motivation behind the Exhibition was born of the manufacture and U.S. collector community’s mutual affinity, the actual content and scale of the show required as much labor as ardor on the part of Patek’s event planners. Over 13,200 square feet of the Cipriani Ballroom on Manhattan’s 42nd Street played host to the epic expo.
The towering chamber served as a staging point in which Patek Philippe’s U.S. and Swiss teams constructed a freestanding two-story structure containing eight unique exhibition spaces; two additional rooms were composed in adjacent chambers. More than 450 timepieces and artifacts were arranged throughout the ten themed exhibit areas; the final exhibition marked the culmination of over two years of preparation and planning.
Patek Philippe’s showcase delved deeply into the firm’s heritage, ongoing support for horological arts, and broad range of in-house manufacturing capability.
Visitors were treated to both new timepieces from Patek’s current collection and a selection from the firm’s Geneva-based Patek Philippe Museum. The latest Baselworld novelties including the expressive 5320G perpetual calendar and the avant-garde 5650G Aquanaut Travel Time Advanced Research occupied spaces adjacent to the museum’s curated vitrines of watches highlighting 500 years of horological history. Both historic Patek Philippe watches and milestone pre-Patek timepieces shared the space; Queen Victoria’s personal Patek Philippe pocket watch occupied a position of honor across the room from an early 1800s “inking” chronograph and a pioneering “drum” portable watch from the early sixteenth century.
American’s heritage of illustrious Patek Philippe owners was on display in the “U.S. Historic Room.” Chronographs owned by Duke Ellington and Joe DiMaggio lent the exhibit a localized historical appeal for the Empire State crowds. Elsewhere in the space, a comprehensive collection of bespoke grand complications illustrated the soaring heights of the James Ward Packard – Henry Graves, Jr. “rivalry,” a legendary – but likely apocryphal – early 20th century effort by each to surpass the other’s collection of complicated watches. Pocket watches owned by General George S. Patton, whiskey legend Jack Daniels, and Gilded Age Baron Henry Clay Frick reinforced the long tradition of American collectors and Patek timepieces.
The second floor of the Exhibition’s spaces highlighted watchmaking, engineering, and Patek Philippe’s modern-day leadership in grand complications (defined for Exhibition purposes as a tourbillon, perpetual calendar, celestial function, split-seconds chronograph, or chiming watch). A combination of virtual reality, live watchmakers, and interactive exhibits demystified Patek Philippe’s most complex mechanisms and exclusive models. Visitors were able to interact with the innermost reaches of watch movements via fully immersive 3D technology prepared by Patek Philippe’s Exhibition team. For guests still grounded in physical space, well-lit walls of de-cased wristwatch calibers permitted close inspection of the genuine article.
While the service standard and imagery of the Grand Exhibition was white glove in every respect, the experience was devoid of pretense or hauteur. The show was open to the public, free of charge, and welcoming in character. Many attendees ventured off of Manhattan’s walkways in summer attire and casual wear to explore the exhibits; families with younger children found the specially-prepared children’s spaces ready to accommodate their needs. Strong attendance for all eleven days was fueled by a diverse mix of experienced collectors and curiosity-seekers experiencing luxury horology for the first time.
Patek Philippe’s Grand Exhibition lived up to its considerable advance press. Although the brand seeks to hold a major-market event of limited scale every two to three years, company representatives acknowledged that the tour de force in New York may remain unique for at least a generation. In the meantime, Patek Philippe’s impressive legacy in the United States has added a scintillating new chapter.