Patek Philippe’s latest update of its classic Calatrava retains its refined features, but under the bonnet it has added plenty of oomph
Though it’s been long overdue, the one thing I really wasn’t expecting from Patek Philippe this year was the relaunch of its totemic wristwatch.
No, not the steel, bracelet-bound hype monster that is the Nautilus 5711 – these days less a watch than a spiralling asset class worn on the wrist, chased down by wide boys happy to pay resellers several multiples of its £27,000 retail price simply for the Instagram bragging rights.
As it happens, Patek Philippe did announce a new 5711 at April’s newly online watch fair, Watches & Wonders, possibly for its own amusement. In fact it announced two: one with a plain steel case, one with a bezel set with baguette diamonds.
Both have dials of vogueish olive green, replacing the traditional smoky blue. Not that you’re likely to get close to one. Patek Philippe makes very few Nautiluses as it is, hence their bubbling desirability – and it had already teased the fact that it is killing off the 5711 at the end of 2021 anyway.
That sent prices soaring even further among the speculators, and makes these surprise green versions a kind of victory lap before the reference vanishes.
‘I’m already feeling sorry for most of our clients,’ admitted Patek president Thierry Stern, unveiling the watches from a TV studio in the firm’s vast new Geneva factory. ‘It’ll be very difficult to get one.’
To be in with a hope, in fact, you’d need to be the kind of favoured customer whose purchasing loyalty has been proven over years, if not decades, if not – as Patek loves to point out – generations.
And the watch you (or yourforebear) are likely to have started with is the model that is the totemic Patek Philippe wristwatch: the Calatrava.
The Patek Philippe Calatrava is that very simplest of things: a round wristwatch with hours, minutes and seconds. Nothing more, nothing less.
But in Patek Philippe’s hands, it represents a kind of Platonic ideal of Swiss watchmaking at its most ageless and elegant: the perfect, sober, three-handed watch, from the ultimate watchmaker. Next year it turns 90, which is one reason I wasn’t expecting too much on the Calatrava front now, since the industry loves an anniversary to launch something big.
And the significance of the Calatrava’s anniversary is greater than most. Its arrival in 1932 could be seen to represent the emergence, from near collapse, of Patek Philippe as we know it today: the modern, verticalised producer of wristwatches of the most exceptional craft and style.
Back then it wasn’t called the Calatrava – that appellation only arrived as a marketing tool in the Eighties. Although the fact that the company used the name of its long-held emblem, the Calatrava Cross (from the medieval military order), does perhaps reflect the importance the collection by then held.
In 1932, the first example was simply called the reference 96: a sparingly crisp, proportionally perfect watch that appeared amid the turbulence of the Great Depression. That event rocked Patek Philippe to its foundations. As my fellow Spear’s contributor Nicholas Foulkes notes in his meticulous history of the company, Patek Philippe: the Authorized Biography, the post-1929 crash outlook ‘varied from merely catastrophic to utterly apocalyptic’.
With gold cases from its stock being melted down to pay for the workforce, Patek was sold to the Stern family, hitherto owners of the company that supplied its dials.
Their acquisition coincided with the ref. 96’s introduction. Its restrained appearance was in markedly modern contrast to the florid, multifarious designs of the previous decade. And it would be the first platform for the Sterns’ grand project: to build within Patek Philippe the capabilities for making its own complete movements, rather than adapting (as was traditional) those from specialist suppliers.
Patek’s first completely in-house movement launched in a version of the ref. 96 in 1934 – and it’s fair to say, with some understatement, that the company, its watchmaking and the Stern family have never looked back.
The simple round Calatrava from Patek Philippe has gone through numerous styles, all of them bound with an essential, exacting elegance. In recent years, though, it has seemed almost dangerously at odds with prevailing fashions both for more versatile watches and for more interesting ones.
While Patek’s sportier Nautilus and Aquanaut models have joined its more complicated pieces in white hot territory, the Calatrava has been a little bit forgotten.
Put it this way: if you only look after your Patek Philippe for the next generation, don’t be surprised if your Calatrava ends up locked in the next generation’s drawer.
It needed revisiting and revitalising, and the approach taken with the two new Calatrava models revealed in April is interesting. Pleasingly, Geneva’s finest have resisted any instinct to dress it down, instead bringing back one of the most famous and fancy Calatrava formats: the Clous de Paris bezel, in which an engine-turned, ‘hobnail’ pattern encircles the dial. But it’s a more full-blooded look than previous examples.
At 39mm it’s rather bigger, and with plenty of presence and impact in the dial thanks to ‘railway track’ minute markings that turn up the volume on the Clous de Paris, and thick, gold hands and hour batons. The grained charcoal dial of the white gold version is particularly bold, with plenty of deep texture to play against the light.
However, the more significant development is what’s inside the watch.
Up to now, Patek’s hand-wound Calatravas have been relying on a movement developed in the Seventies, with a short power reserve and little that marks it as special in the modern era.
The new models contain a brand new engine that doubles the power reserve to 65 hours and with its large diameter provides an ample showcase for Patek’s dexterous hand-finishing. According to the brand, it’s also especially robust and powerful.
‘It’s a tractor,’ says Thierry Stern of the new model, meaning it’s designed both to run for years without worry and to pull along additional complications and functions in future watches.
‘The new Calatrava line is really something quite important for Patek Philippe,’ he explains. ‘We’ve tried to make it more up to date, to rethink the design, with a movement that’s large, reliable, slender and beautiful, and with a lot of power. It allows me to add more in the future.’
I suspect that this is really just the toe-dip for much bigger splashes to come next year.
But at the very least, the Patek Philippe Calatrava has just become interesting again, and not a moment too soon. Expect the waiting lists to be lengthening already,