Prague City Hall hosts an exhibition on the art of watch-making

Reloj de Martin Brož

Prague’s famous astronomical clock this year celebrates its 600 birthday. To mark the occasion Prague City Hall is hosting an exhibition on the art of watch making. I took a turn around the exhibition and its curator Jan Lidmansky showed me some of the treasures on loan.

“We are showing mainly vintage pocket watches and wrist watches. Visitors can admire many well-known brands, many complicated timepieces –from the first automatic wristwatches to the thinnest pocket watches for the smallest mechanical movement ever.”

Can you point out some of the exhibits that you are most proud of?

“Definitely it would be the Girard Prego section, one of the oldest watch manufacturers in the world dating back to 1791 and I would like to point out their pocket watch with five time zones from 1860 which is pretty special because back then there was no air-travel and travelling was slow – so five time zones is pretty impressive! I would also like to point out another Girard Prego with equation of time – it’s a special complication showing you the difference between our time and astronomical time. I would also draw attention to an Uysses Nardin –there is a trilogy –an astronomical trilogy showing you the position of the planets, showing you the sunrise, sunset and everything you need to know about what’s happening in space.”

These watches must be extremely valuable...

“They are indeed –the trilogy is one of the most expensive pieces we have –their value is seven million Czech crowns.”

Are there any watches with an interesting history?

The Trilogy by Ulysse Nardin
“Definitely –especially in the Jaeger-LeCoultre section here. You can see the thinnest movement pocket watch ever made from 1907, you can see the smallest mechanical movement ever made from 1929 and what is pretty special is this Grand Complication - it’s a pocket watch made of gold with a perpetual calendar, with a minute repeater and moon faces. That’s a really nice one. This one here has a minute repeater in gold with jacquemarts –an enamel dial and tiny human figures inside use a hammer to strike a gong.”

These look like status symbol pieces all of them. Were these diamond-encrusted watches here actually worn or were they locked away in a safe somewhere?

“Lately they have been locked away in a safe or shown at an exhibition in Switzerland but they were worn a hundred years ago. If you look at this piece you will see that it was dedicated to the Romanian queen and she eventually gave it to the museum so you can see on the back of it the royal crest.”

And this watch – was that worn on a chain?

“Yes, that’s an Art Nouveau broach-watch, enamelled and set with gems – a very nice piece, it was worn in 1910.”

Are these diamonds here?

“Yes, it is encrusted with beautiful diamonds and has the smallest mechanical movement –calibre 101 which is always placed in watches that are diamond-set. The time is very decent and small – almost secret – so you can only see it on closer inspection.”

And I believe you have a wristwatch that has been in space?

“Yes, there are several pieces that have been in space.We have here the first automatic chronograph ever worn in space -4 years ago – and we have displayed it with the original space suit worn in 1994 on board the ISS. And -this watch here –the Omega SpeedMaster that is a very famous watch because in 1969 it was on Mr. Armstrong’s wrist when he took that famous step on the Moon. So it is actually the first watch ever to have been on the Moon.”

Do these watches actually all work?

“Yes, they all work and they are all very rare pieces from company museums.”

So how did you manage to acquire them – from companies and private collectors?

“Yes, part of it is from private collectors, but most of the pieces are from the given companies. It was very difficult to acquire them, but luckily I have been in the business for eight years now and I know a lot of people from the industry - so it was possible. The worst part was that the exhibition runs for two months and it was very difficult to get them for such a long time.”

So what helped –was it the 600th anniversary of the astronomical clock?

“I think definitely – this is the first time ever that something like this is taking place in Prague because all the previous exhibitions were commercial, exhibitions of new pieces. So the connection between Orloj’s long history and the long history of watch making – that was pretty helpful –and this beautiful setting for the exhibition –all that helped a lot.”

I understand there is to be an auction at the end of this exhibition – is that correct?

“That’s correct – on March 29th there will be a special auction of watches – a few rare pieces from Patek Philippe and others. There will be some Czech watches as well –the company Prim has made a limited edition of twelve pieces dedicated to the Astronomical Clock and each watch has engraved on the back the name of an apostle –so it is very special. The money from the auction will be used for charity –one foundation that works in aid of children and another that supports the Paralympics team.”

I heard you have some watches from the Olympics as well?

“Yes, that’s in the Omega section. Omega has been a partner of the Olympic Games since 1932 and they are showing off their stop watches, their Rattrapante watches and special functions that are tailored for the Olympics.”

If there were one piece that you could have from this exhibition which watch would it be?

“That’s a really difficult question. My dream piece is actually a master minute repeater from Jaeger-LeCoultre. It’s a platinum watch with a minute repeater and indication of power reserve. It is a very nice piece and its value is over 130 000 euros, I believe. But if I could only chose one thing I would go for some antique piece, because you cannot buy those anymore. So it would be something from the Jaeger-LeCoultre vintage section.”

What is the oldest timepiece on display here?

“The oldest piece is from 1847 and it’s actually a lever-winding mechanism not a proper watch. So it is very special. Patented in 1847 and it is just the movement.”

And the most modern watch?

“The most modern watch is from 2011. Some of my friends are watchmakers in Prague and made pieces especially for this exhibition. So there are two pieces from 2011 by Martin Broz - a Czech watchmaker.”

And is there anything else we ought to see?

“One of the very special pieces here is in the Omega exhibition – the first wristwatch with a Tourbillon carriage from 1947 –a very rare piece. The best thing about it is that, as you know, today when you buy such a watch you always see it through the dial, but back in 1947 it was hidden so it is part of the movement but you cannot tell at first glance. For ladies we have a lot of pieces with diamonds –some companies have sent Art Deco pieces so you can admire the gem-settings, diamonds, emeralds, you can really see the art of watch-making not just from the technical angle but design-wise as well.”

How many companies are exhibiting altogether?

“There are 26 different companies exhibiting some 200 pieces.”

And how long does the exhibition run for?

“Well, if someone wants to come and see it they only have a few more days. We close on March 29th, ending the exhibition with an auction, a fashion show and a very nice evening.”