50 Years of Patek Philippe’s Golden Ellipse
There is a thin line between elegance and convention. A timepiece becomes boring if it is too refined, too understated and too restrained. The challenge for a dress watch is to draw sophistication from simplicity and make that sense of savoir faire exciting, innovative and bold. No easy task. As is typical behaviour from the esteemed Genevan watchmakers, Patek Philippe rose to the challenge. Their solution? The Golden Ellipse. Now half a century in production we take a look back to see where this iconic design came from, where it has been, and where it is going.
Running with the Times
The optimistic spirit of American modernism had a profound influence on Henri Stern. Following the retirement of John Pfister, Stern was elected president of the board of directors at Patek Philippe in 1958. After 20 years living abroad he finally returned to his lakeside home-city of Geneva and at 48 years of age, Stern was brimming with bold ideas to keep Patek running with the times. Resuming an active lifestyle upon his return to Switzerland, a row across Lake Geneva would typically start his morning, after which he would take a refreshing dip in the lake’s waters, eat breakfast and then head to work. His laudable morning pursuits were supplemented by skiing in the winter and sailing in the summer – Stern undoubtedly possessed an immense amount of energy and a tireless zeal for living well. All the while the pace of life was changing: the jet planes, fast cars and dizzying skyscrapers which Stern had witnessed across the Atlantic created a vision of extraordinary dynamism and progress that would soon hit his home continent.
In the same year that Stern took the helm at Patek, the first commercial transatlantic flights between London and New York began when one plane departed from Heathrow and the other from Idlewild (now JFK). The age of commercial travel was reaching new heights, and Patek followed with a few innovative take-offs of its own. The World Time concept may have been introduced in the 1937 Reference 1415, but the new jet age needed speed and convenience. Designed by Louis Cottier, the Reference 2597 in 1959 updated the classic World Time with the addition of the revolutionary ‘Push Button Time’ – changing between time-zones was made simpler than ever before. That reference was the first release under Stern’s leadership which proved to the watch world that Patek Philippe was prepared to embrace the quickening pace of the world with open arms.
A Case for Change
The Golden Ellipse truly reimagined the shape of the typical dress watch in 1968. Although the timepiece’s shape was entirely novel, it was certainly no attempt to push a square peg through a round hole. Based on the alluring concept of the golden ratio, the design of the now iconic Golden Ellipse was a marked break from traditional form. Rather than following trend, Patek created their own in the uncharted territory between circle and rectangle. Five decades on, it is now one of the longest running timepiece from Patek Philippe – second only to the Calatrava.
The release of the Golden Ellipse was somewhat at odds with the mentality of the time period. The world was becoming busier, more complicated, and increasingly noisy. Except the watch was neither busy, complicated nor noisy. Instead, the calm aesthetic of the dial asked for a moment of pause. Although Patek Philippe was then and is now a company renowned for their complications, the Golden Ellipse simply told the time; without the inclusion of numerals, the watch was reduced to twelves indexes against a blue dial. Initially powered by a manually wound movement, by 1977 the ultra-thin Caliber 240 automatic movement was introduced and is still found ticking inside contemporary models of the timepiece.
Celebrating Half a Century
To mark the anniversary, Patek have released two new references. The first is the Reference 5738R ‘grande-taille’ Golden Ellipse. The rose gold case extends to a diameter of 39.5mm – proportions first seen when Patek celebrated the 40thanniversary of the Golden Ellipse in platinum. Although overall the size is larger, the Caliber 240 automatic movement is still as thin as always which allows the watch to maintains a height of only 5.9mm. An ebony black sunburst dial contrasts beautifully against the rose gold hour indexes, and what really brings it all together is that the crown is luxuriously set with an onyx. The black alligator strap ties in what is a refined example of craftsmanship in black and gold which leaves little for wanting.
The second is something slightly different. The Reference 5738/50P Ellipse D’Or is an exquisite tribute to rare handcrafts with black enamel serving as the background for an elaborate white gold, hand engraved volute pattern inside the platinum case. Just like the other celebratory model, it operates on the Caliber 240, boasts a crown adorned with an onyx and features a black hand-stitched alligator strap. What sets this watch apart is that it is an extraordinary exhibition of watchmaking as art. The dial is a canvas for the display of an artisanal skill which has been used by Genevan watchmakers to decorate timepieces for more than 400 years. Understandably, only 100 pieces will be made.
The Next 50 Years
Tastes change but the popularity of the Golden Ellipse has endured. Dare I say, the iconic watch is perhaps better appreciated now than ever before. It is widely regarded as a cult classic and its timelessness is surely the result of its enigmatic elegance. As a result, demand for the watch will not fade and nor will Patek cease its production any time soon. In 1968, the Golden Ellipse sought to espouse the brilliant dynamism of an optimistic age through distilling all that energy into a demonstration of restrained opulence. The present pace of change is equally dizzying, which may just explain in some part why we are still so drawn to the watch’s golden ratio proportions today.