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A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World's Most Legendary Watch Hardcover – February 19, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

It was an arms race that came down to the ticking of minute and second hands. The duel between two wealthy Americans to build and own the greatest timepiece ever constructed is meticulously narrated by journalist Perman. Spanning the Gilded Age to the Great Depression, the story focuses on the competitors, James Ward Packard, who built the luxury-car company that bore his name, and financier Henry Graves Jr. The story will attract both watch enthusiasts and readers interested in the Gilded Age, as it examines the fascinating technological complexity of timepieces in the context of the era’s overall focus on progress. The book sometimes reads as a catalog of the competitors’ acquisitions, translating the prices into eye-dropping modern figures, but Perman’s ability to enliven the narrative with sparkling historical details—packs of dogs nipping at the wheels of the first Packards—enlivens the account considerably. The battle for ever-greater timepieces reflects the distinct characters of Packard and Graves, the brilliant engineer and the crushingly competitive heir, and pays homage to the crowning achievements of a lost world of wealth, privilege, and culture. --Bridget Thoreson

Review

"Stacy Perman has pulled off a remarkable feat in this book. In telling the story of the most complex watch ever made, she writes about a device that not only tells time with exquisite percision but also, in her capable hands, opens up a revealing window onto an entire age." (Toby Lester, author of The Fourth Part of the World and Da Vinci's Ghost)

"A unique competition between two scions of the Gilded Age is the driver for this fresh look at the mores of the rich and powerful. The aim of the competition was to acquire the world's most complicated timepieces. She effectively combines these different strands, providing a compelling social history...A masterful approach to composition combines with a fascinating plot and makes its subject entertaining as well as compelling." (Kirkus, starred review)

"Lively" (Publishers Weekly)

“A story artfully told and illustrated with rich historical detail. (New York Times Book Review)

“That Perman has crafted a compelling tale that tells several stories at once and will appeal equally to readers inside and outside of the insular watch-collecting community is a testament to her considerable skills…. Perman's pacing makes the tale feel downright suspenseful.” (Los Angeles Times)

"Imagine an Edith Wharton novel crossed with Dava Sobel's Longitude." (Nick Foulkes, author of High Society)

“Stacy Perman provides a captivating view of high-flying, other-era wealth and privilege and the enduring appeal of artifacts that tumble down through history with the fairy dust of titans still attached. This book makes a Rolex seem a piker’s toy.” (Les Standiford, author of Desperate Sons)

“Stacy Perman’s A Grand Complication is a masterfully layered tale of the lives of two incredibly wealthy men and their obsession to conceive and own the most fabulously constructed, incredibly complex, exquisitely made watches on the face of the earth. And like the ‘complications’ she writes about, it all works.” (David Tripp, author of Illegal Tender)

“Engrossing… Perman brings it alive.” (Dallas Morning News)

“A lively account…provides a window into [watches'] role as status symbols during an age of conspicuous consumption.” (Columbus Dispatch)

"Perman packs in so much detail about the lavish lifestyles of the pre-Great Depression rich that her book can sometimes read like The Great Gatsby on steroids. But there’s no obscuring the real stars here, the triumphs of Gilded-Age nanotechnology brought to life by the obsessions and money of Packard and Graves." (MacLean's)

"The duel between two wealthy Americans to build and own the greatest timepiece ever constructed is meticulously narrated by journalist Perman. Spanning the Gilded Age to the Great Depression, the story ... will attract both watch enthusiasts and readers interested in the Gilded Age, as it examines the fascinating technological complexity of timepieces... Sparkling historical details enliven the account considerably… Pays homage to the crowning achievements of a lost world of wealth, privilege, and culture." (Booklist)

“Jazz Age drama… Perman’s attention to detail evokes Jack Finney as she carefully reconstructs daily life in fin de siècle America and the Roaring Twenties. Her obvious passion keeps the pages turning." (Civil Engineering)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books (February 19, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439190089
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439190081
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.3 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (38 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #396,716 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By emg55 on September 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My complaint is about the way the watches were portrayed, especially the most incredible one that sold for many millions at auction recently. The author spends little time about the actual details these watches had and instead offers very brief descriptions of what they did. Rarely was there any mention about the craftsmen who made these watches.

These watches could take years to plan and complete, yet we might read a few paragraphs, or little more, about some of them. There could have been excellent period drawings or photos that show these watches. Instead, the bland watch photos look like something from a Google search.

It was not about a race at all. It was mostly biographies of the two wealthy men who liked to order custom watches. I found this book very dull and very lacking.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Sinohey TOP 500 REVIEWER on February 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
According to its title, the book is ostensibly about watches; particularly complicated mechanical pocket watches, which were highly prized by the cognoscenti of the 19th and 20th century.
Such devices, in addition to indicating time of day, hours, minutes and seconds were in their more "complicated" forms marvels of mechanical function and accuracy. Complications such as calendar function, alarms, phases of the moon, chronometry and tachymetry exponentially increased their value.

The centerpiece of the story is a coach watch designed by world-renowned Swiss watchmaker firm Patek Phillip. The unique watch took eight years to design and build from 900 parts. It was made of 18 carat gold, was almost 9 centimeters (3.5 inches) in diameter (much larger than a standard pocket watch) and had 24 complications with unique custom features as, a celestial chart based on the night sky, sunrise and sunset and several chimes including Big Ben's bell melody. It was dubbed the "Supercomplication". It had more complications than any watch produced until 1989, when Patek Phillip introduced the "Caliber'89" with 33 complications.
The watch was initially sold for $15,000 in 1933. When the original owner died, it ended up after 20 years, in Seth G. Atwood's Time Museum in Rockford, Illinois until1999, when the museum closed. On December 2, 1999 the "Supercomplication" was sold at Sotheby's Masterpieces auction for over $10 million to an anonymous Middle Eastern collector.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Fortunat Mueller-maerki on March 12, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Bookreview

The race to own the worlds most complicated pocket watch.

A Grand Complication - The Race to Build the Worlds Most Legendary Watch, by Stacy Perman. Published by Atria Books, New York in February 2013. ISBN number: 978-1-4391-9008-1. 344 pages (plus 8 pages of color plates), 24 x 16 cm, hardbound, dust jacket. Numerous b&w illustrations in the text, glossary, 30 p. of endnotes, 3 p. bibliography and 13 p. index. The book is available from Amazon.com and other sources at about US$ 20.

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Passionate collectors of complicated pocket watches may remember that the most expensive watch ever sold at auction, for US$ 11,002,500.-, was lot No. 7, at Sotheby's in New York, on 2 December 1999, a one of kind, ultra complicated pocket watch, bearing the number 198 385, completed 1932, made by Patek Philippe, Geneva. That watch features 24 additional `complications` beyond keeping time. It was made especially for the New York banker Henry Graves Jr., who had specified in great detail what functions the watch should perform and how it should look.

The book under review opens with describing the scene at Sotheby's that afternoon - and then takes some 300 pages to examine and describe how a market for a significant number of this kind of technology driven, ultra complicated watches developed in the United States in the first three decades f the 20th century. Its author is a New York based, business journalist, who in 2009 (on occasion of the 10th anniversary of the auction) wrote an article on the subject for Business Week, but discovered that the story was better suited for a book length piece than a few pages in a magazine.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Mary Lavers (in Canada) on March 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is the story of the "most complicated watch ever built" (or at least it was in its time), a legendary watch that has in its history fierce rivalries amongst watchmakers and collectors, a decades long disappearance, and a 1999 sale at Sotheby's in the vicinity of $11 million. Think the story of the history of a watch would be boring? Well...maybe a little, yes.

I had high hopes that this would be one of those "surprisingly fascinating" books about something I didn't know I cared about until I read all about it. And I have no doubt that for the author that was certainly the case. It's impeccably researched and well presented. You can tell that Stacy Perman really did find the subject fascinating and she studied it extensively. I just couldn't quite get there myself.

It was sort of like the opposite of The Lady and Her Monsters, a book I found fascinating in subject matter but sadly lacking in research quality. In A Grand Complication, I never doubted the author's facts, I just couldn't get myself to care about them as much as she did.

That's not to say there aren't interesting points in the book, especially when famous figures pop up like Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, all blustery and contentious. I was actually more interested in the stories around the main story.

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from Edelweiss (Above the Tree Line). I was asked to write an honest review, though not necessarily a favourable one. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.
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