Obsession is a demanding mistress. On December 2, 1999, Philippe Stern, president of the venerable Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, found himself once again in her grasp. Keeping his steely Genevese reserve, he glanced at his watch, an impeccably crafted Patek Philippe, purportedly the perpetual calendar made in 1943, the one given to him by his father, Henri, who had preceded him as president. At sixty-one, Stern remained the very picture of understated elegance. A gentle man with thinning white hair, he had quietly slipped away from his office at the company’s headquarters in Plan-les-Ouates, a sleepy village on the outskirts of Geneva, well before the appointed hour for the auction of the legendary Supercomplication, the most exquisitely complex mechanical watch ever created. Given the time, it was probably best to take the telephone call from his family’s villa in Anières on the shores of Lake Geneva. In any event he would be more comfortable there.
The time quickly approached 8:30 p.m., nearly 2:30 p.m. in New York City. There was still some time before the auction began. It had been thirty years since the Supercomplication had last surfaced. Having already eluded the family once, the moments until bidding opened were relatively short.