Driven by the incredibly abstract ideas and evocative art forms brought into vogue by modern masters like Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, designer Gilbert Albert ushered in a new spirit of mid-century modernism at Patek Philippe in the 1950s. He shared a powerful aesthetic connection with these influential artists from the 20th century, and his watches reflected the same bold and fearless choices through their unique shapes. For Albert, who joined Patek Philippe at the age of 25, watch cases had to evolve beyond the customary round and rectangular forms. He started playing with asymmetrical shapes and dials featuring clean black sector lines. Just like the modernist sculptors, he pursued abstract forms relentlessly and moved away from the conventional art of watchmaking to create some of the most striking timepieces for Patek Philippe.
Says Roni Madhvani, who is known to have the world’s most exquisite collection of Gilbert Albert Patek Philippes, “For me, the Patek Philippe Gilbert Albert timepieces are more than just wristwatches; they are beautiful pieces of art. They are statements in themselves and coming from what is possibly the finest maison in horology makes them even more special for me. I was quite lucky to get some of my watch extracts signed by Gilbert Albert just a few years before he passed away in 2019. He told me he would have to get the brand’s permission to sign those extracts. Once he got the clearance, I had that priceless piece of history in my hands — the papers signed by the man himself!”
Over the last 30 years, Madhvani has acquired an enviable collection of asymmetrical, time-only watches from the mid 20th century. Mostly driven by design, he is one of those rare collectors who have successfully stayed away from the Daytona-Nautilus obsession. “In many ways, it was probably my interest in design and sculpture that led to this aspect of watch collecting,” says Madhvani, whose majestic hilltop mansion in Kampala, Uganda, is a mini museum of African and Indian contemporary art. “I like Art Deco pieces, particularly in bronze, pre-war car mascots, books and certain maharaja-related items,” he says.
Interestingly, Madhvani’s fervent affair with watches started in 1986 with a Baume & Mercier chronograph bought from a shop on Bond Street, London. He haunted the place for days and persuaded the owner to let him have a glimpse of the watch; he finally bought the piece with a princely sum saved over 16 months.
As Roni’s interest in watches grew deeper, his collection started to follow a pattern. He focused on Art Deco timepieces and shaped watches made between 1945 and 1965. “This was an era of watch design that followed the wartime austerity and soberness in creativity. In my humble opinion, that was the Belle Époque of Swiss watchmaking in terms of creativity,” says Madhvani, who started collecting in the 1990s and mostly relied on auction houses for any information on old timepieces. A few years later, as the Internet became an integral part of the luxury watch business, there was a deluge of watch forums and websites to help one buy and sell watches. “Even though Internet connectivity in Africa was dismal then, it allowed me access to the world of collectible watches from the middle of nowhere. The spread of knowledge and information through the rise of social media has made collectors more savvy these days, and they can no longer be hoodwinked. Seeking advice from fellow collectors on purchasing a specific watch is the order of the day and it is truly wonderful,” he says.
Design Takes Centre Stage
Madhvani’s first Patek Philippe was the reference 3424 designed by Gilbert Albert. One of Albert’s most recognizable creations, the rhomboid-shaped 3424 from the “Ricochet” collection presented all the design cues of a modernist sculpture. The case was asymmetrical but the dial had the typical black sector lines radiating from the centre and crisscrossing the face of the watch in the most harmonious way. Apparently, Gilbert Albert made a total of five models for Patek Philippe with unique cases, of which three never went into commercial production and the other two were produced in limited quantities. The watch was produced in precious metals like white, yellow and pink gold, as well as platinum, and there were also a few examples featuring Roman numerals instead of the sector lines.
“Roni bought vintage watches well ahead of the curve. He is very unique among all the Patek Philippe collectors I know. He collects out of passion, with a knowledgeable eye and with seemingly endless patience to find the perfect watch,” says John Reardon, a leading authority on Patek Philippe watches and the founder of Collectability.com, a website dedicated to all things Patek. “His eye for Patek Philippe mid-century design is one of the best in the world. He is a hunter, market maker, scholar and, most notably, a gentleman,” says Reardon.
Born into one of the most prominent business families in East Africa, Madhvani graduated from The London School of Economics in 1985 and joined the Madhvani Group, which is the country’s largest private conglomerate, with interests in sugar, power, packaging, construction, tourism, agriculture, real estate and hospitality. As the third generation scion of the family, he has been focusing on promoting hospitality and tourism across Uganda and Kenya. He also started a chain of budget hotels at some of the most popular religious destinations in India.
Though he is based in Kampala, Madhvani’s relentless search for incredible timepieces has taken him to some of the most unexpected places across the globe. “The pleasure of collecting watches is all about the hunt,” he says. “I had been looking for the Patek Philippe ref. 2549 (also called the ‘Devil’s Horns’) for over a decade, and I must have pestered everyone on every watch forum while on the lookout for this watch. Eventually when it came up for auction at Antiquorum, I placed an absentee bid since I was in Africa and the Internet connection was poor. Sadly, I lost. Jason Singer, who in my opinion is one of the eminent collectors of vintage watches in the world, won this bid. Later, when he found out how desperate I was for this watch, he offered it to me through [the auctioneer] Charles Tearle at the same cost! Jason’s gesture of kindness is something that I will never forget. I’ve always looked up to him as a collector and as a gracious gentleman,” Madhvani says.
One of Madhvani’s favourite watch hunt stories is about the reference 2546. The soft and rounded design of the case, entirely hand-sculpted out of a solid block of gold, makes it one of the most elegant and refined timepieces manufactured by Patek Philippe. Experts believe that less than 10 pieces of the ref. 2546 were ever cased in pink gold. “Made by Markowski, the entire case of this watch was sculpted out of solid gold and only six pieces were known to exist. I set my heart on this watch quite early during my watch collecting journey. After a decade-long search with a French dealer based in Hong Kong, I found that one watch had been sold to someone in Indonesia by Beyer [a retailer] in Switzerland. This particular timepiece in yellow gold was in immaculate condition and came with the original paperwork from Beyer,” he says.
Made between 1954 and 1955, this watch with its ribbon shaped lugs is an incredibly gorgeous Patek Philippe, and Madhvani has not one but two of these pieces in his extraordinary collection. He traced the other 2546 in London but the owner refused to sell it. “For five years, every time I visited London, I would pass by the watchmaker to see if the seller had changed his mind. Recently, the watch was consigned at an auction, and I was lucky to finally own it at a considerably lower price than its previous owner had been asking for all these years,” says Roni.
According to Reardon, Madhvani collects watches that speak to his heart more than his wallet. He doesn’t collect with the intention of making money, but for the joy of collecting, and that is what makes his collection truly exceptional. “Patek Philippe watches made by Gilbert Albert impress me the most, and Roni has assembled the world’s greatest collection of Gilbert Albert watches outside of the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva,” says Reardon.
Besides the fascinating Gilbert Albert timepieces like the 3412 (with its dramatic proportions and sharp lines intersecting to form a triangular case), Madhvani’s treasure trove also includes custom made Cartiers and some really rare watches from Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breguet and Vacheron Constantin. “Most prestigious brands do not make custom watches for their clients. It all depends on your relationship with them; sometimes they do it for discerning collectors. I’m blessed to have a couple of Cartier Tank Cintrées, for which I designed the dial myself,” says Madhvani, who has some more bespoke Cartiers coming up soon. “The majority of custom made pieces that Cartier seems to be doing at the moment includes minor variations of dial colour or cabochon colour within the existing designs. I prefer something more individual and unique as that has a deeper personal connect for me. I am most thankful that Cartier has obliged, and there are some lovely and very different timepieces in the pipeline! I dream of having a unique cased watch but the tooling cost of a project like this makes it out of reach for me,” he says.
Madhvani is also working on a bespoke wandering hour or chronoscope wristwatch based on a pocket watch designed by Robert Cart in the mid-1920s. “I’ve come across a very early wristwatch version by Breguet that was owned by a World War I fighter-pilot ace. The design embodies Art Deco, and I’ve kept it to a sensible sized case of 36mm. I’m not one for the rather large modern timepieces that look like a pressure-gauge dial out of the Titanic boiler room on the wrist,” he says.
In his extremely focused journey of collecting shaped Patek Philippes, Madhvani got to a stage where it was getting difficult for him to find “affordable,” qualitative timepieces from the brand. So he ventured into vintage Audemars Piguets. “The brand designed some incredible time-only watches during the 1950s and 1960s and until recently, these watches were relatively affordable. The hunt for these pieces has been a fun and amazing journey, and I’ve been fortunate to meet some lovely people — an important part of the hobby,” he says. “I always dream about waking up to a private message one morning from someone offering a rare watch on my wish list. And this is how I got hold of my favourite Audemars Piguet, which I had seen in one of the old auction catalogues but couldn’t afford then. One morning, I got a message from this dealer in Italy who had responded to my Instagram post saying he had bought the watch over 15 years ago, and he still had it!”
So what’s on his bucket list, I ask. “It’s a bottomless bucket! There are a dozen or more watches that I want to add to my collection but the list keeps getting longer as I discover previously unknown pieces,” he says. For now, there is a Patek “Tropical” enamel dial, a reference 3974 repeater and a 3417 luminous dial that are on top of his wish list. “I’m also looking for an original [Cartier] London Crash, the Pebble or a vintage Maxi Oval (which I did have and foolishly sold) and various vintage Cintrées as well. The more I think about it, it is actually many buckets,” he says.