The world of vintage watches is full of wonders. In 1942, when the entire world was at war, Patek Philippe released a set of watches that couldn't be farther away from the military pieces of the time. A total of 5 references that defy the dark times they were born into with sheer Artdeco pomp and time-only extravaganza. If you're not very deep into vintage watches or Patek Philippe's design history you may even never have heard of this quintet that collectors have nicknamed the "Comets". These are the references 1540, 1545, 1548, 1550 and 1551 and the main story of this week's article.
March 28, 2023
Rare Patek Philippe Watches - The "Comet" Collection
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
Spot on! This week Watches & Wonders 2023 kicked off and there are as always the familiar voices saying that there's not much "new" to all these new releases. So I thought why not showing you something completely new. Something you probably haven't seen or heard of before. Something that's already 80 years old... There are still these gems around that you don't hear from, that don't make it to the headlines but that will make your head turn the moment you lay your eyes on them. So let me introduce you to: The set of Patek Philippe "Comets".
The world of vintage watches is full of wonders. In 1942, when the entire world was at war, Patek Philippe released a set of watches that couldn't be farther away from the military pieces of the time. A total of 5 references that defied the dark times they were born into with sheer Artdeco pomp and time-only extravaganza.
If you're not very deep into vintage watches or Patek Philippe's design history you may even never have heard of this quintet that collectors have nicknamed the "Comets". These are the references 1540, 1545, 1548, 1550 and 1551 and the main story of this week's article. Five designs that appear anachronistic in almost every era as something like this probably never has been true mainstream.
All Five Patek Philippe references from the "Comet" set - reference 1540, 1545, 1548, 1550, 1551 (from top left to bottom right). References 1540 and 1551 dissociate (besides the dial) through recessed versus elevated orbs on the case, respectively. Photos Courtesy of Bonham's, Christie's, Antiquorum, Roni Madhvani & Charlie Dunne.
1) The Dial
These five references have a lot more in common than just their year of release. All five show a very expressive dial made by Stern Freres. It features baton hands, stick hour markers at quarter positions and circular markers for all other 5-minute increments (except ref. 1550).
Each dial has at least two distinct levels (sectors) - one inner circle circumscribed by the hour hand and one outer circle. Three references show written hour (1550) or second/minute indication (1548/1551) on the outer sector, while the ref. 1540 & 1545 show circular markers for each minute.
Now to the figurative "Comets". The name was derived from a creative reinterpretation of this dial layout incorporating the case design. You can imagine the dial outline as well as the sector circumference as two orbits around the central pinion. On the inner orbit, circling the tip of the hour hand, you can see figurative celestial bodies at the 5-minute positions. Similarly, the outer orbit features two to four larger comets integrated into the case design. And we could even expand this romantic night-sky to the subsidiary dial at 6o'clock.
This is where the "Comets" come into play. Imagine two orbits, one on the case edge and one around the tip of the hour hand, and you will see the circular structures on the dial and case forming the comets. Photos Courtesy of Bonham's, Christie's & Antiquorum.
2) The Case
Of course a large part of the appeal of these pieces comes from the quite unique case design in 32-34mm. For these golden pieces of art (all are yellow or pink gold) Patek Philippe employed the renowned case maker Markowski. Markowski (Geneva hallmark key 8) has been a household name since at least 1934 and is today most famously known for various shaped and artisanal designs for Patek Philippe and others. Apart from the hypnotizing orbs on the dial perimeter all references also have variations of the so-called hooded lugs in common.
Let's have a closer look at the case architecture of this ref. 1551. The case dissociates from the ref. 1540 by the elevated, rather than recessed, orbs. It shows the "Comet" specific hooded lugs between 10 and 2. Photo Courtesy of Roni Madhvani (@roni_m_29).
At first glance these timepieces might appear as futuristic or space-age-ish but to me they speak the language of the geometric Artdeco. You can clearly see that several elements overlap with classic American Artdeco architecture of the 1930s and 40s. The exterior as well as the interior of these references combine shape, aesthetic and emotions to form a holistic experience. So they might be the Chrysler building of vintage Patek Philippe... or rather the Griffith Observatory to stay in the celestial narrative.
Several design elements of the Los Angeles Griffith Observatory. Photos Courtesy of Timeout LA.
3) The Movement
As you can see on the dial the "Comets" all come with a sub-second which sits quite high on the dial at 6o'clock to leave enough space for the sector layout. In other words on the inside beats a movement that's rather small for the case. Here, we got Patek Philippe's 10 ligne (22.5mm) movement of the time: the 10-110 with straight line lever escapement. Only 2,463 10-110 movements have been produced between 1940-50.
Patek Philippe 10-110 movement beating inside a reference 1550 (left) and the caseback (right). You can also nicely see the Geneva key no.8 hallmark (Markowski) on the inside of the caseback. Photo Courtesy of Antiquorum Monaco July 2019.
4) The Production & Popularity
As I mentioned before production of these references started in 1942 and most likely ended by 1945. Combine this war time production period with them coming from one of the finest watchmaking manufactures these timepieces must be quite rare right? Well, rare doesn't even come close to the limited production of these Artdeco gems.
The ref. 1545 is the only out of the five for which I could find an estimate on the total production... and it comes in at a meager 12 examples. Putting all sources together about 18 Comets have hit the market over the recent years - that's 18 for all five references combined! And for only 8 of them we got a little extra information.
|Ref.||Movement No.||Case No.||Seller||Source|
||627,718||AQ OCt. 1988|
||627,720||Bon June 2019||here|
||628,144||Chr Dec 2015 & AQ Nov. 2006||here, here|
||628,501||AQ 1999 & Chr Nov. 2004||here|
||628,502||AQ July 2019 & ONbeHALF||here, here|
|Hermann Goering's Watch||c.f.|
||628,562||Courtesy Roni Madhvani|
Table 1. Known "Comet" pieces auctioned and sold over the last years. Put together with the help of John Nagayama (@JohnBehalf), Roni Madhvani (@roni_m_29) & Charlie Dunne (@StrictlyVintageWatches). AQ = Antiquorum; Bon = Boham's; Chr = Christie's.
Overall, these pieces are the rarest of the rarest and information of given set is very scarce. Well, there's even so far only one instance when two watches from the set have been directly next to each other in ages - namely in the stock of John Nagayama (ref. 1540 & 1550).
A family portrait of the Patek Philippe references 1540 and 1550. Photo Courtesy of John Nagayama (@JohnBehalf).
Surprisingly, even though these pieces are as rare as they come, pose an interesting collection core as a set and are grand time-capsules of prime Artdeco design, they don't really pay above other Patek Philippe time-only watches of the time: Between 17,000 US$ to 20,000 US$ for all references but the 1550 (~29,000 US$).
5) The Design Origin
Well as unique, special and flamboyant as the "Comet" design comes along it is actually a true brain child of its era. The 1930s and 40s have seen several timepieces with compatible expressive case structures by Patek Philippe and others. The so-called hooded lugs were quite popular at the time and gave wristwatches an almost architectural composition.
Three example Patek Philippe references from the late 1920s to the early 1940s with hooded lugs. From left to right: ref. 507 "Ribbon Hooded", ref. 539 "Armadillo", and ref. 544. Photos Courtesy of Christie's.
This has been a very experimental and tumultuous period for Patek Philippe. The ref. 96 "Calatrava" is another such experiment that went into a completely different direction - Bauhaus. The path definitely wasn't straight before the brand settled on the simplistic design language we all associate with their early wristwatches today. But in the 1930s and 40s these two styles - Artdeco and Bauhaus - really battled it out. It's just that according to our modern taste the more subtle elegance won and appears to be the more timeless approach.
Coming back to the "Comet" references we can se that this style was potentially too bold for its time and the times to come. It is still a watch released during World War II and taste started to become a lot more sober. Cases generally became more simplistic, aka round. Patek Philippe kept experimenting all over the last Century but the most popular, bestselling styles were round timepieces.
A design that integrates every square millimeter of the case into a holistic experience. A stunning Patek Philippe reference 524 in pink gold from 1938. Photo Courtesy of Aste Bolaffi.
The references 1540, 1545, 1548, 1550, and 1551 can thus be seen as a window to a completely different philosophy of style. They appear so extravagant today because there really hasn't been much mainstream Artdeco love in the watch world. We simply don't experience these shapes and compositions often enough.
That's why it's so important to shine a light on a set like Patek Philippe's "Comets". They show us that there can be a lot more freedom in design. Just by taking a closer look at the lug architecture we can clearly see that several opportunities to make modern watches appear really "new" or different are simply neglected. The "Comet" set looks so unusual because lugs on modern watches - well probably over the last 30-50 years - are to 99% straight or hinged or missing and that's it. Just another argument why vintage is far from obsolete.
I would like to especially thank John Nagayama of ONbeHALF watches and Roni Madhvani for their background information provided on the case and movement numbers of recently sold pieces and also John Reardon of Collectability for sharing some of his expert knowledge. Further, a special thank you goes out to Charlie Dunne, Head of Research and Content at WindVintage and Founder of Strictly Vintage Watches, for his input and his bottomless library of vintage references for additional visual aid.
 Ref. 1550, Cornes Capuchonees, Yellow Gold; Antiquorum Monaco, July 2019;
 Swiss Poincons de Maitre; David Boettcher, Vintage Watch Straps;
 Patek Philippe Kaliber; Stephen Foskett, Uhren-Wiki;
 John Reardon; Personal correspondence (March 20 2023);
 A Fine, Unusual ad Extremely Rare 18k Pink Gold Wristwatch with Pink Dial; Christie's NY, Dec. 2015;
 Horological Pilgrimage to The Patek Philippe Museum; Charlie Dunne, Collectability;
 The most unusual Patek Philippe case designs of the past 100 years; A Collected Man;
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