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Patek Philippe -- The ultimate watch

By Barry Neild for CNN
A Patek Philippe 1928 white gold watch, yours for about US$ 1.4 million.

LONDON, England (CNN) -- Timekeeping has been an obsession for mankind ever since the era when our Ice Age ancestors would pop out of their caves to check if the sun was up and they weren't late for the morning mammoth hunt.

Although mystery surrounds its exact purpose, it is believed that the giant monoliths of Britain's Stonehenge were an attempt to keep track on the passing days, hours and seasons.

Had they known that the capabilities of their giant monument would eventually be equaled by a handful of cogs and springs worn on the wrist, Stonehenge's druids would probably have abandoned their 1,400-year construction job for something a bit less challenging.

Though contemporary horologists have shaved a few centuries off the period it takes to produce their timepieces, the level of craftsmanship has not diminished.

New frontiers of accuracy and miniaturization now pack stopwatches, calendars, moon phases and "tourbillon" gravity compensators into slim watch casings.

While fictional spy James Bond has taken the watch to new levels of gadgetry -- his Omega Seamaster has boasted spinning sawblades, high explosives, grappling hooks and laser beams -- for most watch aficionados, the ultimate chronometer is defined by more aesthetic criteria.

'Imagine owning Churchill's watch'

Says Aurel Bacs, international watch expert for Christie's auction house, the best timepieces not only feature an array of technical extras, known as "complications," but must be unique, in mint condition and if possible, have an interesting history.

"The ultimate watch is probably an ultra-complicated piece that not only tells the time but has a perpetual calendar, a chronograph with split-second timing and a tourbillon -- a mechanism that is highly desirable among collectors," he told CNN.

"The condition is important, a watch that has been over-restored has lost its charm. It must also have a good provenance -- imagine owning Winston Churchill's or some other celebrity's watch."

Patek Philippe's "Grande Complication" is considered one of the ultimate watches

Most important, says Bacs, is the name on the front of the watch dial, with premium brands such as Breguet, Jurgensen, Audemars Piguet and Rolex, vying with lesser-known but acclaimed craftsmen such as Frenchman F.P. Journe.

But, he adds, for the discerning collector, Swiss manufacturer Patek Phillipe, who created the first wristwatch in 1868, leads the field, with timepieces fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

Of these, possibly one of the most sought-after watches ever produced is due to go on sale in Geneva, Switzerland on November 14, with bidding expected to reach in excess of US$ 1.1 million.

The gold Patek Philippe "Grande Complication" pocket watch was made for legendary timepiece connoisseur Henry Graves Jr. in 1926.

Featuring a split-second chronograph, perpetual calendar and ages and phases of the moon in an assemblage said to be among the watchmaker's finest work, the piece will go under the hammer next to a rare 1928 white gold wristwatch by the same manufacturer, which is expected to draw bids of up to US$1.4 million.

'Grande Complication is the ultimate'

"Patek Philippe is one, if not the most desired name for a watch collector," says Bacs. "And for many collectors in the world, the Grande Complication is the ultimate.

"It is in the same condition as it was in 1926, and although Henry Graves Jr. is not as famous as Winston Churchill or someone like Ayrton Senna, he was the most important collector of Patek Philippe watches since the 1920s and 30s."

But Montana-based horologist Dave Berghold, a leading member of the U.S. National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors, says that while Patek Philippes may appeal to collectors, for watch restorers, they lack a certain sparkle.

"Patek Philippe, among the masses, has a reputation of being probably the finest production watch there is. It is certainly a brand that appeals to more people.

"The bulk of watches offered for auction are typically Patek Philippe and they consistently break the world records for the most money received at auction and they have extensive historical records, so you can check when any particular watch was first sold.

"But if I was to choose my own ultimate watch, it would probably not be a Patek Philippe. I would probably buy something by an English watchmaker, or a Breguet or a very complicated Jurgensen."

For the ordinary watch buyer, who may be daunted by high prices, Bacs points out that a well-looked after piece can act as a solid investment -- and time need not necessarily be money.

"You do not have to be rich to collect watches, you can be a perfectly decent collector if you are Mr. Average.

"It does seem like a lot of money, but when you know that you own one of the the most important and desirable watches of the 20th century, then the prices can be considered fair."

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