Two rich men obsessed with a watch

Maclean's Books: A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World's Most Legendary Watch

Who would have thought that the wonderfully named Henry Graves Supercomplication wasn’t, say, some genius mathematician’s parting enigma, but a pocket watch? In the watchmaking trade, any movement or function beyond the basic necessities—what’s required to correctly give the minute and hour—is known as a complication.

The 18-karat gold wonder the Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe delivered to New York financier and horological obsessive Graves in 1933 had 24 complications, including a chart of the changing nighttime sky over Manhattan complete with the magnitudes of the stars and the Milky Way, and a minute repeater with chimes that played the same melody heard in Big Ben. It’s the most complicated (in every sense) watch ever made, and it took Patek Philippe—and an army of astronomers, mathematicians, jewellers, artists, engineers and craftsmen—nearly eight years to design and build. The supercomplication cost Graves $15,000; when it last changed hands, at a 1999 auction, it went for $11 million.

A Grand Complication casts the creation of this extraordinary object against a backdrop of duelling rich men. Graves’s rival in pursuit of the acme of the watchmaker’s craft was another fabulously wealthy American, James Packard, maker of the luxury cars that bore his name. The two men shared a belief that the most advanced pocket watches represented the cutting edge of their era’s marriage of art and technology. And each was well aware of the other’s ambitions: Graves’s 1925 instructions to Patek Philippe were vague—he wanted an “impossibly elaborate” watch with “the maximum possible number of complications”—but he was definite about the bottom line: “in any case, certainly more complicated than that of Mr. Packard!”

Perman packs in so much detail about the lavish lifestyles of the pre-Great Depression rich that her book can sometimes read like The Great Gatsby on steroids. But there’s no obscuring the real stars here, the triumphs of Gilded-Age nanotechnology brought to life by the obsessions and money of Packard and Graves.

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