The Unlikely Watch Collector - The Pope
Unlikely Watch Collector

The Unlikely Watch Collector: The Pope(s)

The Holy See is the unlikeliest of all watch collectors, yet for centuries, the pope has developed a unique relationship with time.

By Frédéric Brun

When one enters the inner sanctum of the Holy See, it is as if time suddenly stands still. A peaceful calm infuses space and distends time. More than anywhere else, it is apparent that there is no such thing as urgency, just impatient people.

Renowned for their lack of urgency, the Vatican clergy are masters in the art of acting without haste. As head of the clergy, the pope has the privilege of being the bridge between the spiritual and the temporal sphere. Supreme shepherd of the believers, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, is also a head of state.

The supreme pontiff must be able to juggle the two roles. Predestined, by his spiritual vocation, to serve in the here-and-now, his ministry on Earth inevitably leads to his involvement in terrestrial realities. The duality is ongoing.

The first time I entered the office of Pope John Paul II, I could not help but notice the Atmos clock gracing the sideboard against the wall. It was placed strategically opposite the desk, where His Eminence could easily see it, but any visitors stood with their backs to it. Housed in a glass and steel case, the perpetual motion clock, designed by Jaeger-LeCoultre, ticks away the minutes, blending discreetly into the background for all but the most astute observers.

Pope Paul VI was officially presented with the clock by the Swiss Confederation. It simply wouldn't do for the pope to be caught glancing at his wrist during private meetings. It was only later that a watch was espied adorning Pope John Paul II’s wrist – a two-tone gold and steel Rolex Datejust on a classic Jubilee bracelet.

The first non-Italian pope since the 1500s, Pope John Paul II was noted for his modesty and abstention, he was instrumental in the fall of Communism. He showed no other outer trappings of wealth and was far from ostentatious. Many members of the Curia remember how the Polish cardinal, Karol Józef Wojtyła, arrived at the conclave that was about to elect him pope wearing tattered shoes because he had given his brand new pair to a man in need upon arriving at Rome station.

The Day-Date, one of the two Rolex models in his possession, was purported to be a gift from the Swiss manufacture. The combined use of gold and steel may be interpreted as the union between the spiritual and the worldly. Or, between earthly realities and the strength of the Church’s institution and the durability of spiritual riches.

No one will ever know if it was a topic of conversation in his meetings with Presidents Ronald Reagan or Fidel Castro, both known as admirers of the Rolex model. But John Paul II was by no means the first pope to be a fine watchmaking enthusiast.

Pope Pius XII was thought to be a fervent fan of Vacheron Constantin’s form watches. And before him, Pope Pius IX wore a pocket watch designed and produced by Patek Philippe.

This silver Patek Philippe pocket watch with a white enamel dial recently resurfaced at a Christie's auction in Geneva in 2019. It has Roman numeral indices, naturally. And it measures 47mm in diameter and powered by the calibre 18, a manual, keyless winding movement. Both the movement and case bear the number 52,234, thereby making it possible to identify the exact provenance of the piece in the workshop's records.

It was manufactured in 1876, sold on May 14, 1877, and presented to Pope Pius IX by the Swiss branch of Piusverein (Catholic organization), as evidenced by the cuvette engraving, "PIO IX.PP., HELVETI CATHOLICI DD, MDCCCLXXVII."

It also carries the coat of arms of the 255th supreme pontiff. Elected on June 16, 1846, Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti served for 31 years as Pope Pius IX. The longest pontificate in the history of the Papacy, Pope Pius IX also owned a Patek Philippe quarter repeater watch, which struck in two tones. The yellow gold case carries the engraving "Pater, Rex, Dirigas Intelligentias et Corda," meaning, "Our father, Sovereign, you give direction to the spirit and the heart." It was presented to the pope on June 29, 1867.

For a long time, Patek Philippe was one of the official purveyors to the Vatican. Under the pontificate of Paul VI, a dozen or so watches (reference 3588) were crafted especially for distinguished guests of the Holy See, complete with a cardinal red dial. And several watches belonging to Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII are also showcased among the brand's museum exhibits.

Pope Benedict XVI, the successor of Pope John Paul II and now "pope emeritus," does not wear a Patek Philippe, although many commentators have mistakenly reported seeing a Calatrava on his wrist. In actuality, he wears an Erhard Junghans Tempus Automatic, a high-end luxury watch by the German brand Junghans.

Although called to a life of sanctity, popes are also men, and their watchmaking choices serve as an important message. While Pope John Paul II, a keen politician, adopted "the Watch for Presidents," and his successor chose a fine testament to the watchmaking skills of his reunified home country, the current occupant of St. Peter's shows that he, too, has an eye for symbolic detail. Pope Francis, an Argentine Jesuit, has made simplicity his guiding principle. As a result, he puts his trust in a quartz-powered Casio MQ-24-7BLL, which sells for just under $15 on the internet.

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