Within the history of Patek Philippe watches, what do I consider to be the icons?
If one looks back through the entire history of Patek Philippe watches, I think it is fair to say that throughout that history, Patek Philippe have tended to lead in terms of innovations, quality and design style. I am not saying that other manufacturers have not also managed to hit pinnacles of achievement, but as a general rule, the reason that Patek Philippe still sits atop the horological table is courtesy of its long and consistent history of successes.
The name Patek Philippe inspires a degree of awe within horological circles.
Within that history is housed a sub-section of watches that one can argue have reached an even higher status. A group of watches that are seen as Patek Philippe icons. Over the coming months, I intend to highlight some of these icons. The first of these articles will look at what many consider to be the most overt signature watch for Patek Philippe – the Nautilus. And the watch I pick to represent this icon is the Ref. 3700A.
The launch of the Ref. 3700A in 1976 was a bold departure for Patek Philippe away from its traditional strengths and into the realm of sports watches. The design and end-customer were different. And yet, from this boldness has been born one of the most successful watches in horological history.
Love it or hate it, the Nautilus has become by far the most recognisable Patek Philippe watch ever. The price of a new Nautilus 3700 back in 1976? In today’s money, it was the equivalent of EUR 9300 or $11,000. One can expect to pay at around 10 times that now for a Ref. 3700A.
In terms of numbers produced, one can guesstimate that some 7000+ different examples of the Ref. 3700A were made. So, in reality, the Ref. 3700A is not an especially rare watch, but it does represent the very first Nautilus and the watch that started the Nautilus history.
In the past, I have argued that the success of the Nautilus is down to a combination of factors. The confluence of these factors have aligned and what has emerged is possibly one of the most iconic watches ever made. That seems quite an outrageous comment to make, but actually I think it is realistic.
As a general rule, I am not a massive fan of the Nautilus watch. I own a 5712A and do enjoy that watch. But I am not a fanboy for the Nautilus in any way. That doesn’t stop me making the statement above. The Nautilus is an iconic watch and the Ref. 3700A is where it all started.
As a form of generalisation, it is worth looking in more detail why the Nautilus as a genre has become so popular.
Look at Vincent Van Gogh. When he was alive, nobody liked his work. Once he died, an appreciation grew for his work that now has him categorised as one of the greatest artists ever. During his lifetime, Gerald Genta was admired and respected. But, following his death in 2011, his influence has become materially more significant.
There is no question that Genta, as a designer, is a big part behind the success story of the Nautilus. Genta’s appeal has magnified since his death.
The Nautilus is not really a sports watch. When it started out, the intention was for it to occupy the “sporty” corner of the Patek Philippe range – its design based on the shape of the porthole of a transatlantic liner. Its origins were born out of adventure rather than sport. It has never really managed to become a sports watch in the way that the Submariner did for Rolex. Nor is the Nautilus an overtly smart watch. It falls between the two. In doing so, it inadvertently occupies a space that has become very fashionable – sporty chic!
Today’s iteration of the original Ref. 3700A is the Ref. 5711A. A faithful tribute to the original.
Worn with a suit, the Nautilus still looks elegant. Yet, with a pair of jeans or at the pool, it looks equally at home. This versatility allows owners to be one-watch centric. This is a big positive for many who see owning just one watch as normal (LoL). It also fits neatly into the lifestyle of many of today’s watch collecting society.
Utility and quality sweetspot
There is a sweet spot between utility and quality. For most people, an everyday beater is a watch that is totally reliable, fun to wear and interesting to look at. It ticks several boxes. The Nautilus manages to be that everyday beater in a way that captures all the essence of a beater but with the added benefit of being very high quality. And very little comes higher than Patek Philippe quality.
The Nautilus movement is rock-solid dependable, yet it is finished to a very high standard. Côtes de Genève, elegant sections of perlage, bevelled steel parts and bridges. It is in a different league compared with other “sports” watches.
The integrated bracelet is probably one of the finest watch bracelets available. Many fail to recognise the staggering amount of work put into the bracelet. There are some 55 different hand-finishing operations required to finish the case and bracelet, from emerizing link-undersides to satin brushing on top. Centre links are prepared – one by one – with emerizing and mirror-polishing. It is a long and arduous task ahead of the chamfering that then takes place. The bracelet adds a very distinctive and positive feel to the Nautilus.
A range within a range
The range of different Nautilus within Patek Philippe is now so broad that it captures almost every style of complication. From essentially time-only, to chronograph, travel time and now even perpetual calendar. This allows a buyer to pick exactly the style of Nautilus that suits their preference. This diversity now even extends to multiple metal and dial colour variations.
The Nautilus range has now expanded to encompass all types of taste requirements. It is now a range within a range.
The Porsche 911 has it. The Rolex Submariner has it. Decades of change and innovation have occurred, yet these two icons both STILL look essentially the same! They capture a certain something – an appeal – that has endured the passage of time. This ability to remain desirable through changing fashions has lifted some products into iconic status. The Nautilus has this.
Although the Nautilus is not for everyone, I know of no serious Patek Philippe collectors who have not owned at least one Nautilus in their collection or at least had the desire to add one. The Nautilus has captured the spirit of adventure without needing to go all Indiana Jones to do so.
Yes, the Nautilus has become a legendary watch. And the reference that started it was the Ref. 3700A. I don’t own a Ref. 3700A. But I do consider it an icon within the Patek Philippe family and it rightly occupies a place in my icon list. I will aim to create what I consider to be a list of 10 icon watches over the coming months.