Explaining The History Of The Legendary Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph
It’s the middle of the Second World War, the year 1941, the same year Roosevelt signed the Lend-Lease bill to deliver much needed aid to Britain and China, just as new fronts of conflict opened in from Albania to the Belgian Congo.
That very year the sleepy Swiss town of Basel hosted “Swiss Watch Fair Basel” (as Baselworld was known then). This event was lit up not by nighttime bombings or artillery shells, but by the debut of a timepiece that many connoisseurs regard today as legendary: the Patek Philippe reference 1518.
Let us now go on a privileged journey and discover how this magnificent watch evolved into its equally famous successors, the refs. 2499, 3970, 5970 and 5270 – and peer into the near future to see what Baselworld 2017 might bring.
The vintage era
The Patek Philippe reference 1518 was the first serially produced chronograph with perpetual calendar ever. While that in itself is technically impressive – combining two complications in one movement – merely being the first with an engineering feat often does not result in lasting greatness. It takes the coming together of a vast variety of diverse factors to define whether a design will last the test of time and go on to become the standard to which all others are compared. All of that happened for the 1518 and as such, the watch has defined complicated chronographs for over 75 years now.
Some quick facts worth taking in about the first and definitive perpetual calendar before we move on to its more modern iterations: between 1941 and 1954 Patek Philippe is known to have produced 281 examples of the 1518, about 55 in rose gold, just four in stainless steel and the rest, as was typical for the period, were in yellow gold.
The 35mm case contained a Valjoux calibre 13Q (13 130Q) as the base movement, with the under-dial-work modified by movement maker Victorin Piguet to incorporate a perpetual calendar. At the same time, decoration of the movement was been upgraded to the highest standards for the time in Patek Philippe’s workshop – though, mind you, these 70-year-old movements still look absolutely spectacular today.
A neat-looking case and a world first movement, again, are scarcely enough to create a 75-year legacy, so you are right if you think there has to be more to the 1518 than just that. What Patek Philippe also got so very right was the way the numerous elements of the 1518 came together and creating something so technically marvellous and yet aesthetically well balanced.
Even though the case design changed in the references which followed – 2499, 3970, 5970, 5270 – the crucially important basic dial layout, with three sub-dials and two apertures so neatly positioned under 12 o’clock, along with a phase of the moon at six were to stay throughout.
Succeeding the 1518 was the ref. 2499 that first came to market in 1951, hence spending some three years produced alongside the 1518. What makes the 2499 so special in the eyes of many collectors is that it carries over a lot of the design elements that gave the 1518 its vintage charm, but packaged into what is considered to a more modern and wearable size by today’s standards, with a case that’s between 37.5mm to 37.8mm in diameter.
Reference 2499 was produced in four distinct series, each with considerable design changes to the hour indices and pushers, establishing an obvious evolution throughout what turned out to be a whopping 35-year production run. In that time 349 examples were produced, with yellow gold being the most common, and just a handful of 2499s in pink gold and platinum. The most valuable 2499 to date is the one of two known platinum versions that was sold by Christie’s in 2012 for a whopping $3.63 million.
The modern era
The next chapter in the history of Patek Philippe perpetual chronographs starts in 1986 when ref. 3970 made its debut. Most notably, the 3970 was the first Patek Philippe not to use the Valjoux-based movement that characterised the 1518 and 2499, instead replacing it with the Lemania calibre 2310.
What you may find interesting to know is that this movement is based on the same calibre that served as the foundations for the Calibre 321 that Omega for a long time has used in its Speedmaster Moonwatch – though, needless to say, Patek Philippe’s variation is much more complicated and finished to very different standards.
Modified by Patek Philippe and renamed the Calibre CH 27-70 Q, it was found inside the 3970, 5020 and 5970, with the 3970 being the immediate and proper successor to the 2499.
With ref. 3970 not just the mechanics but the exterior changed too: Patek Philippe reduced the case size to 36mm, from 37.5mm of the 2499. The 3970 was offered it in four metals, yellow, rose and white gold (a first for a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar) as well as platinum.
What you will want to note is that about ten times as many 3970s exist as there are 1518s or 2499s, with an estimated production run between 2,400 and 3,600 – a rather wide range produced by experts in the field, but Patek Philippe will not disclose exact figures. Thanks to more modern production techniques this isn’t a surprise but something that affects collectability.
Two references we will mention in passing are the 5020, which used the same Lemania-based calibre as the 3970, but in a retro, TV-shaped case, and that was produced for just two years, being a relatively poor seller. While the shape may not be the company’s most gracious design, but the 5020 is surely a future collectible.
The other piece we shall briefly mentioned as a fascinating detour is the Patek Philippe Reference 5004 split-seconds chronograph with perpetual calendar, one beast of a watch that packs a Lemania calibre with an added rattrapante function into the same 36mm case as the 3970 (but one that’s significantly thicker). Launched in 1996 and in production for some 16 years, it’s one unique reference among these already very special timepieces.
To return back to the primary bloodline of perpetual calendar chronographs, we get to the Reference 5970, a watch introduced in 2004 and produced until 2011 – a short production run of just seven years. Patek Philippe elegantly increased both the dial and case diameter by adding a tachymeter scale to the dial, growing the 5970 case to a truly modern 40mm. Available in rose, yellow or white gold and also platinum, the 5970 marks the last hurrah of the Lemania-based Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronograph.
The beginning of the in-house movement
In 2011 a new era began as Patek Philippe launched Reference 5270, the first watch in the series with an in-house movement. Featuring an all-new perpetual calendar module with 182 parts and allowing for a clear and beautifully symmetrical dial layout, this new caliber 29-535 PS Q meets the stringent Patek Philippe Seal that dictates both accuracy and finishing.
The 5270 brought with it a 41mm wide and 12.4mm high case, the largest to date, but still beautifully proportioned, elegant and comfortable to wear.
As technical sophistication peaked with the 5270, the question we are left with is if we can expect anything new from Baselworld 2017? Considering the long production runs of these sublimely complex watches and the fact that the 5270 just turned five years old, we may see some aesthetic upgrades but likely not a new movement. With that in mind, we have seen Patek Philippe downsize references and in tune with the newfound craze for vintage watches in recent years, the 5270 might just see a smaller diameter variant emerge.
Read up more on Patek Philippe Chronographs watches here.
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