Mahatma Gandhi was so fond of his Zenith that when it was stolen in 1947, he immediately published an announcement urging the thief to return it, noting that “it had a radium disc and also a contrivance for alarm. It was a gift to me”. Filled with remorse, the crook returned the watch. This is just one of many, often colourful anecdotes related in Des montres et des hommes, a recently published graphic novel that tells the story of twelve of the twentieth century’s defining figures from the unusual angle of their watch – or, in the words of its author, the watch expert and auctioneer Geoffroy Ader, “watch history and world history, side by side”. Ader’s wife, the illustrator Neis, is behind the numerous drawings of the book’s protagonists, from Charles de Gaulle to Henry Graves, from John F. Kennedy to Elvis Presley.
A seasoned observer
For 25 years almost, Geoffroy Ader presided over the sale of historical and vintage watches, first at Drouot in Paris, and later at Antiquorum then Sotheby’s, in Geneva. The vast majority of consignors are ordinary men and women, but there are times when the watches crossing the block have famous provenance, and so what began as a passion for timepieces grew into a love of history. In 2014, for example, Ader was behind the scenes at the sale of the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication, named for the American banker who commissioned it in 1933. It fetched an astounding CHF 23.2 million (with buyer’s premium) and set a record that still stands today. Ader himself would bring the hammer down on numerous rare timepieces, including the Patek Philippe once owned by Count Trossi, Scuderia Ferrari’s first president, the Rolex belonging to the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Konrad Adenauer, and Lord Seymour’s complicated pocket watch by Breguet. “That I should want to tell the story of these watches was a natural follow-on,” he says.
A graphic novel places equal emphasis on texts and drawings. It also goes against the grain of how we usually talk about watches.
The auctioneer could have written yet another book on the subject. Instead, he turned to his wife, Inès, an illustrator better-known by her pen name, Neis. Working with clients in the press, publishing and marketing, she specialises in graphic novels, a format that’s partway between comic book and pure narrative. “A graphic novel places equal emphasis on texts and drawings,” she explains. “It also goes against the grain of how we usually talk about watches.” “It’s a democratic approach, one that addresses a wide audience,” adds Geoffroy Ader.
Over 70-some pages, each with their own colour code, the authors relate the twelve celebrities’ relationship with time, their horological whims or the quirks of the watches they owned – such as the extra-thin gold Omega, engraved “President of the United States” on the caseback, that was given by a friend and supporter to John Fitzgerald Kennedy… a year before his investiture. Or the Patek Philippe that Andy Warhol wore but never bothered to wind: “I don’t wear a watch to tell the time,” he famously declared. “I wear it because it’s the watch to wear.” On his death, the king of Pop Art, who was also a compulsive collector, left thousands of objects, including a good number of watches, that Sotheby’s took ten days to disperse.
Des montres et des hommes is published in French with an English translation in the pipeline. Before that, if all goes well, a second volume will follow, this time dedicated to famous women and their watches. The book can be purchased from Amazon and at aderwatches.com.