Diary of a Patek Philippe collector – What is a watch icon II? (2nd October 2020)

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced the idea of developing a list of Patek Philippe icons. Defining exactly what an icon is, however, is proving trickier than I expected.

Last week, I created a framework of five factors that I think go towards making an icon. I invited members of this site to send in suggestions. I was actually swamped with different suggestions. So this week’s blog will be about pulling together the various great ideas that were sent in and combining them, where appropriate, with my original list to create the framework for future icon blogs.

OK, so I jumped the gun a bit by already starting the icon series with the Nautilus Ref. 3700A. But I think that this inclusion was fairly safe. To my mind, under most frameworks, the Ref. 3700A is a Patek Philippe icon.

Not many people would argue with the idea that the Nautilus has become a Patek Philippe icon.

So, let me start by re-stating the five rules I suggested last week.

  • A very high level of recognition from Patek Philippe collectors
  • Of historical importance within the history of Patek Philippe innovations
  • Capturing and embodying the ethos and/or style of the manufacturer
  • A specific rarity value
  • Factor X

I think just about every contributor agreed with the first rule. There needs to be a relatively high level of visual recognition. However, a number of members made the point that outside of Patek Philippe, virtually nobody would recognise any Patek Philippe watch. As one member stated, “I defy you to find any member of the public to name one other Patek model.” And he is absolutely correct. Most people would recognise a pair of RayBan sunglasses. Most people would recognise a Volkswagen Beetle. But would most people recognise a Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 570?

I would take the argument even further. Even within Patek Philippe collectors, I would wager that a large percentage would not be able to identify a Ref. 570.

Just how many Patek Philippe collectors would see this watch and think…”Ah yes…..Ref. 570G”?

So, given that recognition is such a key part of iconic status, it seems to me that the definition I will use here will not be the global population. Nor will it be the narrower population of watch collectors. Nor will it even be the population of Patek Philippe collectors. No, I need to narrow the population size even further. I remember once reading on a forum that one Patek Philippe collector stated that as far as he was concerned, the Nautilus was the only reference that mattered to him. Patek Philippe was no more than the producer of the Nautilus in this collector’s world. So, yes, I need to exclude collectors like that too from my definition. So how should I define the first rule?

Rule 1: A high level of recognition from passionate Patek Philippe collectors

OK, I know this isn’t a perfect definition as Nautilus-obsessed collectors can still be caught in this net, but I think the vast majority of passionate collectors of Patek Philippe watches will likely delve deeper into not only the company and its history but also the breadth of watches that it produces. This will be my (imperfect) universe.

A couple of members argued that an icon should start or follow a specific lineage. I think this is definitely an aspect of Rule 2. There needs to be something significant about the lineage. With the Ref. 3700A, it started the entire Nautilus range. One could argue that since Patek Philippe invented the perpetual calendar chronograph, then in homage to this complication the Ref. 2499 should be considered an icon.

How many passionate collectors of Patek Philippe would recognise this watch?

So, in essence, I agree with the idea that lineage is important. Hence, Rule No. 2 becomes;

Rule 2: Of historical importance within the history of Patek Philippe innovations

Yep, it is exactly the same rule as before because I do think that this embraces the lineage issue. I also think lineage and style are potentially covered by Rule No. 3 which states;

Rule 3: Capturing and embodying the ethos and/or style of the manufacturer

Now, Rule 4 which looks at rarity did get quite a lot of attention from members. It was pointed out to me that Levi jeans, VW cars, Rolex Subs and RayBan sunglasses, Coca Cola, a Big Mac are all quite common items. None of them are especially rare. Yet they are all icons in their own way. Again, I agree. An icon does not have to be rare. However, and I think this is an important distinction, if the definition of Patek Philippe icon requires that the target audience be narrowed to passionate collectors of Patek Philippe watches, then I think the corollary is that a slightly different perspective needs to apply to rarity. One does not expect a Patek Philippe icon like the Nautilus Ref. 3700A to receive the same global recognition as the VW Beetle. It is a different game of icons.

So, although I give a nod to the argument on rarity I still believe that rarity can be a big factor in determining iconic status within Patek Philippe watches. Maybe it is not enough in itself to determine iconhood, but there are definitely situations where rarity tips the balance. So Rule 4 becomes;

Rule 4: Rarity adds spice to a watch. Rarity can add to the iconic status of a Patek Philippe watch

Rarity is a factor, but is it enough alone to make a watch iconic?

One member made a very interesting point regarding the age of an icon. It is very rare indeed that a watch becomes iconic during the early years of its production. It usually takes time for collectors to season a watch towards it becoming an icon. There have been plenty of watches that collectors label “icon” on the release of the watch. 20 years later, the watch sits unloved and undesired and almost forgotten. So, plausibly, a watch cannot really become an icon until a number of years of judgment have passed. It was suggested that at least ten years must pass. I would argue that it is probably even longer.

Rule 5: A watch reference needs to have been in existence for at least 15-20 years before iconic status can be judged fairly

I think it is fair to stipulate a period of “seasoning” like this.

Another member argued that demand or desirability should be a factor in determining the iconic status of a watch. Specifically, that a high percentage of Patek Philippe collectors hope or want to acquire the watch should the financial means be available to them. I think the Patek Philippe Ellipse has an iconic feel about it. Yet, a very small percentage of Patek Philippe collectors want to buy one. I think a similar argument can be made for the enamel dial world time from Patek Philippe. There is an iconic feel to the watch. Yet, I would guess a relatively small percentage of collectors want to buy one. Demand is also a fickle beast. One minute a watch can be hot and the next cold. Watches go in and out of fashion. By definition, this would imply that iconic status could wax and wane too.

It is because I am looking through time rather than at any point in time that I am unconvinced about the issue of desirability and iconic status. If a watch can maintain its desirability over a very protracted period of time, then I can see why its iconic status is enhanced. However, I don’t think it can applied as a general rule.

My final guideline rule was something I called Factor X. One collector asked me what I meant by that. It is actually quite hard to define. By all definitions, the Mona Lisa is not a particularly well-painted portrait. Mona herself is not that attractive. The quality of the workmanship is certainly way below other works of art. Yet, the painting is probably the most famous picture on the planet. It just has something.

One of my favourite films is “Big Fish” (2003). In the film, the following line has always stuck out to me.

“There are some fish that cannot be caught. It’s not that they are faster or stronger than the other fish, they’re just touched by somethin’ extra”.

I think the same concept applies to so many other things, places, people……watches. Some watches are just touched by “somethin’ extra”. I call it Factor X.

So my list has now been somewhat modified and extended. To qualify as iconic, I think it is reasonable to argue that a watch needs to qualify under at least half of the criteria in my list, and preferably more than half.