There is something utterly refined about a simple, “time-only” watch, a refinement that can only be wrought from decades of producing different forms for a basic watch. And let’s face it, Patek Philippe probably has a longer record than anyone else, and they do it better than any other brand out there.
It really is a simple watch and as simple as all that. This year the Patek Calatrava, introduced in 1932, turns 85 years old. Perhaps more than any other watch out there, the Calatrava (named after the emblematic cross that defines Patek Philippe) is the most famous, elegant, and understated watch there is. Despite the fact that it has, as a maximum, three hands and only gives the time of day, it still has appeal and charisma.
Given the number of different forms, case diameters, case metals, dial and hand designs, the Patek Philippe Calatrava has been a blank canvas upon which various watch designers have imprinted their version of the simple time-only watch over the decades since its inception.
The designs of the Calatrava have changed over the 85 years since the first model was introduced. Over the years, the style of the watch has changed from the art-deco 1920s and 30s, the tear-drop lug cases of the 1940s and 50s, the restrained minimalist designs of the 60s, or the futuristic ergonomics of the 1970’s the design balances the dial width, the spacing of the markers or numerals, and the bezel and lugs of the case.
There is more to the design in a simple watch than might first be considered. Every detail of the dial can be scrutinized far more closely. There have been white or silver dials (most common), black dials (fairly rare) or the occasional two-tone dials. With only two or three hands (hours, minutes, and seconds), and only dial markers, or numerals, then each and every element makes a difference.
The current incumbent reference 5196 is a worthy continuation in the series with emphasis on today’s market and tastes. But the design, that classic and parsimonious layout of baton markers or Breguet numerals that eschews refinement, is still there as it always has been.
In total (since inception) there are 37 references that can be seen as a Patek Philippe Calatrava. Although the reference 96 was introduced in 1932, with its yellow gold 31mm case diameter; the movements were dated back to around 1909.
The initial movements had frosted gilt plates and were built with blanks from Jaeger (before it merged with LeCoultre). However, within five years Patek Philippe was developing an ebauche, or movement blank, with Victorin Piguet.
Another 4 years after that, somewhere around 1940 or 1941, and Patek Philippe was producing its own nickel-plated, “Cotes de Geneve” movement that was to form the backbone of Calatrava models even to this day: the calibre 12”120. Patek Philippe has since refined the movement in the smallest of increments: the 12”400 and all the way to the 215PS that is still in use today.
The automatic movement for the reference 2526 was the sublime 12-600 AT. The current automatic movement is the 324 SC.
With the new movement the case sizes increased upwards towards 33mm and even to 36mm before the current reference 5196 series. The current models’ case diameters are 36 or 37mm.
Along with the different case metals, different dial designs, there were equally different case materials over the years. Case metals have ranged over the gold range: yellow, pink, and white; there have been the rare and occasional platinum, and then on top of that, the perversely very rare steel. So ironically the rarest of Calatrava watches have been produced in one of the more base of metals.
Dial designs have varied over the years with no one pattern dominating or defining what a Calatrava “look” should be. Number fonts could be Breguet, Arial, or even Roman. There have been “sector dials”; now back en vogue again.
However, the classic form for the dial has the hours marked with batons and a sub-dial at 6 o’clock for seconds, although there are Calatrava examples with a centre second hand. Dial materials are mainly painted or lacquer coated metal: usually silver. Occasionally an enamel dial has been produced, and the most famous of these is the Patek Philippe reference 2526.
In recent years the market for vintage Calatrava’s has taken off. Propelled by collectors realizing that in the myriad of different designs and forms there are some extremely rare examples that are eminently collectible.
This was personified by Phillips’ Geneva Watch Auction: Three last year that sold a “believed to be unique” Patek Philippe reference 530 from 1941, in an oversized steel case, with a black lacquer dial and polished silver Breguet numerals. The price was an eye-watering 1.45m Swiss Francs. Equally other rare forms of Calatrava watches have “hammered” for high six figure sums.
An interesting note for comparison is that a “believed to be unique” Vacheron Constantin “Chronomètre Royal” in white gold from 1954, in the same Phillips auction last year, sold for only 125,000 Swiss Francs.
The Calatrava as a design or a watch model is certainly not unique to Patek Philippe. Other watch firms, certainly over time, have produced similar watches and continue to do so. So why a Patek Philippe Calatrava? A difficult question to answer!
Part of the popularity of Calatravas must lie with the aura that is Patek Philippe. In the approximate 180 years since foundation, Patek Philippe has garnered a reputation for top tier finishing, high complication design, and chronometric performance of their calibres.
In particular, the reputation for chronometric performance is derived from Observatory trials from the 1920s through until the latter part of the 1950s. While there were other watch firms taking part, for example Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe produced more accurate winners than all others.
The Observatory trials used the same base calibres, admittedly with some over-engineered escapements, that found their way into Calatrava models. The most famous example of this is the Patek Philippe reference 2458 Observatory chronometer made for J.B. Champion from 1952.
Over the decades, gentlemen of distinction were known to wear the discrete, unassuming, and yet accurate Patek Philippe on their wrist. For their everyday wear the likes of financier Henry Graves (of the Graves Super Complication), auto manufacturer James Packard (of the Packard Super Complication), and more recently Vladimir Putin, former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, to name a few, all wore a Patek Philippe Calatrava of some description. Andy Warhol owned a reference 2526 in yellow gold with Breguet numerals on the dial, which admittedly is stunning!
So the real question is why? Why, when considering a watch to own, to wear day in and day out, should a simple, time-only watch suffice?
Well firstly, we live our life in terms of hours and minutes. Sure there are longer time periods available: weeks, months, moon phases, years, leap years, decades, centuries, and even the current time relative to the sun (sidereal time). But we live our everyday lives at a far more disaggregated level. For example, most of us would think about catching the 8.47 train, if that is the train we are supposed to be on. Not the train at 8.47 lying in the third phase of the new moon and where the time on Jupiter is six minutes later (sidereal time) given the current orbital positions of the Earth and Jupiter!
Secondly, the analogue dial has become something familiar and instantly readable (if the dial design is any good!). There have been, and continue to be, a number of attempts to depict the readout of the time of day. But the simple “time-only” dial is still the easiest.
However, of all the arguments for the success of the Patek Philippe Calatrava, the one that remains is the most effective is to point out that the most effective watch designs are at their best when “keeping it simple stupid” (KISS)! In terms of dial layout, movement ergonomics and accuracy, and refinement on the wrist, the Patek Philippe Calatrava has been the outstanding “KISS and tell!” success of the horology world.
Find out more about the Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot Travel Time Ref. 5524 here.
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