Invitation to Voyage: The Complete History of Patek Philippe’s Glorious World Timers

Satisfy your wanderlust by journeying with us into the world of Patek Philippe’s elegant World Time watches.

I suppose there is a certain irony that I decided to write this sprawling 11,000-word story encompassing every World Time watch Patek Philippe has ever made, precisely when my country Singapore entered its second lockdown, bringing my plans for spending June in Europe to a crashing halt. I know I’m not alone in my burning desire to rediscover the world and all the cities in it that I love or to remake my bonds with the people in them that I miss so much. It’s funny but the moment that our new COVID measures came into effect, I found myself retrieving my Patek Philippe reference 5131 cloisonné enamel World Time watch. As if, somehow, by losing myself in the beautifully rendered map of the Americas, Africa and Europe, I could remember how interconnected this world once was and hopefully will be again. So, I began to see my World Timer as a chalice of renewed hope to once more live the glorious opiatic maelstrom of transcontinental travel, even if for the time being this is limited only to my imagination as I write these words.

A Longing for Travel

As I cast my eyes around the famous city disk that frames the 24-hour ring and enamel dial, a Proustian flood of memories came rushing back to me that was associated with these beautiful names: Paris, New York, Tokyo. I could almost smell the signature charcoal aburi otoro at Sawada Sushi in Ginza, or taste the boeuf bourguignon at Chez Fernand on Rue Christine. With them came a renewed surge of desire to once again venture to these extraordinary capitals, to feel each evening unfold with the promise of limitless adventures. And it dawned on me that my World Time reference 5131 is not just a watch in the time-telling sense, but since it has no real indexes beyond small applied gold dots at the cardinal points, it also alludes to the time with an old-world, gentlemanly elegance.

I feel that this is, and always has been, the spirit of the Patek Philippe World Timer. It has never been a watch that displays too much information, that shows daylight saving time or even zones with 30-minute discrepancies, a notable exception being the 1937 ref. 542 HU, which has a bezel that displays Honolulu with a red triangle as a half time zone, between Alaska and Samoa zones. Rather, it is a work of art; a majestic symbol of a world united by 24 time zones that transcends language, race, religion, and reminds us all that we live together on one planet. It is a watch that should be given to world leaders on the occasion of monumental peace accords or in moments of historic reunification. Mikhail Gorbachev deserves one for letting the Berlin Wall fall. F.W. de Klerk deserves one for freeing Nelson Mandela and effectively ending apartheid in South Africa. And Nelson Mandela deserves one for the 27 years he spent in captivity, and for forging a modern multicultural democracy.

Over its 85 years, the Patek Philippe World Time in both pocket watch format with the glorious reference 605 HU and across all 17 wristwatch iterations has been a resplendent playground for Patek’s signature artistry in case, dial and hand design. To me, this signals that from the very beginning, a Patek Philippe World Timer has approached travel from a stately and elegant manner, evoking bucolic equanimity. Even today, it is not a watch for anyone in a rush. For that purpose, for breakneck-speed business trips or non-stop transglobal kinetics, there are other watches that have more precise indicators and that accommodate factors like daylight saving time. No, a Patek Philippe World Time is a Grande Dame. She is a watch that epitomizes graceful repose; a watch you would have genuflected upon whilst smoking a soothing Hoyo de Monterrey on the upper deck of a cruise ship as you made the four-day journey from America to Europe in the 1930s. She is a watch to wear over your shirt sleeve as a totem of inimitable style onboard your private jet as was Gianni Agnelli’s practice with his Patek Philippe reference 1415. To me, my Patek Philippe World Time is best described by the refrain in Charles Baudelaire’s poem Invitation to Voyage, “Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté, / Luxe, calme et volupté!” which can be translated as, “There — nothing but order and beauty dwell, / Abundance, calm, and sensuous delight.” Finally, this complication also represents a wonderful collaboration between the world’s most revered haute horlogerie maison and a watchmaker named Louis Cottier, who would become one of the 20th century’s most significant horological figures.

Before I get into the story proper, though, I want to thank the Patek Philippe team in Singapore, in particular its general manager, Deepa Chatrath, as it was their wonderful event, Le Voyage, celebrating the history of the World Time that was the inspiration for this article.

The World Divided into 24 Zones

It was the obscure Italian mathematician Quirico Filopanti who in his book, Miranda,published in 1858, first proposed 24 zones with prime meridian situated in Rome. Sadly, he was destined to remain shrouded in obscurity as very few people took notice of what turned out to be a profoundly pragmatic suggestion. Why? Because up until then, there was no such thing as standard time. It was up to every country, even every town in the world, to determine their own local time. Because most places wanted to maximize the daylight hours needed for farming and agriculture, the common practice was to define noon as the time when the sun was directly overhead. Which was to prove incredibly imprecise and which led to mass confusion, especially once vast stretches of land became interconnected through the railroad. It fell to Scottish-born Canadian railway engineer and inventor Sir Sandford Fleming to propose global standard time with the world divided into 24 zones. However, this was far from his only accomplishment. Fleming, a true Renaissance man, had already designed Canada’s first postage stamp and engineered the majority of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Intercolonial Railway when he ran afoul of the challenges related to the lack of standard time. In 1879, after missing a train in Ireland because of the lack of a universal coordinated time, Fleming took it upon himself to evangelize for the formation of one standard time to rule them all.

He proposed this during a meeting at the Royal Canadian Institute and recommended for it to be used by all countries in the world. That’s right. He proposed a single universal 24-hour clock for the world. Amusingly, he proposed that England, specifically Greenwich, be the anti-meridian at 180 degrees. As this meridian is also the international date line, it would mean people could walk a few steps from one date to the next. By 1883, the heads of all the American railroads had agreed to use a common time. By the early 1900s, standard time would largely be adopted but now with the prime meridian running through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. The world was then divided into 24 time zones, positioned every 15 degrees of longitude, each one hour’s difference from the next. If you’re curious, the 180th or anti-meridian now passes primarily through the Pacific Ocean, though it does bisect Russia, Fiji and Antarctica. By 1918, standard time was voted into law by the United States government, meaning even if you wanted to create your own polygamous enclave promoting obscure religious practices with your own time zone, you couldn’t. Well, OK, you could but you would still have to follow standardized time even during Rumspringa.

Throughout the early 20th century, leisure travel was the exclusive domain for the very wealthy — the elite. First class travelers on board ocean liners that took two weeks to cross the Atlantic expected rooms, service and food the equivalent of the very best five-star hotels. And they got it. The Hamburg American Line hired Charles Mewès, the designer of Paris’ mythical Ritz Hotel, and their line of ships so faithfully mimicked the uber luxury destination that they were nicknamed the “Ritzonias.” Columns and chandeliers were by Lalique, china by the Manufacture de Sèvres, and silverware by Christofle. Accordingly, women wore gowns, and men wore white-tie to dinner, all of which was packed in an armada of Louis Vuitton and Goyard trunks tended to by an army of servants.

His Father’s Son – Louis Cottier

The first Cottier to propose a World Time watch was not Louis but his father, Emmanuel, a noted specialist in watches and automatons based in Carouge, Geneva, which, incidentally, is the location of one of my favorite fondue restaurants, Au Vieux Carouge. In 1885, Emmanuel presented his “heures universelles” concept to the Société des Arts in Geneva and subsequently filed for a patent for his design. Unfortunately, his idea was received with very little interest, to say the least. As such, he went on to pursue other ventures without having built a working world timer It was, eventually, Louis his son who took Emmanuel’s concept and developed a working mechanism completely from scratch. Perhaps it was because he was born the same year his father made his presentation that Louis Cottier felt so deeply connected to the World Time complication. In 1931, at the age of 46, Cottier developed the fabled mechanism and filed a patent for it. The patented mechanism consisted of an inner dial with hands and 12 hour markers, a 24-hour ring and a second ring with cities printed on it. The way it worked was straightforward and highly intuitive. The 24-hour ring was synchronized to the central hour and minute hands. While the main hands turned clockwise, the 24-hour ring turned counterclockwise. Each of the 24 hours would align with the cities representing their respective time zones.


August 2021


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