Earlier today, news broke that King Michael I, the former ruler of Romania, died at age 96 in Geneva. While there are plenty of historical reasons why the ex-monarch is interesting – he actually ruled Romania twice, played a part in World War II, etc. – he is known for something else entirely in horologically-inclined circles: his legendary Patek Philippe ref. 1518.
On its own, a 1518 is a special watch. It’s the first serially produced perpetual calendar chronograph, and started a family of watches that would go on to be one of the standard bearers for Patek Philippe over what is now nearly a century. The reference was introduced in 1941 and was produced for just 13 years, with approximately 281 total pieces being produced over that time. Most were made in yellow gold or pink gold, with four examples known to exist in steel (including this record-setting watch).
However, according to Nicholas Foulkes’s book Patek Philippe: The Authorized Biography, the watch was produced in both platinum and a two-tone or multi-metal combination too. It’s not something Foulkes discusses in any detail – the metal references "P" and "M" are simply listed amongst the configurations for the 1518 in the index at the back of the tome.
And that brings us to King Michael’s watch. For a long time, the only evidence of its existence was a photograph of the young monarch in his military uniform proudly sporting a 1518 on his wrist. Because the photograph is black and white (obviously), it is impossible to tell what metal the watch is made of. This provoked speculation that King Michael’s watch was one of the apocryphal two-tone examples of the 1518. For decades this was believed to be true and it was essentially received wisdom in the collector community. Making the story even better, Michael I continued to wear the watch, and showed no interest in talking about it publicly or selling it.
As you’d expect, this made collectors even crazier. Back in 2014, Alfredo Paramico told us about his all-consuming quest for this watch on Talking Watches. As the story goes, in 1942 Patek Philippe made three 1518 cases in a combination of steel and pink gold, with one of them being assembled and going to King Michael. The timing is right for his watch, but that’s all there is to go on. And Paramico himself knows this. "I don’t really have any evidence of the existence of the watch," he said. "So I started dreaming about a watch that probably doesn’t even exist!"
Earlier this year though, another photo of King Michael and his watch surfaced (courtesy of Deployant)– and this one was in color! The photo clearly shows the watch, which appears to be made of yellow or rose gold. Although some people might be disappointed that this isn’t the totally insane two-tone watch that lore promised, this is still an extremely special watch. It’s almost unheard of to find a 1518 with the original owner, much less an original owner who happens to be an intriguing European ex-royal. There’s no question in my mind that this would still be a very big-dollar watch if it ever came up for sale. Let’s remember that in November 2016, a yellow 1518 sold at Phillips for CHF 598,000 and a pink gold 1518 with an unusual magnifying crystal fetched CHF 1,474,000 in the same auction.
There’s another silver lining here too: The rarest 1518 of all is still out there somewhere, just waiting to be found. Let’s get looking.