1976 was the year Steve Jobs launched Apple, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, U2 was formed, Concorde was placed in regular service, and the Cold War entered a period of détente. Gold prices fluctuated wildly, and oil prices, triggered by petroleum shortages, spiked rapidly. The strength of the Swiss franc was in serious question. One could not be blamed for assuming that against this backdrop the birth of the Nautilus would be somewhat shrouded in obscurity; however, given that it was a forty-two millimetre steel watch, introduced by the most hallowed of watchmakers, at a price point not commensurate to what was considered an inferior metal, waterproof to 120 metres – the “Jumbo” created a splash of its own.
For its approximately three grand in American dollars, one could purchase a gold Patek Philippe for approximately one more, or alternatively, close to ten Rolex Submariners at the time. Perhaps justifying its fiscal requisition, as Nicholas Foulkes recounts in his seminal tome Patek Philippe: An Authorised Biography, large-scale precision manufacturing – as used in the highly-complex monocoque case of the Nautilus – was not the norm in the early ’70’s; that was to come a decade or so after. Casemaker Jean-Pierre Frattini recalls the necessity of occasionally having to recut the dials or crystals or even having to scrap the cases, in keeping with the company’s standards.
To fully apprehend the significance of Patek’s investment into developing an all-new, apparently bizarre deviation from the svelte, classically conventional watches to which their wearers had been accustomed, it is essential to consider the horological milieu of the time: the watchmaking industry was in the throes of the quartz crisis, during which the number of Swiss watchmaking companies was decimated from 1,600 in 1970 to approximately 600 in 1983. The Swiss global market share in watchmaking tumbled from 47 percent in ’77 to less than 15 percent in ’83. Most luxury Swiss watches, if not a farcical attempt to play the Japanese at their electronic game, were fine, thin, sub-thirty millimetres in diameter, and cased in gold. Philippe Stern, however, was a captain who kept his head in a crisis, and was not susceptible to plunging headlong into the compromise of manufacturing, on- or offshore, ungainly watches that buzzed and blinked; in a somber yet hopeful address to his staff in 1978, he said, “Concerning Patek Philippe, we have always chosen exclusivity and quality; the fruit of your work – and it is thanks to this that our marque continues to enjoy considerable prestige.”
Philippe, like his father before him, was a vigorous man – an accomplished skier and first-rate yachtsman; frequently leaving with trophies at Lake Geneva regattas. Businessman, defender of haute horlogerie, sportsman – perhaps the Nautilus represented a mechanical analogue of the man. Designed by Gérald Genta as he did the Royal Oak that came four years before it, the Nautilus was conceived by the brilliant, somewhat irascible designer in under five minutes – in a restaurant nearby the Basel watch fair in the early seventies, sketched on pen and paper supplied by a waiter – which he then presented to Patek executives.
Verne, in his novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, describes the double-hulled submarine Nautilus, captained by Captain Nemo, as a “masterpiece containing masterpieces”. Nautilus, the watch inspired by the porthole; Nautilus, the watch able to withstand great depths, like its plongeur namesake; Nautilus, the watch as adroit a tool with a dinner suit as with a wetsuit.
The original Ref. 3700/1 ‘Jumbo’ featured the legendary Jaeger Le-Coultre 920 movement; christened 28-255 C by Patek, it is still to date the slimmest self-winding movement with a full rotor, quite a feat, especially one contemporary to the 1970s. Modern Nautilii models utilise Patek Philippe in-house calibres, ranging from the time-only Cal. 26-330 (an improved version of the 324), all the way up to the CH 28-520 C FUS in the mighty 5990 Travel Time Chronograph. Powered by the slim, micro-rotor Calibre 240Q and introduced in 2018 was the Nautilus Perpetual Calendar Ref. 5740, a piece so coveted that despite being offered only in white gold, it holds a years-long waitlist.
From the unitary Jumbo Ref. 3700-1/A in 1976, Patek introduced a range of smaller and quartz-powered Nautilus models in the 1980’s; the yellow gold, 27 millimetre Ref. 4700 and 33 millimetre Ref. 3900 , both in quartz, for ladies; the 37.5mm mid-sized, quite popular Ref. 3800, faithful to the aesthetics of the 3700, but containing Patek’s new in-house movement, the Calibre 335SC, with central seconds hand. The mid-sized Nautilus was available in various permutations of steel, or steel-and-gold, or gold, with either a gold or dark blue dial.
The 3800 was updated in the 1990’s with Roman numerals for its black, flat dial (eschewing the grooved Nautilus dial to which one had been accustomed) as well as leaf hands. It was the breadth of this breed of Nautilus models, coupled with an advertising campaign that emphasised its versatility and unabashedly high price, – “One of the world’s most costly watches is made of steel.” – of the Nautilus, that catalysed its growing popularity.
A Nautilus with lugs, mounted on a strap, was introduced in 1996; many consider this reference 5060 to be the precursor to the Aquanaut as we know it today – the case-sides without the “ears” should immediately recall the Aquanaut’s design. After the 3700 was discontinued in 1990, the next “large” Nautilus was the Ref. 3710, also in 42mm; only with the addition of a power reserve indicator slightly offset from the lateral centreline at 12 o’clock. Only available in steel, the Ref. 3710 featured the calibre 330 SC, behind a closed caseback.
But it was only at the turn of the 21st century that the Nautilus really came into its own, coinciding with the years leading to its 30th anniversary – Patek had introduced the Ref. 3711/1G, faithful to the original, but offered only in white gold, in 2004; the quirky, asymmetrical Ref. 3712/1A, featuring a power reserve indicator, moonphase and radial date display, and petite seconds, in 2005.
The Nautilus is the red-hot, deliriously obsessed-over symbol it is today arguably owing to Patek’s brilliant initiative in commemorating its 30th anniversary in 2006; introducing 4 new models, one of which in a mid-sized 38 millimetre case, and demonstrated that the “Jumbo” design was able to comfortably house complications just as well as it featured a time-and-date-only function. We now know the 5712 well, as we do the chronograph 5980; the 5980 is my favourite Nautilus after the time-only 5711.
The Annual Calendar, one of Patek’s quintessential complications, was introduced in the Nautilus in 2010 in steel, on a strap; 2012 saw its availability on a bracelet. 2014 saw the introduction of the biggest, baddest Nautilus; the highly impressive Ref. 5990 Travel Time, combining Patek’s dual-time complication with a chronograph, making it the most complicated watch in the line-up. At an eminently wearable 12.5mm thick, extremely impressive considering its complexity, ownership is at the end of another tediously long waitlist.
The 40th anniversary of the Nautilus was an appropriate time for Patek to introduce two limited editions; the 5711/1P in platinum, and the 5976/1G in white gold. Both featured electric blue gradient dials, and had discreet inscriptions on their dials alluding to the commemoration, “1976 – 40 – 2016”. Both also featured diamond markers, and were limited to a respective 700 and 1,300 pieces, selling out immediately.
Patek introduced a self-winding Nautilus aimed at women in 2015 with the Ref. 7118; it has all the appeal of the Nautilus aesthetic, featuring more nuanced, seductive lines, with wavy grooves of varying thickness on its dial. While not as coveted as its larger brethren (women, after all, enjoy purchasing and wearing the Jumbo-proportioned versions), the ladies’ Nautilus is every bit as capable – housing the proven cal. 324 full-rotor movement.
Baselworld 2019 saw the introduction of five additions to the Ref. 7118, with two in rose gold and three in stainless steel; measuring 35.2mm in diameter, the 7118/1200A models feature gem-set bezels, available in silver, blue, and grey opaline dials. These also feature bracelet adjustment systems, permitting the user to extend the bracelet by two to four millimetres, providing additional comfort in warm environments.
But the most significant addition to the Nautilus range in the past decade was the Ref. 5740/1G perpetual calendar, featuring Patek’s classic three-subdial display (as introduced on the Ref. 3940 – see Grand Complications– Perpetual Calendars), driven by the cal. 240Q with micro-rotor. At only 8.32mm thick overall, it is remarkably slim, considering that this is a series-produced wristwatch. Enthusiasts had been hankering for this complication to be introduced in the Nautilus line for years, and the fact that it is only available in a precious metal has had no effect on its roaring demand.
And with the 5740 we have charted the entire Nautilus collection over four decades. As mentioned in the introduction, I adore my time-and-date Ref. 5711. But I wear it with no regard for its relative scarcity; I enjoy it for its personal significance and for the way it looks and wears so comfortably. Aurel Bacs, auctioneer extraordinaire, describes it as, “This is the watch I wear most… it’s like an SUV for the wrist. It’s perfect in every situation – sturdy, masculine yet elegant, as close to perfection as any watch can possibly be.” Unmistakably virile, yet restrained; stylish, yet classical –in the words of a female observer, “…it looks so sexy, especially on you – I wouldn’t mind wearing one myself.” The ne plus ultra of rugged luxury, victor of the quartz crisis, prosaically fancied by a non-watch collector – that is the Nautilus.
[Editors Note: In the lead-up to the 2019 Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition David wrote a series of articles covering the gamut of watches Patek Philippe makes, including: Part 1 The Calatrava, Part 2 Patek Philippe Rare Handcrafts, Part 3 The Patek Philippe Nautilus, Part 4 The Patek Philippe Aquanaut, Part 5 The Patek Philippe Complications and Part 6 The Patek Philippe Grand Complications]
Patek Philippe Watch Art Grand Exhibition in Singapore
Running from the 28th of September until the 13th of October Patek Philippe will be hosting the Watch Art Grand Exhibition at the Sands Theatre (Marina Bay Sands). Taking place during the Singapore Bicentennial year, the Grand Exhibition underlines the importance of Singapore and Southeast Asia for Patek Philippe. These markets are not only significant when it comes to the numbers of collectors and enthusiasts based in the region, they also play a major role in building an appreciation for the work of fine mechanical watchmaking. For more information click here.