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March 30, 2010

Out of Pocket

Once relegated to the wardrobes of dandies and crusty professors, the pocket watch has seen its time come again.

With so many wristwatch makers producing timepieces loaded with bells and whistles—tourbillions and gonging minute repeaters, moon phases and perpetual calendars—how does a man distinguish himself as a true connoisseur of the horological arts? The answer for a significant number of collectors is the pocket watch, a holdover from the days when a timepiece was regarded as a minor miracle of microengineering, not just a commonplace object that marks the passing of the hours. Case in point: In December 1999 a rare Henry Graves- edition Patek Philippe pocket watch sold for just over $11 million, which is almost three times the highest price a wristwatch has ever achieved at auction.

Wearing a pocket watch is, admittedly, a bold sartorial statement most often attempted by persons (a) of considerable style or (b) who have allowed the fashions of the last 100 years to pass them by. I believe the pocket watch best suited for formal occasions and tend to wear mine, an A. Lange & Söhne circa 1880, with morning dress. Unless you're appearing in a period piece—say, an Edith Wharton film adaptation—sporting a pocket watch with an everyday suit is at best idiosyncratic and at worst pretentious. Not that I let that stop me.

The craze reached its height at the turn of the century, when plutocrats commissioned highly skilled craftsmen to create Grande Complication pocket watches much as the royalty of the Renaissance acted as patrons of Cellini and Michelangelo. Take the automotive mogul James Ward Packard. In 1927 he had Patek Philippe build him a perpetual-calendar, minute-repeater pocket watch that displayed the phases of the moon and the times of sunset and sunrise as well as, oh yes, the time. If he got bored, he could stroll onto the balcony of his house in Warren, Ohio, look up to the celestial vault, turn his watch over, and consult the astronomical map engraved on the case's reverse, which showed exactly the same portion of night sky.

For most people, this kind of watch is for collecting, not wearing. There's a quiet satisfaction about owning such a subtly decadent object. There's also something charmingly discreet about a pocket watch (unlike the gem-encrusted or oversize-face wristwatches so ubiquitous today). It is, by its very nature, impossible to flaunt.

Whether the pocket watch is for a spiffy dresser or the serious collector, its desirability is determined by the complex and time-intensive creation process and the concomitant link to the past. In the last decade or so, some of the world's best watchmaking companies have raided their archives to devise timepieces that can render the most tricked-up wristwatch a Mickey Mouse model.

Last year Breitling presented the Bentley Masterpiece, a unique pocket watch the company built in tribute to the skills still practiced by those in Bentley's bespoke automobile division. The watch—which took a year to complete—was scheduled to be sold at a fall 2004 auction at Sotheby's, but an American collector snapped it up for an undisclosed sum before it even hit the block.

Another 19th-century timepiece that has been restored is simply known as the Union. A Grande Complication using a blank from Audemars Piguet, it was one of the wonders of late-19th- and early-20th-century Europe. Now, more than 100 years later, recased in platinum (the original yellow-gold case is available with the watch), it is offered for sale by London watch specialist Marcus Margulies (44-20/7416-4160).

The manufacturers responsible for these pieces pride themselves on their ability to match the quality of the past. "These are a reflection of our roots," says Luigi Macaluso of Girard-Perregaux, referring to the pocket-watch tourbillion that is a faithful reproduction of an original in the company's museum. "We have many orders, but we produce only one of these pocket watches every two or three years. The cost is at least 500,000 Swiss francs [$431,000]."

Patek Philippe's Philippe Stern explains that the creation of a fine pocket watch cannot be hurried. "We make one every other year and some go up to almost one million Swiss francs," he says. Plenty of collectors ask to be placed on the waiting list; Stern refuses. "We don't sell it until it is finished." At the moment, the ne plus ultra of Patek pocket watches is the Star Caliber, a timepiece so byzantine that a 136-page book was published to help illuminate its many functions.

Stern sees pocket-watch making "as a demonstration of capacity and expertise." And it is precisely the rarity of these skills, possessed by a mere handful of craftsmen who have accumulated decades' worth of experience, that appeals to the collector. "In ten years you will have fewer people able to do such work," says Stern. "Everyone will want a pocket watch when there is no one left alive who knows how to produce one." By then, that $11 million Henry Graves will seem an absolute bargain.


How to Wear a Pocket Watch

Most long-established watch companies continue to produce pocket watches—as any self-respecting watch company should. It's imperative that you do the pocket watch right, for fear of looking the (pretentious) fool. Always wear with a tie (or at least a cravat). If you have a chiming minute-repeater mechanism, observe the same etiquette you would with a mobile phone.

1 The classic way to wear a pocket watch is at the end of a chain (called a fob) in a waistcoat pocket. The fob should pass through the buttonholes in the middle and terminate in a pocket on the other side, anchored by another object, maybe a cigar cutter. 2 If there is no waistcoat, loop the chain through your sports coat lapel and let the watch sit in the outer breast pocket. 3 The most dandified style is the Regency way, attached to a ribbon and tucked into the waistband of one's knee breeches; at the end of the ribbon, hanging over the front of the trousers, would be a mass of seals and other paraphernalia...an early-19th-century version of the "bling" culture so dominant today.