The Patek Philippe 605 HU is one of the earliest references from Patek Philippe to employ the world-time mechanism invented by Louis Cottier, and the number made is quite small. Production began around 1937 and probably fewer than 100 were made over about a 30-year period. As rare as they are, the enamel dial versions are even harder to come by, and while the 605 HU commands respectable prices even in the plain-Jane version (which is, by the way, as lovely and elegant a pocket watch as a globetrotting person of means with a taste for leisurely pleasures might want, don’t get me wrong), the much smaller number made with cloisonné enamel dials are far likelier to generate low-whistle-of-admiration-inducing results. Price, however, is far from the most interesting thing about these watches (though if you find one in the back of grand-père’s sock drawer, hey, instant millionaire or close, depending on the model and who’s bidding that day).
Everyone has their own pets in watch collecting, but for me, the 605 HU represents a kind of climax in the history of complicated watchmaking of the old school, as practiced in the Swiss-French idiom in the mid-20th century. It is a watch that exemplifies the apex of haute horlogerie and is as much a landmark, in its own way, as the Rolex Submariner (which was introduced in roughly the same period that the 605 HU cloisonné watches were being made).
One of the aspects in which the 605 HU is very much of its time is in its complication. The world-time complication was born just at the beginning of really widespread civil aviation and really long-range travel by aircraft. In fact, the Boeing 314 Pan Am “Clipper” seaplanes began operating in 1938, just a year after the first 605 HU watches came out, and the aircraft was then the last word (along with the Martin M-130) in luxury long-range air travel. For the first time, passenger aircraft were flying regularly scheduled trans-Pacific and Atlantic routes, and although travel time would seem very tedious by jet-airliner standards (getting to Manila from San Francisco, from which you could go on to Hong Kong and Macao if you wanted, took six days; one H. R. Ekins was able to write Around The World In 18 Days And How To Do It, in 1936), the service was of a lavishness and the cabins of a spaciousness not seen since. (Indiana Jones travels by the Pan Am Martin M-130 China Clipper in Raiders Of The Lost Ark.)
An easily settable world-time complication did not exist until fairly late in watchmaking history simply because there was no need for one. Trains, fast transatlantic steamships, and then airplanes made the idea of a world-time watch more and more attractive, and if you were flying one of Pan Am or another airline’s flying boats before the war, you would doubtless have found the watch both beautiful and useful. After the end of the Second World War, the great flying boats were gradually retired as longer-range propeller and then jet aircraft took their place – the de Havilland Comet, which was the first purpose-built jetliner, entered service in 1952. For many years thereafter, air travel would still retain at least some whiff of glamour before gradually turning into the sordid, anxiety-provoking, dehumanizing experience it is today, where even in the glitzy atmosphere of first-class there is a fine, off-putting, faint but definite echo of both existential dread and of corners being cut (or so I hear, anyway).
One of the reasons these pocket watches have been on my mind lately is that a couple have come up at auction and reminded me just how much beauty and interest can be found in watch collecting once you leave the extremely well-trodden world of wristwatches behind. Certainly, you sacrifice a little bit in terms of portability to the wristwatch when you turn to pocket watches, but what you lose in terms of in-person bragging rights and ease of wearability, you gain right back in terms of proportions in watchmaking which, unconstrained by the need to fit some imagined average wrist, are capable of reaching for their own golden mean (the 605 HU is 44mm in diameter).
Until last weekend, the highest price paid for a 605 HU that I have been able to find is for the so-called “Star Dragon,” which was auctioned by Phillips at the Geneva Watch Auction: II in November of 2015. The Star Dragon seems to have commanded its nearly seven-figure price for several reasons: For one thing, it is one of the small number of 605 HU watches to have a cloisonné enamel dial; for another, its date of completion (1944) puts it close to the beginning of production of both the reference overall and the cloisonné enamel dial versions. Finally, while almost all other 605 HU references with enamel dials have some variation on them of a stylized map, the Star Dragon depicts a stylized mythological creature. Only one other 605 HU depicts a scene from mythology (King Neptune; that watch is in the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva), and all this combined with the sheer beauty of the enamelwork, led to a final result of CHF 965,000.
On the 16th of June this year, in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s offered another 605 HU which represents the classic expression of enamel-dial 605 HU watches. The central motif showing a (very) stylized representation of North America is typical in terms of the degree of stylization characteristic of both the 605 HU and its contemporary, the wristwatch 1415. An interesting feature of this watch, and indeed of a number of postwar Patek Philippe world-time watches, is that they show Paris and London in the same time zone. Paris was switched over to Central European Time in 1940, and the story goes that there was some belief at Patek that eventually Paris would revert to GMT. So, the two cities were both shown in the same time zone for some years – decades, in fact – after this became incorrect. This particular lot was part of the “Masterworks Of Time: Abraham Louis Breguet, Horologist Extraordinaire” auction and sold for CHF 680,000.
I only learned about this interesting little facet of Patek world-time watch history recently, and I think it certainly has the ring of truth to it. After all, it is not like Patek to willfully put a mistake on the bezel or dial of one of its most prestigious watches. There is a part of me, however, which wonders to what extent the belief that Paris would revert to GMT was partly wishful thinking owing to dials for the 605 HU being made in batches, and a distaste for the notion of discarding them after the war just because the French wouldn’t be sensible and go back to GMT. Someone out there with a granular knowledge of 605 HU production dates would certainly know more.
Finally, there is another 605 HU from this month as well, which sold at Phillips Geneva Watch Auction XI over last weekend. Lots of eyes were on the Patek wristwatches from the collection of Jean-Claude Biver and with good reason, but lot no. 62, almost without anyone noticing, set a new record for this reference – the final sale price was CHF 1,160,000.
One of the reasons I’m such a fan of this reference is because it’s pretty much the best of the best of high-end mid-century Swiss watchmaking in one drop-dead gorgeous package – a sort of singularity of Swiss-ness, if you will. Impeccable movement finishing representing the acme of craft and good taste in the art; a useful complication that is very much an expression of its era, but also very contemporary; beautiful proportions; and finally, enamelwork done when the top craftsmen in Geneva were in full possession of their powers and could deploy for the enjoyment of their clients the accumulated knowledge of hundreds of years of trade secrets. For the collector, on top of everything else, there is great rarity, as well as the frisson of knowing that, in one of the many ironies you apparently get in watch collecting, these were not a commercial success for Patek. Then as now, most people wanted a wristwatch, although there are increasing signs that for serious collectors seeking something really expressive and out of the ordinary, pocket watches are, more and more, seen as having real potential. Certainly, based on these results, the ship’s already come in for the 605 HU.
You can’t fly in a giant seaplane with a separate cocktail lounge with a ceiling high enough to allow a game of racketball anymore, but you can, if you want, still walk around with a working relic of that era in your pocket – just as beautiful as ever and just as useful as it was in the days when flying felt, unlike the grim fandango of today, like a waltz with the angels.