Anyone that knows anything about watches has - at least once or twice in their life - heard the name Patek Philippe. They're a benchmark of watchmaking, one of the most sought after and highly collectible brands on the market, and a bit of a legend when it comes to highly complicated timepieces. Their Nautilus and Aquanaut models have recently become one of the industry’s hottest tickets, and much like the Rolex Daytona, you pretty much have to beg and plead to get your name onto the several years long waitlist at any authorized retailer.
Alongside Rolex and Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe remains one of very few large scale independent and family-owned watch manufacturers out there. The Stern family first invested in the business back in 1932, and to this day, the family remains at the helm of the brand. We’ll get into the proper history in a moment; however, it's worth noting that Patek is very invested in preserving its historical legacy.
Aside from maintaining its significant multi-floor museum in Geneva, the brand has repeatedly held Grand Exhibition events around the globe, packing with them a plethora of historically significant pieces. These exhibitions have taken place in Dubai, Munich, London, New York, and Singapore between 2012 and 2019, and each time have been open (and free) to the public, with the intent of educating both enthusiasts and the general public about their longstanding legacy.
Now, if we were to go elbow-deep into the comprehensive history of Patek Philippe, we would need quite a bit of time - there are rather large books out there on the matter, and even on the brand’s website it is split up across a half dozen separate web pages. To slim it down to the highlights, we start with the origins. Technically, the brand first saw light in 1839, under the name Patek, Czapek, & Cie., founded by Antoine Norbert de Patek and François Czapek. Jean Adrien Philippe came into the equation not long thereafter the company changes names to Patek, Philippe & Cie. in 1851.
The string of watchmaking patents brought forth by Patek Philippe through the early years is staggering. First Philippe patents keyless winding and hand setting in 1845 (yes, you can thank them for the invention of the watch crown). Next comes a perpetual calendar mechanism and a double chronograph by 1889 and 1902, respectively.
By 1932 (as we mentioned above), The Stern family took reigns of the brand, and the evolution of the modern Patek Philippe as we know it begins to unfold. The first Calatrava launches that same year, followed by several legendary models and uniquely complex creations.
Outside of the milestones listed above, here are the key dates any Patek Philippe fan needs to know:
Before we get to the proper list below, there are a couple of points to cover. As a legacy house, Patek (to the mass market) is known by the three models listed below, whereas to collectors, the brand is known for its complications that don’t land under a particular model umbrella. Their world timer set the benchmark against which all modern world time watches are measured. The current references (5230 and 5231) are clearly of the same lineage as their predecessors and faithful tributes to the original reference 2523HU.
From there, there’s also a matter of their perpetual calendars, perpetual calendar chronographs, minute repeaters, annual calendars, astronomical complications, and even more advanced and obscure mechanical features. Frankly, a deeper dive specifically into the complications and grande complications of Patek Philippe is another long tale for another day. For now, here is what you need to know about the brand’s more mainstay collections.
Given the current market for the Nautilus, you know this had to be our first talking point. In every available configuration this watch is highly sought after, no matter whether you’re talking about current production or the first reference 3700/1 in steel. Famed watch designer Gerald Genta is responsible for its creation--a name synonymous with watchmaking, though it’s worth noting that the designer had his fair share of flops alongside a few key successes. (Among many others, the IWC Ingenieur, Omega Pie Pan Constellation, AP Royal Oak, Cartier Pasha, and several others are his doing.) Though it’s the watch that all sports watches are benchmarked against today, in the late ‘70s, the integrated bracelet design and compact cushion case wasn’t particularly rare or foreign, and Genta is responsible for creating several different examples.
The current Nautilus offerings include a significant range of offerings; there are 30 variants if one counts out all of the available case sizes and metals. Aside from the standard 5711 (the iconic 3-hand model), there are a number of noteworthy complications available.
The 5712 adds a moonphase, power reserve, date, and small seconds subdial to the mix, and is offered in steel, rose gold, or white gold.
The 5726 is an annual calendar with moonphase complication that is only offered in stainless steel at the moment. It can be had either with a classic blue dial, or a gradient grey.
Two different Nautilus chronograph models are available at the moment. The 5980 is the “standard” chronograph model, on offer in rose gold and two-tone rose gold and steel. On the other hand, the 5990 packs both a chronograph as well as a dual time configuration and is only available in steel (on steel bracelet). What’s especially interesting about this pair of pieces is their dimensions. At 40.5mm in diameter and 12.2mm thick the 5980 is quite compact, but I remain baffled by the fact that the addition of a travel time complication only increases the thickness of the case by 0.33mm (up to a total of 12.53mm).
The pinnacle of the Nautilus collection of course comes in the form of its perpetual calendar, reference number 5740/1G. All of the classic elements (its blue dial and wonderfully executed bracelet) are all part of the equation, but again its dimensions play a key role in its appeal. At 8.42mm thick, the perpetual calendar is only a hair - 0.12mm to be precise - thicker than the classic 5711 that displays no more than three hands and a date window. This new white gold reference has only been on the market since 2018.
Hitting the market in 1997, the Aquanaut was (in some respects) Patek’s answer to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore that launched four years prior. More casual and sporty than the classic Nautilus, the Aquanaut was designed with the intent of capturing a younger audience for the longstanding legacy brand. Its recent collectibility boom is pure fallout from the hype surrounding its sibling, but this trend has pushed demand (and secondary market values) for the Aquanaut higher than they’ve ever been. As of 2019, there are four key references of Aquanaut watches for men, as well as a handful of undersized and gemset pieces for women.
The reference 5167, a classic 3-hand model with date complication is the most true-to-original Aquanaut you can find these days. The steel version is offered with a black dial on either a steel bracelet or black rubber strap. In rose gold, the reference is fitted with a matte brown sunburst dial and a chocolate brown rubber strap. Relatively conservative in size, these pieces measure 40mm in diameter.
Adding a bit of size and color, the 5168 “Jumbo” Aquanaut is currently on offer in white gold and sporting either a green or blue dial on matching rubber straps. The green is a solid matte color, close to a military olive drab, whereas its blue is a muted navy, with a gradient dial similar to the rose gold 5167. These models are 42.2mm across and only nominally thicker in casing (8.25mm vs 8.2mm) though they are both fitted with the same Caliber 324 S C.
Geared towards the travel sect, the 5164 follows the same pattern of the 5167 in the sense that it is available in both steel and rose gold with black and sunburst brown dials, respectively. Its dimensions are also close to the same mark, at 40.8mm across and 10.2mm thick. At a practical level, the Travel Time piece is a gem, as it uses a pair of hours hands to indicate home and local time. A pair of pushers on the left side of the case jump the local time hand forwards and backwards on the fly, while two small dial openings are used for AM/PM indications for both hands. There are few features on a watch more useful than a GMT complication, and from both design and functionality standpoints, this is about as good as it gets.
Last but not least, the Aquanaut 5968 was the brand’s latest attempt at a young and ‘edgy’ Aquanaut. If you see the brown strap configuration first you might be surprised by that statement, but when the brand first showed the 5168 on a bright orange rubber strap (to match its orange dial and chronograph hand accents) the resounding response from the industry was one of shock and surprise, and Patek has had no struggles whatsoever finding buyers for the black sheep of the collection.
As noted above, there’s a historical significance to the Calatrava on account of the fact that the model launched the same year that the Stern family invested in Patek Philippe. Though it has not been said aloud, it’s at least plausible that part of the reason the Calatrava sticks around is because of this familial connection; however, there is a distinctly timeless aesthetic to the Calatrava that would make equally valid justification.
Making a watch that looks just as good in the 1930s as it does today is no small feat, and very few brands have been able to recreate this sort of magic (especially in such understated fashion). The total count of variants left standing today is 19, though yet again, we’re looking at four distinct men’s references.
Aside from these references below, the brand continually launches rare craft models featuring enameling, marquettery, micropainting, and other traditional craft dialsv - although these are seldom publicised and only rarely ever appear on the brand’s website. Rather, these things are left to be discovered at authorized retailers around the globe.
The manually wound 5196 with its small seconds indication is ripped right from the brand’s historical archives, from its modest 37mm case size to its crisp baton indices and blank solid caseback. If ‘neo vintage’ is your thing, it doesn’t get much more legit than this. Only offered in precious metals, it can be had in yellow gold, rose gold, white gold, and a special platinum version that trades its baton indices for Arabic numerals.
Up next, the reference 5227 is a nominally more contemporary dress watch, but one with undeniably classic roots. Its hands and indices are similar to that of the 5196, though it swaps its handwound caliber for a self-winding one, and transplants its running seconds indication from a sub-dial to a central hand. It is also a touch more contemporary in size, coming in at 39mm across. While this model maintains its three options in terms of gold casings, there isn’t presently a platinum variant on offer.
One of two “odd ducks” in the Calatrava family, the reference 6006 came as an anniversary piece celebrating the 40th anniversary of Patek’s Caliber 240 automatic movement. Its design is a good way outside of the line’s dressy convention, without seeming too out of place, but most interestingly, it features an out-of-the-ordinary complication for the brand. A red tipped pointer hand is used to indicate the date on the outer perimeter of its dial.
As noted above, Patek’s rare craft dials seldom grace the pages of the brand’s website, but at the moment we have an exception in the reference 5088. The platinum cased beauty is a showcase of the brand’s talented engravers, as it features ornate relief engraving over a glossy black enamel dial. This engraving pattern is carried along the flanks of its casing as well. The brand is letting the craft speak for itself, as only the specifications of the piece in question are listed.