The landscape of the watchmaking industry has inevitably evolved through different periods in history, where the developments would keep pace with the concurrent culture, technology, and economy, creating a unique dynamic between the industry’s stakeholders. Perhaps it would be hard to imagine by today’s standards, that even with significant wealth and vision, that a collector could influence the horological industry into achieving new technical benchmarks (short of starting a new brand, of course). But James Ward Packard, a particularly discerning collector, made it all happen in the early 20th century. He commissioned some of the most complicated timepieces with well-established horology maisons, and the resulting creations are still held in extremely high regard a century later.
Following in the footsteps of his father Warren Packard, who was a successful entrepreneur in the mid 19th century and made a name for himself in the hardware and lumber businesses. James Packard and his brother, William Doud Packard, would continue to build on their father’s success. Together, they established the Packard Electric Company in 1890, producing incandescent bulbs, as power grids were being built in their home state of Ohio. Although Packard would turn his attention to automobiles, financial difficulties prevented him from building them until 1899. Legend has it that he was prompted to do so after purchasing a vehicle from Winton Automotive in 1898; when it proved to be somewhat unreliable, Alexander Winton himself challenged Packard to do better, leading to the creation of the Packard Motor Car Company.
At the time, the Packard Electric Company had already expanded its manufacturing capability beyond light bulbs, which gave the Motor Car company an upper hand in building reliable electrical circuits and systems for their vehicles. On top of the reliability that made their vehicles stand out from the rest, their use of luxurious materials to enhance their build quality and target wealthy individuals led to their sales increasing so rapidly at the time that they skipped printing any brochures to catch up with the manufacturing schedule. The word quickly spread around and built them a loyal clientele, and most importantly the prestigious image of owning the Packard emblem across America.
With the wealth accommodated by his success, and also the knowledge and appreciation towards horological mechanisms, Packard was unsurprisingly fond of fine timekeeping devices. While he indulged in a rather intrinsic collecting experience, keeping most of his timepieces out of the public eye, he would be drawn to commissioning very special pieces from the finest Swiss maisons.
Packard purchased his first Patek Philippe grand complication, (no. 125 009) in 1905, an 18k gold pocket watch featuring a chronograph, minute repeater, perpetual calendar and grande and petite sonnerie. After that, he began commissioning unique pieces in all forms, most notably an 18k gold ring watch (no.174 659) in 1917, and an ebony cane topped with a silver detachable clock (no.174 826), which could be replaced by a second knob made of ivory, both from Patek Philippe.
Other than luxuriously fusing time keeping devices with daily objects, it would seem Packard’s engineering background meant that he had a deep appreciation for the intricacy of a complicated movement, and requested some of the most challenging combinations of complication. While the costs were presumably not an issue, it all boiled down to how far watchmakers could push their boundaries into designing complications. In 1916, Packard commissioned another 18k gold grand complication (no. 174 129) from Patek Philippe, with sixteen complications, and featuring a somewhat uncommon foudroyante, which measures the fractions of a second.
Two years later, Packard commissioned a 20k gold pocket watch from Vacheron Constantin, which appeared to be a chronograph with a regulator dial, although, it was also equipped with a very special set of repeater functions, incorporating a trip repeater, a mechanism that utilised a double barrel system to store a secondary power specifically for chiming functions, so the watch could be actuated for chiming multiple times before it needed to be rewound. The trip repeater in this watch, however, was responsible for a quarter, half quarter repetition with a grande and petite sonnerie, and it is believed that it was the first time that this particular construction was made.
The last commissioned timepiece from Patek Philippe would be the “Packard” (no. 198 023) in 1927, a double-sided astronomical pocket watch featuring a rotating celestial map of five hundred gold stars, accurately depicting the night sky over Warren, Ohio, the Packard family’s hometown. Unfortunately, Packard would pass away due to illness just a year later.
James Ward Packard’s appreciation of fine watchmaking, combined with his engineering acumen, led to the development of some of the most spectacular watches in history. They harken to an era where the great industrialists were visibly influential, beyond their immediate professional spheres. Today’s watchmaking industry seldom sees these kinds of commissions, or perhaps we should say, the ones that become known to the public are exceedingly rare. Their historic legacy though continues to inspire collectors, and, hopefully, the watchmaking industry at large.