Ali versus Frazier, Gates versus Jobs, and Federer versus Nadal. Rivalries are all around us and define their landscape. They often push our imagination of what is possible and have lasting impacts on their environment. Today we will examine the watch world’s equivalent, Graves versus Packard, and the quest to own the most complicated watch in the world.
Let’s set the scene. James Ward Packard was born 1863 and was a mechanical engineer. A hands-on man he made his fortune through light bulbs and automobiles, more specifically he invented the steering wheel and was accredited as making the first luxury car. Fascinated by the mechanics involved in watches he sought out to collect a wide variety of all kinds of watches. Ring watches, chiming watches, astronomical pieces, a watch on top of his cane, and even a watch which plays his favourite lullaby, you name it, the man owned it.
Henry Graves Jr, on the other hand, could not be any more different. Born out of an old-money American family Graves could be stylised as somewhat of an old-school playboy. With his inherited banking fortune he invested heavily in real estate and railways. The money he was showered with he was happy to spend for only the best of the best. Rare coins, antique porcelain, ancient European artworks, he was a polar opposite to Packard. One thing he did have in common with him, however, was an appreciation for watches, and a good connection to Patek Philippe.
Now at this point, it is important to state that it is not clear whether Graves and Packard actively tried to compete with each other. What is more likely is that in a booming landscape two rich Americans happened to order increasingly complicated watches in a similar time frame. What is indisputable though is that there has never been a time period filled more densely with breathtaking watchmaking.
What is left from their story is the Patek Philippe Supercomplication made for Henry Graves Jr, which was bought by Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al-Thani of the Qatari royal family in 1999 for $11 million. Following his death in 2014 it was put up for auction again and sold for a record-breaking $24 million. The watch has 24 complications, a record it maintained until 1989 when Patek itself created an even more complicated watch. The legend goes that when Graves originally commissioned the piece in 1925 he asked Patek to create “the world’s most complicated timepiece”, irrelevant of cost. Production was finished in 1932, and while no longer the most complicated watch in the world it holds a unique mystique as the last watch of its kind made before the technological revolution which transformed complications from effective tools to cool gadgets.