A Brief History of the World (Time): Patek Philippe’s Beloved ‘Heure Universelle’ Watch

When Patek Philippe introduced its 2022 collection of timepieces at the Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva last month, fans of the firm’s World Time model, an icon of 20th century design, had reason to celebrate. The Geneva-based firm introduced not one, not two, but three new world timers, all of which seemed to suggest that after taking a two-year hiatus from traveling, watch lovers are ready to hit the road.

A world record World Time: this ref. 2523 is referred to as “The Silk Road” because the center enamel dial depicts one of only three known examples of the Eurasian landmass. It sold for $7.8 million in 2021. Image credit: Phillips

Among connoisseurs, however, no modern World Time watch could ever rival the rarefied, romantic appeal of a vintage model. Invented in the early 1930s by the Genevan watchmaker Louis Cottier, the mechanism at the heart of the World Time watch allows for the simultaneous display of the time in the 24 time zones established by the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, which fixed the prime meridian at Greenwich, England, forming the basis for Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT.

Patek Philippe World Time
The first among few: one of the earliest Patek Philippe World Time ref. 515R HU indicating 28 time zones was made in 1937. The movement is a caliber 10″‘ LeCoultre ebauche. The delicate hands were made by Louis Cottier himself, a personal touch he added to many of his pieces. Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

Cottier worked with Patek Philippe to create its first “Heure Universelle” (HU) watch in 1937. Known as ref. 515, the model was a rectangular pink gold Art Deco-style wristwatch featuring 28 place names, including Prague, Moscow and Fiji, engraved on a rotating exterior bezel.

A man of many talents: Louis-Vincent Cottier (1884-1966) was born in Carouge, the son of a watchmaker. After the economic depression of 1929, he found himself unemployed and started his own workshop making complicated movements such as the World Time. In the 1950s, he developed several new movements for Patek Philippe including the Dual Time zone and a bras-en-l’air which can be seen in the Fox and Crow pocket watch in the Patek Philippe Museum.

In the years since, the model has transformed into a collector darling—though experts agree that it tends to get less attention than some of the brand’s other vintage talking pieces.

Cottier’s original design, simple but complicated. Image credit: Revolution

“The World Time is one of the ultimate complications in the pantheon of Patek Philippe, yet often put on the sidelines,” says John Reardon, founder of Collectability. “With much attention given to the perpetual chronographs, chronographs, tourbillons, repeaters, etc. the World Time is often neglected the appropriate attention it deserves.

Patek Philippe World Time ref. 5531R-010 with minute repeater made circa 2017 for the 175th anniversary of Patek Philippe and a special exhibition held in New York. The enamel center dial depicts the Manhattan skyline. The above watch sold at auction for nearly $2.2 million. Patek Philippe still produces its World Time watches with Cottier’s invention application such as references 5130, 5131, 7175 or 5275. Image credit: Sotheby’s

“However, a look at the global world records for watches shows a number of ref. 2523 HUs and now we see the results of the highest end modern World Time, the ref. 5531R,” Reardon says, referring to the c. 2017 pink gold Patek Philippe ref. 5531R-010 World Time Minute Repeater that sold at Sotheby’s Important Watches sale in New York in December for nearly $2.2 million. “This shows the magic of the World Time,” he says, “and the respect the market places on this important part of Patek Philippe history.”

One of the first World Time pocket watches made in 1936 – 1937 indicating 28 time zones on a rotating bezel with a center seconds. Louis Cottier submitted his first World Time caliber to Patek Philippe at the time this watch was made. The gold hands were made by Louis Cottier. It was delivered in 1937 to Walser, Wald y Cia, Patek Philippe’s then agent in Buenos Aries, Argentina. Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

More than any other model in the venerated brand’s repertoire, the World Time reflects a fascinating narrative of travel, and history, in the 20th century. From the exotic place names that appeared on past models—including “Bagdad,” Bombay, Klondike and Saigon—to the political considerations that impacted what some cities were called, or even which time zone they appeared in, Patek’s world time watches offer a curious lens on to the locations that appealed to the earliest globetrotters.

Peiping around: this ref. 2523J HU was made in 1953 and shows the name ‘Peiping’ to represent what we now know as Beijing. The cloisonné dial represents Europe. This example has two crowns: the one at 9 o’clock is used to set the local time (as shown by the disc bearing the city names). Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

“The early models are really fun because they’re kind of the history of the world,” says Keith Davis, head of watches at Christie’s in New York. “The first thing I do when I look at a World Time watch is I look to China on the bezel to see how they labeled the capital at that time. China was going through so much during the production of the World Time: the revolution in the 1950s, the introduction of Peiping, Beijing, Peking, Nanking—they all change from the late 1930s to 1950s, which is the sweet spot for vintage Pateks or vintage Louis Cottier world timers.

This one of a kind, World Time with chronograph and pulsometer scale ref. 1415-1 HU was made as a special order in 1940. Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

“It’s also an authentication thing,” Davis adds. “Because, obviously, if I have a 1945 World Time and it says Beijing on the dial, we’ve got problems. That’s where my eyeballs go to first. Then you can understand: Are the cities in French? In English? You can put together the story of the watch just based on the cities. It’s a lot of fun if everything matches.”

Below, we highlight the key World Time references that all Patek lovers should know.

This exceptionally rare ref. 96 HU was made in 1937. It sold at auction in 2011 for $482,500. Image credit: Sothebys

Ref. 515 and Ref. 96: The Earliest World Time Models

The two earliest World Time references, ref. 515 and ref. 96, are distinguished by their fixed internal city bezels, which could only be adjusted by a watchmaker. (Later models, such as ref. 542, which was introduced in 1937, feature the city names engraved on a rotatable bezel.)

Rarest of them all: a Patek Philippe ref. 515 is the only example to surface on the secondary market. It was auctioned by Antiquorum in April 1994 for 550,00 CHF. Image credit: Antiquorum

The catch? They are next-level rare. “I doubt we’ll ever see a 96 World Time from 1937 come to market,” says Davis. “Quite frankly, I don’t think there is a 515 in private hands anymore. I think the Patek Museum has it.”

Three beauties: the ref. 1415 HU was produced from 1939 – 1954.  Over this period, approximately 82 watches were cased in yellow gold, 32 in pink gold and 1 in platinum; from which 47 yellow, 19 pink and 1 platinum have returned to the market. Cities on the bezel would differ depending on the final market destination starting with 28 cities in 1939 and up to 42 cities in the 1950s. From left to right, a ref. 1415 HU made in 1945-46 depicting 41 time zones; a ref. 1415 HU made in 1948 depicting 41 time zones and a ref. 1415R HU made in 1948 also depicting 41 time zones. Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

Ref. 1415 and Ref. 2523: Collector Darlings

More attainable yet still exceptionally rare are the next iterations of the World Time watch, ref. 1415, which was produced between 1939 and 1954 in a 31 mm case size, and ref. 2523, introduced in 1953 and discontinued in 1965.

The ref. 2523 HU was launched in 1953, replacing the 1415 HU. It is estimated that of examples with an enamel dial, 18 were made in yellow gold, with 13 identified back into the market; and 7 were made in pink gold with 5 identified back on the market. This possibly unique white gold ref. 2523 HU  was made in 1955 and indicates 41 time zones on a rotating bezel. The enamel center dial depicts North America. Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

“The 2523 will always bring more money than the 1415,” says Daryn Schnipper, chairman of Sotheby’s international watch division. “It’s somewhat rarer than the 1415, which is still quite rare. It’s thought that only 82 watches of the 1415 were made. And there were far fewer 2523s—a total of 45.” Schnipper attributes the attention paid to the ref. 2523 to the fact that, at 35.5 mm in size, “it’s a much bigger watch.”

Unsold: this ref. 2523-1R HU was one of the last World Time watches to be made in 1966 and was never sold. Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

“Any good 2523 is going to bring at least a million dollars, and that’s if it doesn’t have any enamel on it,” Schnipper says. “If it’s one with an enamel center, it can bring up to $4 million.”

Star value: this ref. 2523R HU was made in 1956. The inner cloisonné enamel dial depicts North America and includes a blue star just below three o’clock. Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

Reardon agrees that the model’s more wearable dimensions are a big reason why it’s so sought after. But size is just one factor. “The majority of 2523s feature enamel dials, most notably the cloisonné enamel dial,” he says. “Work of art is an understatement. These watches embody the best of all things vintage Patek Philippe aesthetically, mechanically, and of course with their extreme rarity. And their current market values reflect this and put the Nautilus in the dust.”

One of the most expensive watches to sell at auction is the Patek Philippe ref. 2523 made in 1953 in pink gold with a blue enamel center signed Gobbi Milano which sold for nearly $9 million in 2019. Image credit: Christies

Take the c. 1953 ref. 2523 in pink gold retailed by Gobbi Milan that sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2019—for nearly $9 million.

A rare dial: this ref. 605 HU features an enamel center dial depicting Neptune riding a seahorse. Its gold hands were made by Cottier especially for this piece. It was delivered to Theodor Beyer, Zurich in 1945. Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

Cloisonné Enamel Dials: Poetry in Motion

A vintage World Time model with a cloisonné enamel dial is where poetry and watchmaking meet. The technique involves an artisan marking off the outlines of the continents with a thin gold wire, then filling in the compartments with various enamel colors to reproduce the oceans and land masses, while repeatedly firing the enameled dial plate at high temperature in a kiln.

A rare example of a ref. 605 HU depicting a map of the world with 42 cities indicating different time zones. Made in 1949, its unique hands were made by Louis Cottier. Image credit: Patek Philippe Museum

Highlighted by unique, hand-painted maps of the Americas, Europe or the entire world, vintage World Times featuring richly colored maps, whose hues remain as vibrant today as they were upon leaving the factory, are the epitome of horological art. And if you know how to interpret them, they also offer compelling historical insights.

“What’s really fascinating is if you look at the majority of the cloisonné dials that were made for the 2523, they’re almost exclusively for South or Latin America,” says Schnipper. “Because that’s where the wealth was.”

There must dragons: this rare, possibly unique Patek Philippe 605 HU pocket watch features a “Star Dragon”. Very few ref. 605 HU pocket watches featured designs other than world maps. Made in 1944, this pocket watch sold at auction in 2015 for 965,000 CHF. The only other known, comparable reference 605 HU is in the Patek Philippe Museum, depicting the Roman god of the sea, Neptune, riding a sea-horse (see above). Image credit: Phillips

Ref. 605: HU Pocket Watches, Undervalued… For Now

The last big collecting category for World Time aficionados is centered on ref. 605HU, Patek Philippe’s Heures Universelles pocket watch, the earliest timekeeping device to feature Cottier’s pioneering mechanism. For roughly 30 years beginning in 1937, fewer than 100 examples were made, mostly in yellow gold, including a select number from the late 1940s featuring cloisonné enamel dials.

In the details: This ref. 605 HU made in 1941 may well show the marks of Cottier himself on the engraved moon and sun on the dial. These World Time pocket watches without enameled center dials still offer real value for collectors.  Cottier delivered movements for the ref. 605 HU to Patek Philippe from 1938 – 1964. Over this time, approximately 68 were made in yellow gold, of which 26 have returned to market and 27 were made in pink gold, of which 11 have returned to the market. Image credit: Collectability

One such watch is scheduled to hit the block at Christie’s Hong Kong on May 24. Manufactured in 1948, and sold in 1954, the 18k gold open-faced keyless lever world time watch with polychrome cloisonné enamel dial depicting the entire globe appears at auction for the first time, carrying an estimate of HK$5,000,000–10,000,000, or approximately $637,000 to $1,274,700.

A new record? Lovers of Patek Philippe World Time pocket watches will be watching the May 24 auction at Christies’s Hong Kong to see what this 1948 piece depicting the world in cloisonné enamel will bring. Image credit: Christie’s

“It’s everything you want in a pocket watch,” says Davis. “The market has it undervalued in relation to the wristwatches. But we may see a change here. This watch could send a new benchmark for pocket world timers.”

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