World of Patek Philippe

Nicholas Foulkes digs into the history of the world's most important watch brand.

Nicholas Foulkes

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.


It wasn’t all quartz crisis! The 1970s also stood for avant-garde design – especially at Patek Philippe.


It was the best of times it was the worst of times’, with this famous opening lines Charles Dickens encapsulated the oxymoronic spirit of the French Revolution in his 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities. But he might just as easily have been talking about the 1970s and the Swiss watch industry.

The 1970s and early 1980s tends to be filed away in the drawer marked ‘Quartz Crisis’, which is to grossly oversimplify a discrete and fascinating period in the history of Swiss watchmaking in general, and Patek Philippe in particular.

It was not just the arrival of quartz-regulated watches, but the abandonment of the Bretton Woods agreement, the strength of the Swiss franc, and the dramatic rise in gold prices, which combined to destroy so much of the traditional watch industry. However until 1973 Swiss watchmaking was booming.

Even in the darkest of the days that followed there were moments of light: in 1976 Patek Philippe gave the world the gift that is the Nautilus. Indeed, avant-garde design was what characterised the 1970s. The chunky Ref 3597 Beta 21 quartz watches with their Pierre Cardin look ‘cheese grater’ bracelets could easily have come from the props department of the film 2001 A Space Odyssey.

But it was the Golden Ellipse, which made its debut in 1968, that came to dominate the 1970s. From its relatively restrained beginnings in a yellow gold case with the famous dazzling blue gold dial the original Ellipse mutated into a brand within a brand; other dial colours were swiftly introduced with evocative names such as Vermeer brown and autumn gold among them. The Ellipse was also the perfect partner for the silken, ribbon-like, woven-look gold bracelets of the period in the popular Milanais, Polonaise and Cotte de Mailles styles. Even the case shape was open to interpretations sometimes the Ellipse was mounted transversally as with the Ref 3545. At other times it was no longer elliptical at all, but TV-shaped, characterised by sides of equal dimensions and known as the ‘Golden Circle’ Ref 3604. Experimental bezel styles were introduced, such as the gadrooned Ref 3630, which featured dials of onyx and Lapis Lazuli: hardstone dials were another obsession of this period.

Patek Philippe Ref. 3597
The “Beta 21” (Ref. 3597) in 18-carat gold with the striking bracelet by Pierre Cardin.

Moreover, the Golden Ellipse was not just a wristwatch. There were Ellipse pocket watches, Ellipse rings, Ellipse cufflinks, Ellipse tie clips, Ellipse keyrings, Ellipse money-clips, Ellipse cigarette lighters and, best of all, Ellipse zodiac pendants of considerable size on textured gold chains executed in a combination of polished white gold and textured yellow gold, made for Patek by the celebrated Parisian goldsmith Georges Lenfant.

By the end of the decade there were a staggering 65 references of Ellipse in the catalogue and, with the rapid emergence of the Middle East as an important new market there was much call for unique pieces of the sort preserved in the Seddiqi collection in Dubai which has an Ellipse with a coral and pave diamond dial, the coral running in a wide stripe diagonally across the dial from 5 to 11 and Patek Philippe Geneve and Swiss printed off-centre. In the context of their times these were the watches that enjoyed the limelight, much as, say, a 5270 with a unique dial does today. But what makes Patek Philippe of the 1970s so remarkable was that, at the same time as it was creating such aesthetically daring and extravagant watches it was also laying the foundations for its dominance of complicated watchmaking during the late 20th and the 21st centuries.

One June morning in 1979, Patek’s president Philippe Stern was having a meeting with technical director Max Studer. That year Patek Phillipe was 140 years old, but Stern was already looking ahead to the 150th anniversary in 1989. Studer was an exceptionally talented watchmaker, a former champion regleur in the Observatory competitions that had ceased in the late 1960s in the face of the inhuman precision of quartz technology. But the fire of mechanical watchmaking still burned bright within Studer’s breast, and he suggested that for the 150th anniversary of the firm, Patek Philippe should build the most complicated portable mechanical timepiece ever made? Bear in mind this was 1979, peak Quartz crisis, when the world was focussed on hardstone dials and ultra-slim watches and yet not only did the visionary Philippe Stern entertain this idea, he decided to create a crack team to set to work on a watch that would eclipse even the fabled Graves Supercomplication.

Today we know that historically important landmark watch as the Calibre 89.

Beyer Chronometrie