A PATEK PRIMER
Patek Philippe’s 175-year legacy isn’t just about technical firsts or illustrious clients, though there are plenty of those, too. Its greatest contribution to the world of watches is collectability itself. Without Patek, there’s simply no such thing, which is why the most valuable timepiece on the planet is a Patek, as are nine of the ten most expensive watches ever sold.
On October of this year, the world’s top collectors convened in Geneva for a night of caviar and complications. The Grandmaster Chime, Patek’s most complicated wristwatch to date, was unveiled for the first time, and it’s a stunning testament to human ingenuity. It would sell for $2.7 million later that evening, along with two thousand other limited-edition watches Patek produced to commemorate the occassion.
That the brand was able to move close to half-a-billion dollars' worth of watches in a single night should tell you two things: there’s a lot of inequality in this world, and Patek really is that good.
While the 175th-anniversary pieces have a solid shot at immortality, connoisseurs generally stick to five models: the Calatrava, the world-timer, the chronograph, the perpetual calendar, and the perpetual calendar chronograph. Each line, with its multiple iterations, could be a brand unto itself, and to really understand what makes Patek tick, you need to know them.
The Calatrava (References: 96, 570, 2508) The original Calatrava was released in the late 1920s, and has a flat bezel and down-turned lugs. Sized at 30.6 mm, the 96 set the bar for time-only excellence. Next came the Grand Calatrava (reference 570), which, with its 35.5 mm case, was enormous for its day. The 570 was followed by the 2508, considered the last great Calatrava of the twentieth century. It was the first and only waterproof Calatrava, with a thicker, screw-back case that made it moisture resistant and a bit more substantial — athletic, but elegant.
What to Look for... Yellow gold examples are the most common, followed by rose gold, and white gold. The most sought-after Calatravas are stainless steel or platinum. Calatravas with luminous radium hands and dials are also in high demand, as are ones with Breguet hour markers, which can easily double the price of a piece.
The World-Timer (References: 1415, 2523) The midcentury jet set went mad for this Patek, which keeps time across twenty-four time zones. Conceived by independent craftsman Louis Cottier, who also sold the concept to Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet, Patek’s take on the world-timer is the most coveted. Its first go round, the 1415, had a 33 mm case. It was followed by the larger 2523, which had a dual-crown mechanism to make adjusting time zones easier.
What to Look for... The most collectable vintage models have bright cloisonné enamel center discs, made by hand using a centuries-old technique, and either a single or double crown. The latter regularly trade hands for $2 million and up.
The Chronograph (References: 130, 1579, 1463, 5070) The chrono complication isn’t unique to Patek, but no one does it better. The brand began experimenting with it in the 1910s, but didn’t produce a chrono until the 130, which debuted in the mid 1930s, with thin, long lugs and a 33 mm case. Like the Calatrava, the Chronograph was offered in two sizes. A 37 mm model, the 530, uses the same caliber, but a bigger case, and is exceedingly hard to find. In the 1940s, Patek introduced the 1463, a waterproof chrono with a screw-down caseback and round pump pushers. It shares a case with the reference 2508 Calatrava mentioned above, and is one of the most wearable complicated watches in Patek’s archive.
"That Patek was able to move close to half-a-billion dollars’ worth of watches in a single night should tell you two things: there’s a lot of inequality in this world, and Patek really is that good."
There is also a dress chronograph, the 1579, which is thinner than the waterproof 1463, and sports “spyder”-style lugs for a dose of drama. Both the 1463 and the 1579 were produced through the late 1960s until Patek, and most other Swiss watchmakers, decided manually-wound chronographs weren't worth the time and money. It wasn’t until 1999 that Patek re-introduced a manually-wound chrono into its lineup. Sized at 42 mm, the 5070 was inspired by an aviator’s watch from the 1950s, and became one of the best-selling models in Patek history. What to Look for...
The most common vintage chronos are in yellow gold, then rose, followed by the white metals. Stainless-steel versions have a particularly strong following, too. Similar to Calatravas, chronographs with Breguet numbers tend to fetch more than those without. For my money, the 1463 is the vintage chrono to beat, though a 130 can be had for a small fraction of the price, due to its smaller case size and thin lugs.
The Perpetual Calendar (References: 1526, 2497, 3448) No watchmaker has done more to promote complexity than Patek. The Perpetual Calendar complication allows its wearer to track not only hours, minutes, and seconds, but also the day, date, week, month, year, and leap year for hundreds of years at a time, without a reset. Even today, it remains a triumph of watchmaking, and Patek has been using it since the beginning.
Reference 1526 was Patek’s first foray into the perpetual calendar category. Sharing case DNA with the 130 chronograph, its simple aperture design and thin lugs are a bit demure for some tastes, but there’s no denying its importance. The later reference, 2497, which shares a case with the legendary 2499, is probably the best-known manually-wound perpetual calendar out there, but it was the 3448 that changed the perpetual calendar market forever. The first self-winding stab at the genre, all vintage 3448s are considered highly rare and collectible.
What to Look for... Jean-Claude Biver, head of LVMH watches and jewelry, famously owns one of the two platinum 3448s ever made. The afore-mentioned 2497 is considered the last truly “vintage” Perpetual Calendar in that it’s manually wound. The 3448 and 3450 have genuine historic value, too, as the bridge between vintage and modern Patek. So take your pick, really.
Perpetual Calendar Chronographs (References: 1518, 2499, 3970, 5970) And then there's these guys. No other family of watches is as important as the perpetual calendar chronograph. The underlying conceit sounds dead simple, sure — marry a perpetual calendar with a chronograph — but to do it in a way that was wearable required genius. Launched in 1941 with the 1518, the perpetual calendar chronograph series stood atop the food chain then as it does today. The 1518 was Patek’s first attempt at perfection, and by round two, the 2499, they had it just about right.
Considered by many to be one of the finest watches ever produced, the 2499’s perfectly balanced case and dial give it a remarkable purity. There’s a reason Patek could only manage to make eleven of them a year. After twenty-five years of production, there are only 370 in existence.
The 2499 was followed by the 36 mm 3970, also considered to be among the best watches ever. It was followed by the 5970, with a 40 mm case and tachymeter dial that gave it a sporty, almost casual look. What to Look for...
The vast majority of 1518s and 2499s were made in yellow gold; a rose gold example of either sends the price north of seven figures. There are also four known 1518s in stainless steel, all worth well over $4 million. Eric Clapton had a 2499 in platinum until he sold it last year for $3.65 million. The 3970 is more common, if only slightly less out-of-reach. Finally, there's the 5970, which has a strong cult following thanks to high-profile fans like John Mayer and Clapton. Some say it's the last of the great Pateks, but I have a funny feeling they might be wrong.