Q&A: Stacy Perman, Author of A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch

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A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch (Atria Books/Simon & Schuster) by Stacy Perman, tells the tale of two American men, the auto magnate James Ward Packard and the financier Henry Graves, Jr. and their quest to possess the most complicated watch ever made. The winning watch, finished in 1933 and known as the Graves Supercomplication, took nearly eight years to complete, and has achieved mythological status among collectors. It was sold after a heated bidding war at Sotheby’s in 1999 for a record breaking $11 million—and could crack $20 million if it hits the market again. As the book details this collecting duel, Perman chronicles its many connections to a vast sweep of American history when staggering fortunes were made, the country’s plutocracy emerged, and America began its rise as a global economic power.

Perman, a business journalist, is a former TIME writer and the author of In-N-Out Burger: A Behind-The-Counter Look At The Fast-Food Chain That Breaks All The Rules. She talked to TIME’s Bill Saporito about this horological arms race, and why mechanical watches continue to hold sway over contemporary collectors.

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TIME: The book is a history of a single watch, the Graves Supercomplication. What’s the big deal?

SP:  The Supercomplication is the Mona Lisa of watches, the most intricate watch ever produced. It contained 24 complications—those are features outside of timekeeping. It calculates the time of sunrise and sunset, it strikes the hours, the quarter hour and minutes playing the same melody that rings from Big Ben, its perpetual calendar does not require adjustment until the year 2100, and it has a celestial chart that perfectly mapped the night sky over Manhattan – and it’s encased in 18-karat gold. This truly one-of-a-kind piece was entirely crafted, calculated and finished by hand.

TIME: And what about the Graves part?

SP:  Henry Graves, Jr. was the financier who commissioned the watch. And Graves had a horological rival, the industrialist James Ward Packard. They happened to be two of the greatest watch collectors of the 20th century. There was this mystique that surrounded the pair and their pursuit to possess the most complicated timepiece. The more I poked around, though, I realized that this story told a much bigger tale: It includes the birth of the automobile, electricity, America’s ascendency as a superpower, and the blossoming wealth culture.

TIME: How did Packard and Graves get rich?

SP: The two are archetypes of American success. Packard was a self-made entrepreneur. A brilliant engineer, he was an innovator of the incandescent light bulb and was one of America’s automobile pioneers. He launched the country’s first luxury car, the Packard, and introduced a number of innovations such as the steering wheel that became industry standards. Graves inherited a Wall Street fortune built on the railroads, banking, and commerce. He joined his father’s financial firm, Maxwell & Graves, but his true vocation was collecting. Graves bought rare Old Master etchings and naval prints. He had a remarkable rare coin collection. So on the one hand you have Packard, a man who built things, and Graves, a man who bought things.

TIME: So their collecting “duel” is an artifact of the Robber Baron era?

SP: It was a time when tremendous fortunes were made in steel, coal, manufacturing, and autos. It was also a time of unimaginable opulence and one-upmanship when men like Henry Clay Frick and J.P. Morgan built huge estates and filled them with treasures bought from Europe’s fading aristocracy. You can argue that their obsessions form the underpinnings of American consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and the democratization of luxury that we see today.

TIME: In the book you describe watches as the high-tech gadgets of their day, how so?

SP:  We take for granted that it actually took 500 years before accurate timekeeping existed, let alone the phenomenal technological complexity of mechanical timepieces. They represent a tremendous benchmark in precision engineering. Until the mid-19th century, watchmakers were the world’s most innovative engineers. Inside a watch is an entire universe of miniature machinery designed to be 99.999% accurate 365 days of the year – for generations. There is no planned obsolescence in horology.

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TIME: What made watches the target of collectors?  

SP: Initially, clocks and watches were playthings of the elite, royalty, the aristocracy, and later America’s industrial barons. The great watchmakers sought patronage of their grand clients—European royalty to the Ottoman Sultans and the Chinese Emperors. They tried to dazzle their patrons with their ingenuity. When Graves and Packard came on the scene most collectors were not just wealthy but had put together collections comprised of antiques. For instance, J.P. Morgan favored watches from the 16th and 17th centuries – which he later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Packard and Graves changed the game in that they commissioned pieces designed to their whims and desires. For instance, in 1927 when musical alarms were incredibly rare, Packard asked Patek Philippe to create a musical alarm pocket watch that played the entire lullaby from his mother’s favorite opera, Godard’s Jocelyn. Each man had deep pockets and was determined to create an entire collection, not simply as trophies but for personal use.

TIME: Why would anyone care about mechanical watches today?  

SP: In the 1970s the mechanical watch industry nearly ticked its last tock. Cheap and accurate quartz watches dominated the market. But since the early 1990s mechanical watches have come roaring back into favor. It’s an interesting phenomenon tied to the rise in global wealth. In their heyday mechanical watches were the ultimate sign of luxury but in recent years luxury has become something of a commodity. Mechanical watches are truly bespoke objects and priced so that only the deepest pockets can purchase them. In a sense they’ve come full circle.

TIME:  So who are the Graves and Packards of today?

Since the global economy crashed in 2008, sales of high-end mechanical watches have taken off, both contemporary pieces and also vintage. Last year, Christie’s sold $126 million in watches, the third consecutive year of record-breaking sales. In the past, you could follow global wealth by where the watches were. That’s true today. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries that was Europe, in the 19th and 20th centuries it was America, and in the 21st that has shifted to the east to Asia and Russia.

TIME:  What’s become of Packard’s and Graves’s watch collections?

SP: After the men died their collections were eventually broken up and scattered. The choicest pieces including the Supercomplication, ended up in some interesting places. They are some of the most sought after by collectors today. They rarely come on the market. Last summer, one of Graves’s Patek Philippe wristwatches, a Tonneau-shaped minute repeater made in 1928 fetched $3 million. A year earlier, Packard’s rare Vacheron Constantin pocket watch chronometer with a trip repeater and grande and petite sonnerie, made in 1919, was auctioned for $1.8 million.

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