The story of Patek Philippe’s flagship line of watches, the Calatrava, is more than anything a story of sheer grit. It took no less than a world war, a change in ownership and a massive economic meltdown to get to where we are today. Surviving this tumultuous period would have been an achievement in and of itself. The fact that Patek was able to pick itself up, dust itself off and come out with such a critically, commercially, aesthetically and technologically successful range of watches is nothing short of remarkable. This is the story of the Calatrava.
Wars and Depressions
Aside from making a name for itself manufacturing pocket watches, Patek did occasionally make wristwatches. In fact, the manufacturer is credited with having made the very first Swiss wristwatch back in 1868 for the Hungarian Countess Koscowicz. Ahead of her time, the small watch set on a gold bangle stood out in stark contrast to the pocket watches and brooches that accompanied her contemporaries. Wristwatches became popular initially amongst women, and thanks to the war, men as well. Pocket watches just couldn’t compete with the practicality of a wristwatch while out on the battlefield. At the outset of WWI, wristwatches accounted for approximately 7% of total output.
These early men’s watches, known as Officers watches, were pendant watches converted to be worn on the wrist. Wearing a watch was still new and the war was in many respects one of the major catalysts for shaping our preference for them over pocket watches. But at the same time, the war was immensely disruptive for business, with the luxury watch trade almost grinding to a standstill. Lingering hostilities and shaky consumer sentiment didn’t do wonders for trade either. Amidst the bleak backdrop, Patek held on and in the years leading up to the first Calatrava, they made some exceptional (and innovative!) wristwatches. In 1923, Movement no. 124 824, was the first wristwatch with split-seconds chronograph. By 1924 wristwatches accounted for 28%, a figure which would peak the following year (in 1925), the same year Patek Philippe released Movement no. 97 975, the very first perpetual calendar wristwatch. Which was, in fact, a modified lady’s pendant watch from 1898. But by 1928 wristwatch production at Patek had fallen to a low of 13% of total output, the industry as a whole, on the other hand, was evenly split by 1930.
With the once buoyant Brazilian and European markets rattled after WWI, the American market was increasingly relied on as a major source of trade for the Geneva manufacturer. Increasing gains in the American market helped compensate for losses in many other markets, that is until America and the world came to grips with the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. With accumulating stock, falling sales and outstanding debts owed to Patek, the situation became increasingly bleak. At the outset of the Depression, company minutes from stockholder meetings painted a worrisome picture. But there was a semblance of hope. However, as the Depression wore on, the tone changed considerably, and the persisting market downturn posed a very real threat to the continuation of business for the manufacturer. Patek had to find to find a buyer.
Charles Henri and Jean Stern (of Stern Frères) were preferred, a decision made by Adrien Philippe and his co-directors, in favour of a bid from LeCoultre (which had been a large supplier of ébauches for Patek). As for the Stern brothers, they knew how to make beautifully decorated dials and had a track record of successfully running a business during one of the most testing financial periods in modern history. One word sums up the Stern family. Grit. A trait running in the family.
The brothers dial manufacture was founded by their parents, two enamel miniature painters by trade (Henri and Louise Stern). After pneumonia claimed the life of Henri, it was up to Louise and her children to push on and make it work. And push on they did. After acquiring Patek, it would be 4 hard years until the firm would show a profit again in 1936. Not only did they cut costs and improve efficiency, they continued to invest. There’s something to be said for having the foresight to invest in new machinery and equipment during the depths of the great recession. Old stock was sold, tough decisions were made, and a complete overhaul was underway. The Sterns were intent on doubling down on quality, no compromises would be made in the pursuit of excellence. Thicker, more elaborate wristwatches gave way to slimmer minimalist new designs.
The sense of order put in place by the Stern brothers was not only limited to production and distribution. For the first time, a naming system was introduced to categorise wristwatches. Yet from 1897 until 1932 this was not the case. A description of the watch with information on its movement and case numbers was previously used to identify watches. Names became important, a lesson learned from other newcomers on the wristwatch scene. Around the same time, if you went into a boutique and asked for an “Oyster”, you had something to work with. Simple as one word, no need to remember numbers or drawn out manufacturer descriptions. Names afforded order.
First manufactured in steel, Ref. 96, launched in 1932 did exactly that. The clarity and unfussiness of its naming also extended into the aesthetics of the watch. Featuring a round case, baton or numeral hour markers and small seconds sub-dial at 6. It did exactly what watches were designed for. Telling the time. It was (and the Calatrava collection still is) an excellent example of form follows function. Initially housing a JLC 12-ligne movement, it was in 1934 that Patek decided to feature its new in-house calibre, the 12’’120, within the Reference 96. The Calatrava was born.
Ref.96 was in many respects a return to form, no longer would Patek adapt out-of-house watch movements. Instead, they would design superb in-house movements from the ground-up for wristwatches. The importance of the Calatrava Ref.96 cannot be understated. Not only did the Stern brothers save the business, they introduced a new watch with a new movement with the aesthetics of a new design language. The original Ref.96 with its Bauhaus inspired aesthetic and time only capabilities were designed to appeal to a wider audience. The buzz throughout their workshops must have been palpable. From 1934 to 1939, the brand introduced 10 new calibres. Even by today’s standards with computer-aided design, 10 calibres in 5 years is absolutely staggering. The momentum generated from the initial Calatrava saw it become one of the most enduring collections in the history of wristwatches and it would become Patek Philippe’s signature timepiece. A legend was born.
The influence of the Reference 96 lives on in all current Calatrava watches. But perhaps the most direct link to the form follows the design code of the original is Reference 5196. Regarded by some as the true successor, the Ref.5196 was launched in 2004 and is available in yellow gold, rose gold, white gold and platinum (References: 5196J-001, 5196R-001, 5196G-001 and 5196P-001 respectively). The parallels are obvious with some slight upgrades. Housed within the contemporary sized 37 mm case is the beautifully decorated Calibre 215 PS movement with small seconds. It’s a fitting tribute to the original and yet remains thoroughly modern.
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