4 November 2021

Double-signed Patek Philippe and the stories we tell

by Tony Traina

Every watch tells a story, or so the saying goes. Over the years, that story often becomes more fiction than fact. A previous owner’s life is imagined: when they bought the watch, where they wore it, how it got this scratch or that ding. Where they bought the watch — what store or retailer they strolled into on that fateful day — is a critical element of the story: it’s where the story begins. 
When a double signature on a dial hints at this origin story, it lets the imagination run wild. The name of a retailer on the dial, next to the manufacturer, gives one the opportunity to begin imagining the life the watch has lived, starting at the very beginning. 

Patek Philippe relied heavily on its network of retailers throughout the 20th century to establish its brand in markets across the world. To take an example, Montevideo, Uruguay is a long way from Geneva, Switzerland, but partnerships with retailers like Uruguay’s Freccero helped Patek fortify itself as the luxury watch manufacturer the world over.

From America to Europe and back again, Patek Philippe formed relationships with retailers across the globe, all tasked with spreading the gospel of Patek. It’s a bit of a historical oddity, really, having a local boutique share space on a dial with the name most synonymous with luxury watches. To be sure, it’s not something that would happen carte blanche in 2021. Nowadays, Patek and other high-end manufacturers have an international presence and name recognition, often operating their own boutiques, not to mention the influence of social media and the internet.

But throughout much of the 20th century, the retailers had the customers, and therefore, the power. Whether a customer walked in for a graduation, wedding, or retirement gift, it was all up to the retailer in which way they’d direct a customer with a wallet already half open.

Today, these double-signed watches can command significant premiums over their companionless counterparts. In the past few years, we’ve seen a Tiffany-signed Nautilus reference 5711 sell at auction for five times its MSRP. Sure, results like this can be partially attributed to rarity, hype, and other vices of the watch industry. But, it also signifies a growth in scholarship as collectors are increasingly aware of not only what a signature’s font should look like, but the import codes, hallmarks, engravings, or other details that might also be found on a retailer-signed timepiece. Scholarship aside, at its core a double signature is still desirable because of the story, the romanticism, and the curiosity it elicits.

Each signature offers its own tale, both about the customer who bought the watch and about the relationship between manufacturer and retailer. A Tiffany-signed Patek conjures up images of an American financier in the mold of watch collector Henry Graves, while one signed by London’s Asprey might evoke images of a more magisterial type of wealth, perhaps a client wearing a wig and a Patek on their way to a House of Lords committee meeting (or, more accurately, a nouveau rich Middle Eastern oil baron on his way to the same). Meanwhile, Patek Philippe enlisting Serpico Y Laino to sell its timepieces in Venezuela might tell the story of a faraway Geneva manufacturer who still saw the wealth being generated by South American oil fields and sought to capitalize on it.

Adding to the intrigue, in most cases, it was the retailer itself that would stamp the dial on site or at its nearby production and assembly location. It illustrates the trust Patek placed in these retailers, letting them stamp and sell their watches. Oh, and it can lead to some really odd dial mishaps when the retailer slips up.

For this piece, we endeavoured to look at a few of our favourite retailers of Patek Philippe.

Audrey Hepburn looking through the display window in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. | Tiffany & Co. 

Tiffany & Co.

As an American with an unabashed sense of American exceptionalism, of course I had to begin our exploration of double-signed Patek Philippe timepieces with Tiffany & Co. (apologies to Subdial, who are headquartered in London).

American exceptionalism aside, Tiffany is still the preeminent retailer of Patek Philippe watches, the only one that can, to this day, print its name alongside Patek’s on a watch dial. It’s a relationship collectors value too: Tiffany-signed Patek dials command the highest premium of any double signatures in the market, with collectors sometimes paying mind-boggling multiples to be a part of the lore.

Founded in New York City in 1837 by jeweller Charles Lewis Tiffany, Tiffany & Co. has since become a symbol of American luxury, and its Fifth Avenue flagship store a symbol of New York. As the story goes, Tiffany’s relationship with Patek began shortly after, after Mr. Tiffany met one Antoine de Norbert Patek in New York in 1851 (notably, the same year Patek changed its name from Patek, Czapek & Cie. to Patek, Philippe & Cie). Tiffany has been selling Patek timepieces ever since, from pocket watches and clocks to hyped sports and steel wristwatches. From a simple time-only Calatrava reference 96 to a Perpetual Calendar Chronograph reference 2499, if Patek made it, you can find ultra-desirable examples — often with record-holding auction results — with Tiffany signatures.

A Patek Philippe reference 3417 Amagnetic retailed by Tiffany & Co., the only known of its kind. | Sotheby's

Asprey

Across the pond we go, to Asprey, nestled on London’s posh New Bond Street. Founded in 1781, Asprey has delivered all manner of luxury goods over the ensuing centuries, perhaps most notably supplying jewelry, crowns, and other such niceties to British royalty. It also counts celebrities and notably rich, from J.P. Morgan to Ringo Starr, amongst its clients.

As a retailer of watches, Asprey managed to make a name for itself as a seller of Patek and other luxury brands. Perhaps most famous is the yellow gold reference 2499 signed by Asprey, the only known example signed by the retailer. In 2018, it set a world record for the reference when it was auctioned for CHF 3.9 million. So important is the timepiece that it’s often referred to simply as “The Asprey,” its distinct luminous hands also setting it apart from other reference 2499s. Interestingly, the hands can be found in other Asprey-signed Patek Philippes — like a magnificent reference 565 sold by Phillips in 2019 — perhaps further illustrating that they were a special request by a very special client of Asprey.

The only known Asprey-signed reference 2499 | Sotheby's

Later on, Asprey carved out a substantial niche by selling timepieces to newly rich Middle Eastern clients drowning in oil money. Perhaps most notable of these clients was the Sultan of Oman, whose emblem can be found on all manner of watches. Mr. Sultan not only collected watches for himself, but was also fond of gifting timepieces to friends, family, and confidants, all bearing the distinct Omani Khanjar, or dagger symbol.

Omani Khanjar, here as seen on an IWC Ingenieur.

Hausmann & Co.

Moving beyond the English-speaking world, perhaps no country has meant more to watch collecting than Italy. From christening the “Paul Newman” dial to bringing us John Goldberger, Italians have been setting trends in watches — and more broadly, if we’re being honest — since before watch collecting became cool. Part of this is surely owed to Bel Paese’s historical appreciation for timepieces, an appreciation no doubt thanks in part due to long-time retailers in the country’s largest cities. In Rome, this is Hausmann & Co., a retailer with roots dating back to 1794.

Unlike some other retailers of luxury goods (see above), at Hausmann it’s always been about the watches — the company traces its roots to a small watchmaking workshop off a Roman piazza. In 1870, an expert German watchmaker, Ernest Hausmann, joined the Italian firm, bringing his expertise and machinery to Rome. Soon after, Hausmann became the owner of the firm and put his name on the door.

Hausmann & Co.’s records, showing the sale of a Patek Philippe pocket watch in 1897. | Hausmann & Co.

Hausmann & Co.’s focus on timepieces meant forging relationships with the best manufacturers in the world — Vacheron Constantin, the original A. Lange, and of course, Patek Philippe. Hausmann’s books first refer to selling Patek Philippe timepieces as early as 1897.

Even today, Patek Philippe has produced limited-edition collections for Hausmann & Co., a testament to the companies’ strong relationship and Hausmann’s historical importance in cementing Patek’s position in the Italian market.

A Calatrava ref. 2484 bearing the Hausmann signature.

Freccero

A Frecerro-signed stainless steel Calatrava.

Patek wasn’t only focused on traditional havens of luxury consumerism. Throughout the 20th century, it also created relationships with retailers throughout Latin America, seeing the potential wealth being generated by industries like oil and gas. In Uruguay, its partnership with Joyeria Freccero is emblematic of Patek’s effort to become a worldwide brand. The Uruguayan jeweler’s history dates to 1870, when Francisco Freccero and Oscar Spangerberg founded the outfit. Freccero later acquired Spangerberg’s share of the business (co-founder strife is not solely a Silicon Valley phenomenon, it seems), changed the name, and moved it to a location in downtown Montevideo.

A Freccero signature on a pink dial, mostly reserved for the Latin American market. | Philipps

Studying vintage Patek Philippe watches sold by South American retailers also provides a look at the idiosyncrasies of local tastes. Many examples are cased in pink gold, owing to the South American penchant for the metal; on occasion, you’ll even find pink dials (the much sought-after “pink-on-pink” Patek), a look mostly reserved for the South American market and Patek’s partner retailers like Freccero, Serpico Y Laino, Gondolo, and others.

Signatures and stories

John Hancock’s large signature on the Declaration of Independence — perhaps the most famous in history — is important not because of what it is, but for the story it tells, one of defiance in the face of British tyranny. In the same way, dial signatures are important not because of a few letters put together on a watch, but for the stories they tell us, both about the companies that sold them and the people who bought them.

The prominence of pink gold examples in Latin America with retailers like Freccero provides a window into the joys of understanding and collecting retailer-stamped dials. These details and local idiosyncracies hint at a time when manufacturer and retailer worked in tandem to understand their local customers and humbly deliver the luxury products they wanted.

In a time when many bemoan the “homogenization of taste” wrought by the internet, social media, “influencers” and whatever other ills people seek to blame, it’s enough to have one longing for a simpler time.

A time when one might walk into a retailer, and the salesperson knew you by name, directing you to some new Pateks they just knew you’d like. And you wouldn’t base whether you liked it on how many likes your photo might get on Instagram (what even are these words?), or whether the watch is in-demand, rare, or had recently performed well at auction. All you had was your own taste. 

Freccero shuttered its doors for good in 2019. Patek had a dozen other retailer relationships, many of which still exist today: Gubelin and Beyer helped spread the Geneva brand throughout eastern Switzerland and beyond. While Tiffany & Co. held told New York, Brock & Co. sold to celebrities and socialites in Beverly Hills. While Hausmann sold to the financiers and politicians in Rome, Gobbi sold to the stylish and fashionable of Milan. 

All of these retailer relationships allude to a time long since passed, and while I’m not prone to any golden-agism, all too aware of the issues these eras faced, these retailer signatures are a reminder of what watches should be about.

Tony is the editor of Rescapement. Sign up to his newsletter about important watches.