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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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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
"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)
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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.
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.
The `Graves Supercomplication' represents the endpoint of a decades' long, intense competition between two American business tycoons, who both - though of vastly differing style and temperament - are a product of their time, characterized by boundless optimism, belief in technology, and the excesses that resulted in the great depression. Ward Packard from Ohio, the self made founder of the Packard luxury brand of automobiles, and Henry Graves of New York, born into a moneyed banking dynasty, both developed an infatuation with high-grade, complicated timekeeping mechanisms. Both started ordering bespoke, custom built complicated watches made in Switzerland (primarily by Patek Philippe). The author spins a captivating story describing the `arms race' between the two protagonists to not only dream up ever more complex watches, but to actually have these machines produced in steel and gold.
Perman writes a suspenseful book, but is obviously more at ease in analyzing the social, cultural and financial angles of the story, than delving into the technological/horological nuances of the mechanical wonders that she writes about. The reader interested primarily in the physical objects, their function or how they were designed and made, will be richly rewarded with countless fascinating morsels of horology (and occasionally be annoyed by misquoted or misunderstood details) but t its heart the book is a social commentary and not a book about complicated watches. Readers who are horological collectors however may find Permans' descriptions of and insights on the contemporary auction market for watches of interest.
Fortunat F. Mueller-Maerki, Sussex NJ, February 2013