‘The moment I realised what I was looking at, it blew my mind’

In 2010 Patek Philippe owner Charles Stern’s personalised reference 1527 sold for more than CHF 6 million. Now the unique dial he had made for it — which has lived a separate life for more than 70 years — is to be offered in Hong Kong

In 1943 Charles Stern, the owner of Patek Philippe, commissioned a watch for himself from his own company.

Patek had recently launched the 1518, featuring the firm’s unmatchable perpetual calendar, and the watch that Stern ordered was a version of that model. But he also wanted a dial that went beyond the production design. And for that Charles Stern turned to his old family firm, Fabrique de Cadrans Sterns Frères of Geneva.

Patek Philippe. A historically very important 18k gold perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch with Charles Stern’s unique special request dial with cabochon ruby hour markers and 3-minute phone call countdown feature. Ref. 1518, manufactured in 1945. Case 35 mm diameter. Offered in Important Watches including The Ruby Collection and An Important Private Asian Collection Part V. Estimate

Patek Philippe. A historically very important 18k gold perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch with Charles Stern’s unique special request dial with cabochon ruby hour markers and 3-minute phone call countdown feature. Ref. 1518, manufactured in 1945. Case: 35 mm diameter. Offered in Important Watches including The Ruby Collection and An Important Private Asian Collection Part V. Estimate: HK$4,000,000-12,000,000

The dial is, in a strange way, a self-portrait of the man. The hour markers feature a golden XII rather than an Arabic 12 — Roman numerals were a personal preference of Stern’s. The other hours are marked not by numbers but by cabochon rubies — together they form a little constellation on the face of the watch, a touch that is rich but also unobtrusive.

The ‘railway’ lines on the minute markers are absent, making the dial somehow more open, less coldly mathematical. And the calligraphy is everywhere almost imperceptibly finer than on the usual 1518 dial: it is easy to suppose that Stern personally chose his most skilled miniaturist for the task of enamelling the dial and painting the numbers.

A close-up of the 30-minute register showing the three-minute mark that allowed Charles Stern to monitor the length of international phone calls

A close-up of the 30-minute register showing the three-minute mark that allowed Charles Stern to monitor the length of international phone calls

There is another telling detail that makes this dial remarkable. In the 30-minute register, the inner dial to the right, the three-minute mark is indicated with a discreet numeral. This addition was made to let Stern keep note of the point at which international telephone calls began to be charged at a higher rate — which seems an oddly frugal requisite for this lavish, ruby-studded timepiece.

‘I think it was rational rather than frugal,’ says Alexandre Bigler, Christie’s head of Watches for Asia Pacific. ‘We have to put ourselves back in that era, when making calls from Europe to the US was both a cumbersome process and a huge luxury — not like now, when it is easy and totally free. 

‘I am sure that Charles Stern did not intend to hang up on valued customers after three minutes; the countdown just served as a sensible reminder that the conversation was about to get rather expensive.’

In 1946, Charles’s son Henri made the highly unusual decision to change the dial on the watch. No one can say what prompted him

Bigler is bringing the custom-made dial to auction on 28 November in the Important Watches sale in Hong Kong. ‘Most people had no clue of its existence — it is a rediscovery,’ he says. 

‘It is described in Patek Philippe’s records, but the actual dial hadn’t been seen. It wasn’t known if it had remained in the family, if it was in a box at the factory somewhere, or, as turned out to be the case, if it had been sold to a collector.’

That buyer acquired the dial privately at some point in the 1990s, and had it installed in a 1518 of his own. But how did this unique and historic dial become separated from the watch for which it was made?

It is a strange tale that begins sadly. Charles Stern died in 1944, shortly before he was due to take possession of the watch to which he had given so much thought. Like the firm itself, this particular Patek Philippe was inherited by Henri Stern, Charles’s son.

Henri wore his father’s watch when travelling on business during the last months of the war and into the first hard period of peace. ‘Those were tough years for Swiss watchmakers,’ says Bigler. ‘During the war Patek turned to producing some watches in steel because there was no access to gold. But the industry had help from the Swiss government, and Patek was one of the companies that pulled through.’

‘A unique dial by Patek today? Well, that is somewhere close to impossible’ — Alexandre Bigler, head of Watches, Asia Pacific

In 1946, Henri made the unsentimental and highly unusual decision to change the dial on the watch. No one can say what prompted him. Perhaps, at that austere time for Europe, the red-jewelled face sent a discordant message to clients. Or possibly he felt that it simply made commercial sense for the head of the company to wear a production model: his personal watch, after all, would be seen on his wrist by all the clients he met, and so served as a kind of shop window for Patek Philippe’s special wares.

At any rate, Henri Stern sent the watch back to the factory, where the dial was swapped out. In the event, the reconfigured chronograph did not go back to Henri; it was sold on to a new owner. 

But even without Charles’ Stern’s bespoke dial, the watch was a crucial piece in the history of time-keeping — and, incredibly, it came up for auction at Christie’s in 2010. ‘It set an all-time record,’ says Bigler. ‘Patek Philippe bought it back for more than six million Swiss francs, and gave it pride of place in the company’s own museum. It is still there, an object of reverence for Patek collectors.’

At the time of the 2010 sale, no one asked what had become of the original dial. But, says Bigler, ‘the one we are soon to sell should by rights have been on it. When this dial came to my attention last year, installed in a different piece, we had to do the research and check that it really was the one that had once belonged to Charles Stern’s famous record-breaking piece. 

‘The moment that I realised what I was looking at, it blew my mind. It was so thrilling, like bringing long-lost twins back together.’

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And not just any twins, of course. This dial was conceived in the mind of Charles Stern, and so represents the imaginative vision of a watch-making Titan, a prince of horology. 

‘Yes, there is all this pedigree,’ agrees Bigler. ‘The provenance, the personal connection to someone important in the history of watches, the fascinating configuration, the unusual appearance — and above all the fact that this is a one-off. A unique dial by Patek today? Well, that is somewhere close to impossible.’