I am here in New York City attending the opening of Patek Philippe’s wonderful Grand Exhibition. We were fortunate enough to have a private Revolution USA tour before the exhibit opened, and the timepieces they have brought to the US are nothing short of amazing. If you have the opportunity to come here (the exhibition runs from until the 23rd of July), it’s well worth it. The exhibition is free and open to the general public, so think about making a trip to the Big Apple to learn more about the history of portable timekeeping and about Patek Philippe.
I was able to sit down with Christian Laats, a restoration watchmaker who works in the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva and was instrumental in preparing the timepieces in the Grand Exhibition for display.
What is your role at the museum?
“In the museum, I have restored a number of the watches on display. I specialize in the antique, which is 100 – 500 years old. At the museum, we have two collections, Patek Philippe watches and the antique collection. Most of our watches in the collection are working. Some of the pieces are not working, because restoring them would change the “historical evidence.” For example, say we have a piece from the 16th century, if we have to restore it to working order, it would not be the same watch. We would have to change out the parts, and as a result, it would be remade by me. That’s not historically interesting.
When I do restore a piece, I try to restore it like it was back then. We use the same methods as were used when it was manufactured. If you don’t use similar techniques, you see the differences in the tool traces, and it changes the nature of the timepiece.
The Patek Philippe Art of Watches Grand Exhibition in now officially open! Join us at Cipriani 42nd Street New York from today until July 23rd, and travel through the world of Patek Philippe in 10 themed rooms encompassing 178 years of innovation, independence, craftsmanship and passion. See more at the link in bio.
Which do you prefer: working on modern timepieces or antique pieces?
I have done both, and I find restoration more interesting because every day is a new day. I have to adapt to the style of the maker. One day I have to work like an old master, then a week later, I work on a Patek piece and I always have to adapt how I do the work. I have to figure out how the watchmaker worked when the piece was made.
What do you love about what you do?
Sometimes we get pieces that I have never seen before, and that is very exciting. I learn something every day, which makes me become better and better.
Where did you start your career?
I was trained in Denmark. I started with clocks and scientific instruments in a museum, and we worked on the Royal collection, which included timepieces. I worked there for four years, then I wanted to learn how to make the pieces. We don’t have any manufacturing of watches in Denmark, so I moved to Switzerland and worked four years in a prototyping workshop, where I had to build every piece of every watch.
Is it good to keep antique watches running?
Most of the pieces we have in the museum are in good condition, so a big part of my job is to conserve them. If the pieces are well maintained, meaning that you change the oil periodically and do the regular service, they can run forever.
If a piece isn’t dated, how to you determine its age?
You can see with certain innovations what time period it is from — if it uses a particular technique, it’s from this period. Most pieces are dated, if not by a watchmaker, then by the case maker, or we can date it from the proof mark of the precious material (each year they had a slightly different logo), and so on. I have never been unable to determine the age of a piece, at least within 50 years. There are different styles that fit into certain epochs.
What is your favorite timepiece in the museum?
My favorite piece is by an American, Albert Potter, he was a watchmaker at the end of the 19th century who went to Switzerland to work. He merged the American tradition with the Swiss tradition. We have one piece, which is a Constant Force Chronometer, from 1893.
What are your favorite pieces in the Grand Exhibition?
We have a piece from William Anthony, an English watchmaker, which is an oval watch with extendable hands, hands that adjust automatically to the changing width of the dial as they travel around, and I really love that watch. Another one that is really interesting is the pocket watch with a secular calendar, which takes into account the “400-year-rule” (full centuries cannot be leap years unless they are divisible by 400 without a remainder), meaning that only this calendar will jump directly from February 28 to March 1 in the year 2100 (all normal perpetual calendars will turn to February 29 and need to be adjusted).
Are you enjoying yourself?
For a watchmaker, it’s the best job in the world. I can handle and examine and work with the greatest timepieces of all time.