Stacy Perman, a former writer for Business Week and Time magazine, is the author most recently of A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World's Most Legendary Watch. Her other books are In-N-Out Burger and Spies, Inc. She is based in New York City.
Q: Why did you decide to write A Grand Complication?
A: Four or five years ago I wrote an article for Business Week about a watchmaker school in Pennsylvania. I was intrigued by the idea that mechanical watches were out of fashion and had come roaring back in the ‘90s...and a whole generation of watchmakers had disappeared.
In the course of looking at this phenomenon, I came across the Graves Complication, and it got my interest going. It led me to Henry Graves, Jr., and his rival, James Ward Packard. I became fascinated—the story looms large in the watch world, but it had not been uncovered in its entirety.
There’s a bigger story—it’s more than them, their watches, their desire to own timepieces. It [ties into] the birth of the automobile, electricity, and [the rise of] America as a superpower. Also timekeeping history.
Q: What surprised you in particular as you researched the book?
A: First, that no one had told the story before. In the watch world, two names loomed large. …It’s a very complicated story. Henry Graves, Jr., left a very small footprint. The man was a card-carrying member of New York society; he kept company with the Rockefellers. Yet he was incredibly private.
Q: In the rivalry you detail between Graves and Packard, did you have more sympathy for one than the other?
A: It would go back and forth. James Ward Packard left a much larger footprint because of his car company. There were books about the car company, there were papers—but there was very little about the man himself. I was fortunate to come in contact with relatives and descendants of people who knew him.
Henry Graves, Jr., left a very small footprint and had few descendants. I felt like Nancy Drew a little bit—I felt like I was on a treasure hunt. I got to know both of them pretty well. I met some [relatives] of Henry Graves, Jr., toward the end [of the research], and I knew more about him than they did!
Q: What does watch-collecting among the wealthy say about society at that point?
A: They [Graves and Packard] really exemplify a turning point in collecting. The collecting of watches was very expensive, and [historically had been] limited to royalty and the aristocratic class, and American industrial barons….This was a pursuit of the wealthy, and provided context to their lives and activities.
When Packard and Graves came on the scene [things shifted]. Packard was a self-made entrepreneur. Neither was interested in historical timepieces—this is where everything changed. They were very wealthy. Unlike previous collections, they commissioned specific one-off pieces for their own use.
Q: Did the watchmakers’ role become more important as a result of this shift?
A: It’s an interesting dynamic between the two parties. Until the mid-19th century, watchmakers were the most ingenious [inventors]—it was their way of dazzling [people]. Packard and Graves really pushed them beyond that. Packard was an engineer, and he approached watchmaking as an engineer.
Q: At the end of the book, you write that the Graves Supercomplication watch might come up for auction again soon. Do you have any updates on the watch you call the “Mona Lisa of timepieces”?
A: It’s in legal limbo. There’s still a chance it will go up for auction. That it hasn’t already probably means that there’s a labyrinth of issues going on….I don’t know exactly what’s going on.
Q: Have you always been interested in watches, or is it something that developed as you wrote the book?
A: It developed as I worked on the book. I stopped wearing a watch; I use my cell phone. I have a huge appreciation for timepieces now. The 1920s and '30s are my favorite.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I do have an idea for another book, but I’m keeping it to myself for the moment.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb