NICHOLAS FOULKES The British historian, book author and journalist is considered the most profound connoisseur of Patek Philippe. For beyond, he comments on specific epochs and phenomena.
VIRTUOSIC WITH ONLY THREE HANDS
When Patek Philippe discontinued the highly successful “Nautilus”, the world went crazy. And yet it was a logical move.
The famous advertising strapline chez Patek Philippe is that ‘you never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation’. But recently, this oft-quoted aphorism has been joined by another piece of memorable copywriting.
There is no hero watch at Patek Philippe. There is no star.’ In just a few words it conveys a world of meaning. It says almost everything you need to know about the famous brand of the Calatrava cross. Patek is one of the last remaining watch brands, one could argue the last remaining fine watchmaking brand, that is both active and truly relevant in all sectors: grand complications, high complications, mid complications, sport, jewellery, dress, rare hand crafts and simple time only. Of course, there are many other excellent brands that make watches in all these sectors, but they tend to be better known for one model or sector than or another.
For evidence of Patek’s determination not to be held hostage by a single model you need look no further than Thierry Stern’s decision to discontinue the reference 5711, which at the time was the most desirable watch on this or, for that matter, any other planet. On hearing the news there was heated debate in the council chamber of the United Nations, turmoil on the world’s financial markets and the end of the world was widely predicted.
In all the tumult surrounding the retirement of the steel Nautilus, Patek Philippe slipped out a watch that, at the time, no one was expecting, and not everyone noticed: the Calatrava Ref 6119 with Clou de Paris bezel. For those of us old enough to have them, this watch summoned up memories of the Reference 3919 launched in 1985, a slim coin-like presence on the wrist discreetly informing its wearer of the hours minutes and seconds, as light played softly across the guilloche engraved bezel.
The discretion and familiarity of the 6119 belies its importance. It even showcased a brand-new hand wound calibre, the 30-255 PS, featuring two barrels mounted in parallel meshing simultaneously with the centre pinion. It is the ultimate in inverse snobbery offering the quintessence of timekeeping; a watch very much for the purist, who wants the regular connection with the winding crown, rather than the set-and-forget dependability of the self-winding watch. It is a very Patek timepiece and as you might have gathered, I rather like it.
The following year, Patek took the same ingredients: Clou de Paris, hours, minutes, and seconds (plus a date), and used them to make the Ref 5226. The result could not have been more completely and utterly different. This time the Clou de Paris had moved from the bezel to the case band and in order that it could be engraved over the entirety of its circumference, a new type of case was invented that attached the lugs to the case back rather than the case wall. The addition of syringe hands and a textured dial reminiscent of a vintage camera imparted a retro modern look.
With this this virtuoso display of versatility, Patek Philippe was reminding us that we overlook or underestimate the simple three-hand watch at our peril.
The Calatrava range, which began with the celebrated Reference 96, is highly important to the history of the brand. It represents the start of the Stern era. The family (formerly dial makers supplying Patek among others) led a group of investors who rescued the brand from financial collapse in 1932. This was when the brand commenced its march to modern greatness and much of the future success of Patek was built on the foundations laid by the reference 96. In May last year, I further immersed myself in the world of the ‘simple’ Patek, when I curated the exhibition of watches from the privately-owned OAK Collection at London’s design Museum. The OAK is particularly rich in Calatravas and shows how it is impossible to understand Patek Philippe without appreciating the variety and interest that Patek is able to coax from a three-handed timepiece.
CAN PLAY ANY ROLE
The absence of complications, subdials, and other indices to distract the eye means that infelicities of design are impossible to disguise. Again, and again, I kept returning to the showcase containing these allegedly simple, but in reality, incredibly detailed and varied timepieces with a sense of wonder, marvelling at the immense aesthetic change that could be achieved with subtle shifts in colour, choices of hand types and numeral styles or a millimetre more or less in diameter. Whether the restrained and purposeful elegance of an extra rare Ref 1504A in steel with black gloss dial and applied Breguet numerals from 1941; or a special-order Ref 5196 made in 2016 expressly for the collector in platinum case and midnight blue dial; paying homage to specific vintage References 530 and 570 with applied white gold Breguet numerals, bead minute division and gold feuille hands; each was different and each was a masterpiece.
To return to the new slogan of Patek Philippe, that there are no stars, I would gently question the validity of the statement in the light of what extraordinary beauty and versatility can be achieved by Patek Philippe with just three hands (and a whole lot of horological savoir faire). The Calatrava of Patek Philippe is a truly talented actor, able to inhabit any role so perfectly that it is appropriate for every occasion without ever upstaging its wearer… Surely that is the definition of a true star?