The Unlikely Watch Collector: The Shah of Iran
A champion of modernity, the Shah of Iran was also an authority on watches, vintage vehicles, and lavish parties.
On the reverse of a gold pocket watch commissioned from Vacheron Constantin, there is a relief depicting Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi saluting and ushering his people into the future.
Watches such as these were regularly bestowed as gifts upon friends of the sovereign's country and its culture (more on them later). Intended to symbolize the glittering rebirth of his nation, the Shah of Iran used the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire as an occasion to fix the apogee of his country's reconstruction.
Glamping to the Extreme
The pinnacle of all the myriad of 2,500th anniversary celebrations was a four-day fete held in Persepolis from October 12 – 16, 1971. To say it was a meeting of society’s upper echelon would be a gross understatement. The party was so grand, it even has its own Wikipedia page (HERE).
Among the 600 dinner guests were: Rudolf Gnägi, President of the Swiss Confederation, U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew, French Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne, Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace of Monaco, Queen Fabiola of Belgium, and King Hussein of Jordan.
Additionally, the incredibly named “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia, Elect of God” could be seen to occasionally glance at his one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe ref. 2497 perpetual calendar wristwatch featuring a 37mm 18-karat gold case, matte black military-style dial, luminous Alpha hands, moon phases, and an engraved case back.
To accommodate so many guests during a multi-day banquet the Guinness Book of Records still regards as the biggest feast of modern times, some extraordinary provisions were needed:
– $300 million dollars (or $1.9 billion when adjusted for inflation)
– 65 hectares of land
– 37 kilometers (almost 30 miles!) of silk
– 120 waiters dressed in bespoke violet-blue uniforms
– 40 chefs flown in from Paris
– A 70-meter (aka 130-ft.) serpentine table
Finally, untold amounts of quail’s eggs stuffed with Imperial Caspian caviar, crayfish mousse, Moët & Chandon 1911 champagne sorbet, roasted peacocks stuffed with foie gras, truffles, fresh figs, Musigny Comte de Voguë 1945, and plenty of Dom Pérignon Rosé 1959 vintage champagne.
The vast banquet, held amid the ancient ruins of Persepolis, was followed the day after by an historic ceremony, which the Shah, himself, described to the press as "the world's biggest party." It was attended by 2,500 people.
Driving in Style
The Shah's lifestyle is clearly a clue to his passion. A sportsman and a multilingual globetrotter, known to frequent cosmopolitan circles, it was not uncommon to see him behind the wheel of some of the most coveted vehicles of his time. His impressive collection of motorcars, numbering over one thousand, is legendary.
Where to begin with such an impressive collection? How about the Bugatti Type 57C Convertible Vanvooren, a custom-made gift from the French government given to him on the occasion of his first marriage in 1939? It was this vintage car he rode in through the street of Persepolis during the anniversary celebration’s opening parade.
Or maybe the Avion Voisin Type C27 convertible specially bodied by Figoni & Falaschi, or the Facel Vega 'Facel II'?
Perhaps the Stutz Blackhawk, a Ferrari 410 Superamerica Pininfarina Coupé, or the unique Chrysler K300 Special designed by Ghia in 1956 for his second wife, Queen Soraya?
Noteworthy is the Rolls-Royce Phantom IV bodied by Hooper. Also, the extraordinary Lamborghini Miura Jota SVJ, specially built for the Shah in 1971.
More recently, the Shah’s rare Bentley Corniche coupé in emerald green was one of a selection of cars presented in honor of the British carmaker's centenary at the Chantilly Art et Elégance Richard Mille Concours, held near Paris. It was this car the Shah would drive when he was in Geneva.
Then there was, of course, the famous Maserati 5000 GT coupé, specially designed for the monarch and bodied by Touring. Recently, the inspired hand of Louis de Fabribeckers, head of design at Touring Superleggera, paid a double tribute with a coupé and convertible, both dubbed "Scia di Persia" and exhibited at the Swiss Concours d’Elégance in front of the beautiful Château de Coppet (Which is co-ponsored by Watchonista, visit our special page).
He, of course, owned numerous Mercedes-Benz models, including the notable Mercedes-Benz 600 limousine model, which could be found gracing imperial garages around the world.
One rarity included in the collection was an impressive 770K cabriolet B custom-built in 1939 and an extremely rare 540K Autobahn-Kurier coupé, of which only six models were ever built.
The collection also featured a large number of G-Class 4x4s. No surprises there, as it was, in fact, the Shah himself who was behind the making of this vehicle. An important shareholder in Daimler-Benz, the Shah of Iran had a 25% stake in the company.
An Iranian Shah & His Swiss Watches: A Love Affair
At long last, we arrive at the Shahanshah’s (or, King of Kings’) watch collection.
Sadly, few of the sovereign's watches have survived to the current era, and photographic testimonies are rather rare because elegant gentlemen of the time usually wore their wristwatch high on the wrist, thus concealing it beneath the shirt cuff. Nonetheless, the leading Swiss workshops appeared to be his preference.
While in full-court uniform or parade dress, he tended to wear pocket watches. Most of them made by Vacheron Constantin. Images from the 1930s and 1940s show the young prince to be wearing a Jaeger-LeCoultre, or a gold Patek Philippe wristwatch, the latter having shown up at auction a few years ago.
His collection also included a 1971 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6263 and several Piaget models, from the same era, in gold with a dial studded with semi-precious stones.
The First Owner of the Royal Oak
Then there are the two watches that became intrinsically linked with the Shah of Iran. Both watches, representative of 1970s style codes, were designed by Gérald Genta. And it all began with a simple pencil sketch catching the discerning eye of the monarch, who was an avid design enthusiast.
On the strength of the drawings alone, the Shah became captivated by the idea of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and ordered the very first one. He was to remain the watch's top customer with his own model crafted in white gold.
A few years later, he would focus his attention to the Patek Philippe Nautilus, which he wore to the office beneath his elegant suits. His inimitable style would further the exclusive image of the, nowadays, highly coveted models.
The Gift of Giving Watches
The last Shah of Iran was keenly aware of the value of fine watchmaking, both in monetary and symbolic terms. He was particularly fond of giving them as gifts, and the imperial palace's offices would often commission special editions.
Among the numerous watches commissioned by Shah Pahlavi were a Corum Coin Watch, with an 18K yellow gold case and a 22K Iranian gold coin from 1339 AD acting as the dial, as well as a great many Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, and Rolex models. And, of the imperially commissioned Rolex models, two references will stick out in the minds of auction watchers.
First, is the Rolex Day-Date reference 1831. Commissioned by the House of Pahlavi circa 1977, this extremely rare 37mm timepiece is housed exclusively in a tonneau-shaped, platinum case. And, although only four of these models have ever come up for auction, two of them featured Stella dials, and two featured diamond-set numerals on blue dials.
The second reference is a rare Rolex Oyster "Red Stella" Day-Date ref. 1807/1803. Crafted in a 36mm 18K rose gold tonneau-shaped case with a red dial, this watch was a gift from the Shah of Iran to the Prime Minister (and dictator) of Greece, Geórgios Papadópoulos, on April 21st, 1967, as indicated by the engraved inscription on the caseback. Sold at auction in 2016, this watch features luminous yellow gold baton hands and indices, a 26-jewel Caliber 1555 movement, a bark-finished bezel and matching 18K pink gold bracelet.
A Pocket Watch Fit for a Shah
Finally, there is one other souvenir watch worthy of some note. A pocket watch, similar to the one gifted at the grand banquet of Persepolis, commemorating the Shah's coronation on October 26th, 1967.
This 18K yellow gold watch, sold at auction in 2019, was designed by Sarcar, the discreet Swiss watchmaker specializing in special commissions for private customers. However, as detailed as this pocket watch's depiction is of the Shah and Shahbanu (Empress) Farah Pahlavi in their coronation regalia, it fails to fully portray the wonder of the Shahbanu's coronation crown. Designed by Van Cleef & Arpels, the coronation crown worn by the Shah's third and final wife, Empress Farah Pahlavi, was composed of 105 pearls, 34 rubies, 2 spinels, 38 emeralds, and 1,469 brilliant-cut diamonds.