We often talk about the lasting impression made on the watch world by gifted watchmakers or pioneering chief executives, figures whose input is perhaps the easiest to measure, either through the watches they make or by the performance of the brands they manage.
But that only scratches at the surface of the business of making and selling watches. What of the people behind the scenes, those whose sway is less know beyond industry circles?
One such figure, whose enigmatic presence has left a lasting imprint on Patek Philippe, is Alan Banbery, who joined the business as Director of Sales for English-speaking territories in 1965.
Alan Banbery’s personal and unique Patek Philippe ref. 3448.
“He came along at an important time,” said Nick Foulkes, who interviewed Banbery while researching his exhaustive yet utterly engrossing tome, Patek Philippe The Authorised Biography. “When I was doing the book [Alan] was a useful way of exploring a time, Hank [Edelman, Chairman of the Henri Stern Watch Agency] in New York is also somebody who crops up a lot. From time-to-time there are these key employees at Patek Philippe who play a crucial role in the business and he was one of them.”
Banbery was born in London but travelled to Switzerland in the late 1940s at the age of 17 to study at the Geneva School of Watchmaking where, as well as a technical knowledge of horology, he mastered the French language.
In Foulkes’ book, Banbery explains how participating in lessons conducted in French was at first difficult, as was making sense of watchmaking’s rich – and decidedly French – terminology.
The headquarters of Patek Philippe located on Geneva’s storied Rue du Rhone
It was in Geneva, passing Patek’s grand Rue du Rhone headquarters of the time, that he developed a fascination for the brand he would later play an important part in guiding back to greatness.
After his studies, Banbery spent a year working at Universal Genève before returning home to complete his National Service, that saw him serve in Egypt. He would go on to set-up a jewellery shop in the East End before joining Garrard & Co, where his gift of the gab and watchmaking knowledge saw him flourish as a salesman, even selling a Patek Philippe to one of the Kray twins – he doesn’t remember which – although he recalls they paid cash.
The Garrard & Co store where Banbery began his professional life in watches.
It was during a Patek Philippe exhibition held at Garrard, which comprised of that year’s collection, as well as a suite of platinum and emerald jewellery, since the brand then producing haute joaillerie as well as haute horlogerie, that Banbery came to the attention of Henri Stern, the grandfather of current Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern.
The jewellery was displayed more as a showcase of the firm’s capabilities but nevertheless Banbery sold it and to none other than Princess Grace of Monaco, the movie star turned royal who was perhaps the most glamorous woman in the world at the time.
Alterations were required, in the form of more diamonds on the earrings, and Banbery travelled back to Geneva to relay the instructions to Patek’s jewellers before delivering the items in person.
Grace Kelly, who would later become Princess Grace of Monaco, in To Catch a Thief, courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Banbery remained at Garrard & Co for a further five years before realising that there was little chance of career advancement. When he next met Stern, he invited him for a drink in London where the Patek owner made it clear that there would be a job for him, should he ask.
Given the sharply dressed Bon Vivant’s skill for sales, affable demeanour, fluent French and technical knowledge, Stern, perhaps recognising some of his own qualities in the Englishman, installed Banbery as Director of Sales for English speaking territories.
But his influence and value to the company would spread far further, as Foulkes puts it, “Alan was the right man at the right time.”
Banbery holding two very important Patek Philippe piece, a pocket watch made for Queen Victoria and the company’s first wristwatch made for Countess Koscewicz of Hungry, courtesy of Dogu Tasoren.
Banbery would be appointed as curator of Patek Philippe’s Private Collection five years later, his keen eye and technical knowledge making him better placed than many to expand the collection that started with Henri Stern’s love for Geneva enamel pieces and then became a passion project of his son, Philippe.
When he joined the company in 1962 – he would not take over from Henri until 1977 – Philippe was shocked to discover the company owned perhaps only 40 pocket watches dotted around the business in various cabinets. On his travels, he emersed himself in the collecting community, which then had next to no interest in wristwatches, purchasing pieces at first “mainly to create a collection for posterity”, including a ref. 2419 for CHF 30,000. To put that into perspective, one sold at Phillips Hong Kong in 2016 for just shy of £1 million.
A look inside the Patek Philippe Museum today.
Stern and Banbery’s esurient acquisition of some 2,500 pieces over the decades also undoubtedly nurtured and fuelled the collector’s market for pieces of all shapes and sizes, pocket watches and wristwatches alike and, as Philippe’s ambition for the collection grew into something grander and more public, not just Patek Philippe pieces. Banbery, together with watch writer Martin Huber, also co-authored two seminal works on the output of the manufacture, the first focusing on pocket watches in 1982 and the second dealing with wristwatches six years later. Both have served as reference texts for collectors and auction houses alike.
Banbery was omnipresent in the auction room, maintaining a friendly rivalry with American industrialist and legendary watch collector Seth Atwood. When Atwood, the founder of the Rockford Time Museum, put the famed Patek Philippe Graves Supercomplication up for auction at Sotheby’s in 1999 following the museum’s closure, it is understood Banbery was only just pipped at the post by the eventual winner, the late Sheikh Saud Bin Muhammed Al Thani, who paid $11 million. It is rumoured Banbery’s limit was $10 million.
The Henry Graves Supercomplication that Banbery nearly won.
It is perhaps worth considering for a moment whether the current climate for watch collection, especially the biggest ticket auction pieces, would be anything like it is today were it not for Stern and Banbery’s ravenous horological appetite. A cynic might even question whether that wasn’t the aim all along, an expensive and masterfully played long game. Collector Dogu Tasoren, whose Instagram account @art_of_horology delves into the history of Patek Philippe, agrees that their actions continue to pay dividends today. As he puts it, “I definitely think that Patek Philippe prices would be considerably less today if Alan Banbery and the Stern family didn’t take care of the brand’s heritage the way they did.
“This gave collectors assurance that Patek Philippe took care of their history and that they will continue buying important pieces for their museum which as a result will cause vintage prices to rise significantly, which led more collectors to buy vintage Patek pieces. So, the auction market would, in my opinion, definitely not be the way it is today.”
The building that now holds the Patek Philippe Museum.
Either way, Philippe Stern’s world-class collection found a permanent home in 2001 on Geneva’s Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers in the same building where Patek Philippe’s casemaker, Atelier Réunis, once made Nautilus bracelets.
Arnaud Tellier, Antiquorum’s Asia-Pacific director, served as the Patek Philippe Museum’s first director and conservator between 2000 and 2011, and spent his first few months in the role working closely with Banbery, who introduced him to the various subsidiaries, facets and people that made up the wider business of Patek Philippe, before retiring in December of that year.
He told us that, “my questions and our conversations at the time were more related to certain watches or the context of their acquisitions. Being, for more than ten years, in the world of auctions, I knew a lot of these pieces and was more interested in learning about those that were not acquired through auctions.”
Inside one of Banbery’s exhaustive tomes on Patek Philippe.
“It is obvious that, having had an active and regular purchasing policy, the influence of Patek Philippe was important from the 1980s onwards in the world of auctions. Mr. Philippe Stern and Mr. Alan Banbery were therefore key players in this market. The strong auction prices and the media coverage they generated contributed to the brand’s aura, as was the publication of the first books on the manufacture.”
The Graves came up for sale again at Sotheby’s in 2014, allegedly handed over to the auction house to help settle the Sheikh’s outstanding bill, this was after all a man who once paid Leica £2 million to make a 60kg telephoto lens. Banbery’s prose outlining the competition between Henry Graves Jnr and James Ward Packard can still be found on the listing here.
The idea of this competition between two hugely wealthy individuals has since been all but discredited, the tantalising story not holding up to much scrutiny, indeed it is highly unlikely the pair had even met. Could this have been the invention of a master salesman?
“That’s his period,” confirms Foulkes. “I don’t know if he was directly responsible for that, but you mustn’t forget times were different, research was different and for a good few decades that was accepted as one of the fundamental truths of early 20th century watch collecting.”
A sketch of Banbery’s ref. 3448.
The Stern family clearly greatly valued Banbery’s contribution to their company, as they are believed to have presented him with a unique Ref. 3448 perpetual calendar wristwatch in yellow gold as a gift. The watch was manufactured in 1970 but modified by Patek’s master watchmaker, Max Berney, in 1975 to replace the moonphase on the dial with a leap year indication while Patek’s dial-maker Stern Frères made a custom dial. The watch sold at Sotheby’s in 2008 for CHF 1.84 million.
Banbery also played an instrumental role in a corporate pivot so graceful in the face of the Quartz Crisis that it might be better described as a pirouette. Henri Stern was far more prescient than many of his Swiss colleagues to the advent of electronic and quartz-based timekeeping, having set up an electronic timekeeping division at Patek Philippe in 1948, however the arrival of Seiko’s quartz Astron wristwatch on Christmas Day 1969 changed everything.
The three books that Banbery and Huber authored together with A Voyage to the end of Time that came up for auction together.
While the rest of the Swiss watch industry was decimated, first by the arrival of quartz and then the recession of the mid-70s, Patek Philippe fared better than most, even achieving sales of CHF 50 million for the first time in 1973. Stern achieved this largely by carrying on regardless, but also tasking his Electronic Timekeeping Division to produce its own inhouse quartz movements, allowing the business to keep pace with the fast-moving sector.
Around the time Quartz arrived on the wrist, the language used by Patek Philippe in advertisements spoke of ‘observatory levels of precision’, of a perpetual calendar that ‘thinks for itself’ and in one advertisement, even going so far as to superimpose one of its large electronic master clocks over a fine gold watch bracelet, irreverently hinting to the levels of accuracy one could expect from its wristwatches. But after 1969 this approach was rendered instantly out of date.
An advert for one of the many exhibitions Banbery would have had a hand in putting together for the brand.
“[Banbery] organised a lot of exhibitions in the 70s and those were hugely important at that time for making that shift,” said Foulkes. “In the mid to late 70s, you get a complete 180 change as they realised these quartz watches were dropping in price and the wristwatch was escaping from its imprisonment as an object of functional accuracy and emerging as a cultural object with an importance of its own that isn’t directly contingent upon its precision and that’s where Banbery comes in.”
This programme of educational public watch exhibitions, instead focused on the craft employed in each Patek Philippe watch to highlight the stark difference between quartz watches and hand finished mechanical timepieces such as those made by Patek. These started locally, before venturing out on worldwide tours with The Crafted Hand in 1973, a travelling exhibition that finally came to an end in 1988.
These were of course a precursor to the biennial Watch Art Grand Exhibitions that Patek Philippe launched in 2012 which, while much larger in scale, do have the added benefit of being able to call upon the museum collection that Banbery helped to build.
Our thanks to Nick Foulkes, Dogu Tasoren and Arnaud Tellier for sharing their knowledge of Alan Banbery and what he has brought to the watch world.
Finding a brand new version of the books Banbery and Huber wrote is next to impossible now as both are out of print, however we think this is one of the better opportunities we could find to pick up both second hand.