Patek Philippe 6102R
When you’re travelling from one celestial body to another within the 100 billion or so stars that make up our galaxy, which itself is one of 100 billion galaxies within the observable universe, it’s nice to have something to remember your place amongst it all. Interstellar hitchhiker Arthur Dent had his towel to remind him of home; perhaps if he’d had £220,000 to spend, he could have had this instead: the Patek Philippe 6102R.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy presents such an incredibly succinct reminder of just how small we are in this universe that it rather nicely sets the scene for what the Patek Philippe 6102R is all about.
That’s because the view on the dial of the 6102R is from that very same insignificant little blue-green planet, looking out over the western spiral arm of our home galaxy we call the Milky Way. Seen on the blackest of nights as a smear across the sky, it was as early as 500 BC that Greek philosopher Anaxagoras pondered if it might be made up of a collective of distant stars. He was right, but to grasp what that really meant was just too great for the thinkers that followed.
Just take a moment to understand what this means; we look up at night and see stars, discrete points of light blotting the sky, and we understand to a degree that these are objects that are very far away. But the Milky Way, the fuzz that stains the sky, looks that way because it too is made of discreet points of light, but in their hundreds of billions, so distant that they blur into one. The mind simply cannot comprehend such a staggering thought, and so a millennium had passed before the idea was even contemplated again, with the prevailing belief that it was a cloud in the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
And it was yet another millennium before Galileo Galilei saw through a telescope that the Milky Way was indeed a collection of distant stars, with Immanuel Kant theorising a century later that the galaxy was a rotating disk held together by gravity. With a low estimate of 100 billion stars—400 billion if you’re feeling optimistic—and a 100 billion planets, all travelling at some 600km per second, it’s no wonder that humanity took as long as it did to accept the truth.
Once again, Douglas Adams summarises this in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with the Total Perspective Vortex, a device built with the sole purpose of showing a person the entire scale of the universe and their insignificance compared. It would send them mad, and rightly so; if it is so difficult to comprehend the existence of a mass of 100 billion stars, being forced to perceive a further 100 billion of those masses of a 100 billion stars is a sheer impossibility.
But the head-scratching doesn’t end there, because what we observe in our galaxy only makes up a tiny five percent of what’s actually there. The remaining ninety-five percent is made up of dark matter—stuff that has gravity but can’t be seen—and dark energy—stuff that’s causing the expansion of the universe to accelerate that also can’t be seen. Imagine what the dial of this Patek Philippe 6102R might look like if we could.
It’s this vision of the sky that makes the Patek Philippe 6102R so incredible. That’s because if you were to take a look up at the stars from Geneva, what’s shown on the dial here is what you’d see. The 6102R doesn’t just portray a representation of the Milky Way, it shows you exactly what it looks like.
You’ll notice the white ellipse surrounded by compass directions on this celestial image; that’s the horizon line, a window up into the universe as it would be seen for real. Look to the south and stars you’d see just above the Earth’s edge would be the same skimming the horizon line, and that’s true of every direction you might care to try. Thanks to a 356-tooth sapphire disk just two tenths of a millimetre thick, the view of the galaxy can rotate in real time to keep the dial accurate.
A lunar display, also printed on sapphire, joins the distant stars negotiating the night sky—but what’s even more impressive is that an additional window and an additional disk give the lunar display the capability to represent the phases of the moon as well.
It was through searching over 25 billion gear ratios for the planetary system in the hand-finished calibre 240 LU CL C that Patek Philippe was able to maintain an accuracy for the celestial display of just 0.08 seconds per day, and for the lunar complication an even more impressive 0.05 seconds per day. Despite the complexity of the 315 parts, the calibre remains just 6.81mm thick, the watch itself a whisker over 10mm altogether.
Twin crowns adjust the time and the celestial complications, with a further hidden pusher for the surrounding date, and a fine scale around the dial aids with accurate setting. But the real pleasure is in just looking at the 6102R, to peer through the lens and into the infinite depths of the universe, to the core of our galaxy within which a supermassive black hole consumes matter at an astronomical rate.
It’s a cosmological journey Patek Philippe owners have been able to take since the 1927 ‘Packard’, a grand complication pocket watch—Patek Philippe’s first—custom-made for the American industrialist James Ward Packard. Whilst the front of the Packard was emblazoned with incredible complications like a perpetual calendar, and sunrise and sunset, it was under the rear cover that the magic lay. Lift the gold lid and an astronomical display, just like this one, was revealed.
The celestial complication continues to be one of Patek Philippe’s most prestigious and beautiful, tapping into not just a human fascination with engineering and art, but also with the exploration of the cosmos. Just as a lucky few will get to explore beyond our Earth’s atmosphere, only a lucky few will be able to enjoy Patek Philippe’s view of it.
It’s hardly surprising to see a complication of this magnitude in a Patek Philippe, but that doesn’t make it any less astonishing to behold. By modern standards, this is primitive technology, yet it can accurately describe our view of the stars with a discrepancy of less than an hour per century. And it depicts not only a celestial map, but also a view that has entranced humans since the very first time we looked up and understood the sheer scale of what we were seeing. To quote Douglas Adams once more: “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.”
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