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Performance Art: Patek Philippe Skeleton Watches

When it comes to watchmaking, we can liken Patek Philippe to Professional Football Hall of Fame Justice Alan Page, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (the only active American Football player to also be a physician), or basketball legend Michael Jordan. It is simply not enough that they are the best in what they do, but they’ll also excel at anything else they want to. They can do it all, and define the pinnacle of excellence.

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The Patek Philippe 5180R, and its sister piece, the 7180/1G are a showcase to the world of how Patek is able to be leaders in not only hand finishing but also watch design and engineering. While most of us know them for the extraordinary watches that they have produced, we seldom see the level of craftsmanship that the artisans have trained for outside of the regularly scheduled programming we know and love. However, when they create pieces that are off the beaten track, and that have a focus on an artistic vision, we get creations like the reference 5180R.

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A common issue with squelette watches is that they can do a poor job of defining where the hands are quickly. Patek have not become the king of mountain by completely throwing out the book on watchmaking, as the hands on the 5180R are of a contrasting black against the gold of the watch and movement. This allows its wearer to find the hands of the watch immediately upon a glance. The hour indices act effectively as part of the movement retainer, allowing for the movement to seem almost suspended between its front and rear sapphire crystals. With the hour markers connecting from the case to the movement holder, it does a wonderful job of telling time but drawing the eye to the centre of attention—the work done to the movement.

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The famous calibre 240 movement is deconstructed through the skeletonization process, and from that we are privy to the highlights of its architecture, and of pivotal details which make this movement so famous. Between the hand applied anglage, and the hand engraved details, there is no surface that was untouched by an artist’s hands. With the engraving alone, it can take upwards of 130 hours to complete the two sides of the movement and micro-rotor.

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This lengthy laboring is precisely the reason why we do not see this sort of offering from Patek very often. While you might think that these references are decades old, the 39mm reference 5180R is from September 2017, and the 7180/1G is an unworn example with paperwork from July 2018. When sold, the 5180R carried a retail sticker price of $102,060.

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In a past life, I did time at a university focused on art criticism and curation. One of the things that I remember quite fondly, perhaps because it was when I earned some of my higher marks, was when we made art by being left to explore our own imaginations. We were not bound by a specific requirement to produce a work that had to speak of something we had to pretend to care about. It was then that we were able to demonstrate what we were capable of doing and it showcased the skills we had worked so hard to hone.

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The reference 5180R and even the 7180 from Patek, in my eyes this is exactly what my university allowed for me to do, and that is to just create something with a focus of highlighting the skills to which we have strengthened over time. It is a demonstration to everyone of what artistry and design can look like. The designers and engineers ensure that the product(s) function as they should, and the artisans add the flourishes to bring out the personalities. 

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This to me is like saying I use the photo of a wrist shot from Josef Koudelka’s ‘Invasion of Prague’ to tell time. While it will tell the time correctly twice a day, it is more of a statement on time itself. There is much more than what is immediately presented to us on the surface of what we are looking at, and with the Patek it is using the watch as the main vehicle of storytelling. Between the 5180 and 7180 having case diameters of 39mm and 31mm respectively, these are watches that one can use and enjoy but also know that they are actual works of art as well.

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