Few brands have become synonymous with a particular complication quite like Patek Philippe and World Timers. In fact, this feature has always been and always will be a cornerstone of the Swiss watchmaker’s operations, with each iteration exuding class and sophistication.
Despite the function making its debut on Patek Philippe’s wristwatches, the World Timer actually owes its origins to the pocket-watches made by the independent watchmaker Louis Cottier. Are you ready to discover the history of this complication? Let’s begin!
The History of the World Timer
Up until the mid-1800s, there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm (maybe that isn’t even the right word to use) behind the standardisation of set time zones around the world. This lack of coordination was particularly frustrating when it came to travel, whereby many wayfarers would miss their trains or buses because of arbitrary timekeeping. Not only that, but for an industry such as the railway one, precise and consistent timekeeping is needed to ensure that the trains operate safely.
This all changed in 1879 when the Canadian engineer and inventor Sir Sandford Fleming, who, upon missing a connecting train, decided it was time to establish universally recognised time zones.
If you want to read a little bit more about the history of this complication, look no further than our dedicated World Timer article!
Upon its introduction in 1883, it didn’t take long for engineers and watchmakers to implement standardised time zone functions on timepieces. But make no mistake: this feat had its own…. complications (okay, we had to do that).
Amongst the many watchmakers who attempted to create the first timepiece to feature a function which displayed all the times around the world, the first to head to the patent office was Emmanuel Cottier. However, his system would prove erroneous.
Not all was lost, though: Louis Cottier, Emmanuel’s son, vowed to pick up where his father had left off, successfully creating the first functioning world timer complication in 1931. This system was then adopted by watchmakers from all around.
Born in 1885, Louis Cottier immediately demonstrated a burning passion for horology and an insatiable interest for micro-mechanisms. This talent and enthusiasm did not go overlooked, as Cottier was quickly hired by famed watch manufacturer Jaeger, one of the most prestigious names at the time.
Alongside his job at Jaeger, Louis Cottier was the owner of his own atelier, in which he let his imagination and mechanical ambitions run free. One such creation was the “Heures Universelles” (“Universal Hours”) project, which, as previously mentioned, saw the light of day in 1931.
Cottier’s invention was an instant hit and made a huge mark in the horological world as this complication proved both incredibly practical and sophisticated.
Although the initial patent went through numerous versions and updates, earlier versions featured:
- Fixed internal dials with their own hands
- Inner rings displaying 12 hour markers
- Outer rings with 24 hour markers and 31 cities printed radially, each corresponding to their time zone
The hands were regulated such that the time in every single city across the 24 time zones could be immediately identified. Then, the outer ring could be adjusted (using the hands) to display the desired time zone at 12 o’clock. At this point, the movement of the hands allows the inner dial to rotate clockwise to match up with the other time zones.
Prototypes and Special Editions
As we mentioned earlier in this article, Patek Philippe was the first manufacturer to mount a World Timer complication on a wristwatch. However, the earliest iterations were actually defined as prototypes: so few pieces were made, and they never officially were listed in the Patek catalogue.
Patek Philippe 96HU
The first Patek Philippe to feature the World Timer function needed to make an impactful debut: and what better way to start off strong than by being paired with the iconic ref. 96’s case? This was the same case that saw the introduction of the legendary Calatrava line. And how exactly did Patek manage to fit such a complication in a tiny 31mm case? And to make it work and look right, no less? They entrusted this task with Antoine Gerlach, the highly renowned and celebrated Swiss casemaker.
The 12mm thick calibers used in the only 2 exemplars of the ref. 96HU date back to 1913, and were encased a while later in 1937, but not before making a quick stop at Cottier’s atelier to be kitted with the World Timer module.
Inside the caseback, apart from the Geneva seal and serial numbers, we find an engraving of an owl, which means that the timepiece was meant to be exported to France.
Patek Philippe 515HU
The ref. 515HU is in a league of its own when it comes to World Timers.
Quite literally: it’s the only one to feature a “carreé galbè” case, giving it a very peculiar design and making it a totally unique timepiece. Given the shape of the case, it’s impossible to change the “reference” city, indicating that perhaps this creation was a design virtuoso, and not exactly intended for the commercial market.
To this day, only one 515HU has appeared on the aftermarket: the year was 1994, and the Antiquorum house auctioned off a rose gold exemplar, originally made at the specific request of an American Patek Philippe client.
Patek Philippe 542HU
In 1937, a new reference was introduced: the 542HU, whose case’s design would become the blueprint for the world’s first commercially produced World Timer – the 1415HU.
The 542HU’s case measures a tiny 28mm across, making it the smallest World Timer ever produced. Today, these dimensions appear almost microscopic to use, but it should be noted that this piece’s character is extraordinarily vast and fascinating, as it represents Louis Cottier’s extremely hard work to install a World Timer complication on a caliber which is just 10mm thick.
Like the ref. 96HU, only 2 ref. 542HUs were ever made, both in a yellow gold case. Unlike the previous two references, however, this one features the ring of 31 cities as its own type of bezel, rather than on the dial. This variation proved successful as it was practically much easier to rotate the bezel to set the reference time zone.
Patek Philippe 1415HU
In 1939, the ref. 1415HU made its debut in the Patek Philippe catalogue, their first “official” World Timer. It’s uncertain as to the exact number of 1415HUs that were produces, but the consensus amongst Patek scholars seems to be around 115 exemplars, each one equipped with the (then) all new cal. 12-120HU.
When you read a little bit further into this feature, you’ll find that it’s a massive improvement and modification, made by Louis Cottier himself, to one of the movements that Patek Philippe regularly employed for their time-only watches. The 1415HU’s case measures 31mm in diameter, made by the long-time Patek casemaker Wenger.
For the most part, the 1415HUs were encased in yellow or rose gold, with only one known exception made in platinum (pictured below, right), which was sold again by the Antiquorum auction house in 2002 for a record-setting 6,000,000 CHF.
There were two distinct production “batches” for the ref. 1415HU, whereby the earlier versions were equipped with a silver or golden dial, with 28 cities on the bezel, meanwhile the later iterations sported cloisonné enamel dials, depicting a world map. These later versions are considered as real works of art!
Artistic Masterpieces: Cloisonné Enamel Dials
Patek Philippe outsourced the manufacture of their enamel dials to the Stern Freres company (yes, the current owners of Patek Philippe); a long and arduous task that only a handful of incredibly skilled artisans could fulfill.
In short, the map’s outlines are traced with filigree (thin metal wire), and then these contours were filled with watercolour. After this, it underwent a first cycle of heat treatment in a specialised oven. Once taken out, the whole piece is super vulnerable to cracks and scrapping, but another layer of paint must be applied and yet another cycle in the oven must be done – this time it’s the oceans’ blue.
The maps don’t actually depict the whole globe, but rather just the European continent. Only 2 exceptions depict Eurasia.
Patek Philippe 1415-1
Alongside the ref. 1415HU we have a piece-unique 1415-1, made specifically for Dr. P. Schmidt in 1940. The basic case is the same, but with very significant modifications: the doctor requested that a chronograph function with a pulsometer complication be mounted onto the timepiece, as well as luminous hands and indices.
This, to me, is watchmaking at its finest: not only does the piece in itself have a beautiful and classy aura (just look at it!), but it tells a story, and gives insight to what its owner’s life must have been like. This watch accompanied a respected physician and medic who was talented enough to have his services be requested in different countries in different time zones. Although this watch appears very sophisticated and refined on the surface, the World Timer and pulsometer complications make this, for all intents and purposes, the very definition of a tool watch.
Patek Philippe 1416HU
Also in 1939, the ref. 1416HU was launched. Aesthetically it’s very similar to the 1415, with one slight difference: this one features straight lugs. This reference only has 3 known exemplars, and all other characteristics are identical to the 1415HU.
Patek Philippe 2523HU
Introduced in 1953, the ref. 2523 features a totally new cal. 12-400HU, bringing further advancements to Louis Cottier’s World Timer patent: now, the disc displaying the 41 cities could be rotated using the crown’s mechanism.
Inside of the ref. 2523HU line there are two types of models: one with wider lugs, and the 2523-1, with thinner ones.
As time went on, watch cases became larger. As such, the Patek 2523HU’s case, this time made by Gerlach, measures 35.5mm across.
Just like the ref. 1415HU, the 2523HU has an ample dial layout choice, with each one receiving the same high level of detail.
Nowadays, the enamel and guilloché dials are the most sought-after by collectors.
As far as enamel dials go, the process for the 2523HU ones is the same, although you get much more variety of maps and continents. In fact, most of the cloisonné enamel dials of this model depict the North-American continent. Only one was produced with the South-American one and two with Eurasia.
The other type of dial used a guilloché method, and was made available in many different colours, but mainly silver and gold.
Truth be told, there’s actually a third type of dial that was used for the 2523HU… certainly the most fascinating and eye-catching: the blue enamel dial. Out of the 4 known exemplars, Christie’s auction house recently sold the most researched one – featuring a Gobbi double signature, a unique characteristic of the watch which led it to being auctioned for €7,990,000! (below, centre)
Just like the other World Timers, the 2523HU would see very limited production numbers. Currently, only 23 are known to exist, most of them being encased in yellow gold, some in rose gold and only one in white gold (the last of which resides in the Patek Philippe Museum).
Patek Philippe 2523-1
As mentioned in the previous section, the 2523HU had a variant model: the 2523-1. Aside from having different lugs, this variant’s case is ever so slightly larger – coming in at 36mm.
The 2523-1 was introduced 1957, a full 4 years after the original model, and was not produced with any enamel dial techniques, but rather smooth dials or guilloché worked ones.
Like the main model, the -1 is powered by the cal. 12-400HU, and sports 41 different cities on its dial. For whatever reason, both the 2523HU and its variant didn’t receieve a great deal of success at the time of their release, which explains the so few 10 exemplars for the -1.
Not only wristwatches
As well as the World Timer wristwatches, Patek Philippe also equipped their pocket watches with this famed complication.
In 1937, Louis Cottier built around 100 “jumbo” World Timer calibers (the cal. 17-170HU), which were far larger than the ones for the wristwatches. Almost all of these calibers were employed in the ref. 605HU. Despite it not being able to proudly sit on your wrist, its 44mm diameter allowed the owner or whoever else to admire the artistic masterpiece on a larger canvas, as well as the mechanical marvel created by Cottier.
This ref. 605HU also had two variants in its dials.
Initially, Patek Phillippe employed silvery, champagne or rose-coloured dials on the 605HU, but it soon proved to be a “dull” design choice, made even more apparent with the overall decline in popularity of pocket watches.
Learning from their short-falls, Patek Philippe decided to replace these regular dials with the prestigious cloisonné enamel dials, immeasurably increasing the timepiece’s appeal.
The majority of the cases of the ref. 605HU were made from yellow gold, with only 7 known exemplars made in rose gold.
Credit where credit is due; Phillips made the fascinating discovery of this 7th exemplar, which they immediately and just recently auctioned after its unearthing. The aftermarket world and collectors from all around were quick to recognise the importance of this revelation, leading it to fetch a hammer price of CHF 1,160,000 (€1,091,000).
-Translated by Patrick R.