40 Years of the Patek Philippe Nautilus
This article was first published in Arabic in the November/December issue of Alam Assatt wal Moujawharat.
Urban legend is rife with stories about great designs and works of art being sketched out on a napkin (or the back of an envelope or an old receipt) and most of the stories are just that – stories. One that you might have denounced as myth, had Gerald Genta not confirmed it in a 2009 interview with the author-photographer Constantin Stikas, is the origin of the Patek Philippe Nautilus design.
Genta described how, while sitting in a restaurant during the Basel watch fair in the mid-1970s, he spotted some Patek executives on the other side of the room: “I told the head-waiter: ‘Bring me a piece of paper and a pencil, I want to design something’ and I designed the Nautilus while observing the people from Patek eating! It was a sketch that I completed in 5 minutes…”
Gerald Genta was, without question, the greatest watch designer of the 20th century – indeed, he invented the profession (previously, designs were produced by anonymous members of watch companies’ technical or engineering departments). He was extraordinarily prolific, working for Universal, Omega, Bulgari (the Bulgari-Bulgari), IWC (the 1976 redesign of the Ingenieur), Cartier (Pasha), Rolex (Cellini), Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet, Breguet, Timex, Bulova and more. Genta, whose first job was as a jeweller’s apprentice, started selling watch designs for a mere 15 Swiss Francs apiece; an early taste of success came in 1955 with the release of the Universal Geneve Polerouter and throughout the 1960s he worked with Omega on its Constellation and Seamaster collections. However, he is mostly remembered for two watches, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus.
These two timepieces changed the world’s notion of luxury watchmaking forever – and, in doing so, helped to save the fortunes of those two great watchmaking houses. In the 1970s, the influx of cheap quartz movements from Japan was suffocating the Swiss watchmaking industry. Patek Philippe's own Ref. 3578, which used the Swiss-made Beta-21 quartz movement, had been a failure and Audemars Piguet was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Audemars Piguet acted first by gambling its reputation on a steel sports watch – the Genta-designed Royal Oak – launched in 1972 and priced higher than many gold watches. After a slow start, the gamble paid off – but even so, the Royal Oak might have been regarded as a fluke if not for Patek Philippe, an equally conservative and prestigious watch company introducing its own steel watch four years later.
The Nautilus is often thought of as a derivative of the Royal Oak but that couldn't be further from the truth. While they have similarities – the broad, nautically-inspired bezel, integrated bracelets and (at first) the same movement – the Royal Oak’s exposed bezel-mounting screws make it more stripped-down racing yacht to the Nautilus’s sleek ocean cruiser.
Genta’s nautical references were a clever nod to Henri Stern, then the CEO of Patek Philippe, who he knew liked sailing; the name Nautilus was adopted from Captain Nemo’s vessel in Jules Verne’s novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Genta gave the Nautilus a cleaner look than the Royal Oak, developing a new design solution for waterproofing the case: on either side of the bezel and case were two 'ears' reminiscent of the locking clamps on a ship’s porthole. When case and bezel ears were aligned, two screws could be threaded through them to secure the parts, with a rubber gasket sandwiched between them ensuring water resistance to 120 metres. Patek Philippe patented this ingenious solution – although Genta’s name doesn’t appear on the patent document.
The Nautilus bezel was, once again, octagonal but the corners were softened to give the watch a more luxurious appearance. Equally, compared to the sharply cut, blocky extension that joined the Royal Oak’s case and integrated bracelet, the curved lugs of the Nautilus were smooth and flowing; while the Royal Oak’s bracelet links were all crisp, straight lines, Genta gave the Nautilus bracelet an inner row of pill-shaped links that were polished to a mirror shine to contrast against the brushed steel.
It wouldn't be until 1980 that Patek Philippe was able to manufacture the case and bracelet of the Ref. 3700/1A in-house and it wouldn't be until 1981 that it gave Nautilus an in-house movement; until then production was outsourced. The case and integrated bracelet made by Favre-Perret, a prestigious producer of high-quality cases, with the cases milled out of a single piece of steel with early examples made from the same alloy used in the construction of tanks during World War II.
Favre-Perret would continue making Nautilus cases until the early 1980's until the 3700/11 when production moved to Patek's atelier Reunis which operated out of the building which now houses the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. The dial was made by Stern Frères, founded in 1898 by the Stern family who now own Patek Philippe, with each stripe on the dial painstakingly engraved one at a time by hand, before being painted in alternating coats of blue and black paint to obtain the distinctive not-blue-nor-black shade that is unique to Nautilus
The movement inside the first Nautilus, Calibre 28-255C, was based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 920. Introduced by Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1969, it remains today one of the thinnest automatic movements with a central rotor, and even with a date complication it measures just 3.05mm in height. (The movement has also been adapted and used by Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, although never by Jaeger-LeCoultre itself.) To minimise thickness, the rotor was supported by four ruby wheels set atop an outer rail rather than a central pinion. To maximise efficiency, the edge of the rotor was made of solid gold because its higher density meant that the winding potential wasn't compromised despite the small size.
The Ref. 3700/1A was released in 1976 and, as had happened with the Royal Oak, it took a while to be fully appreciated – one of the reasons being its size.
Dubbed 'Jumbo' because of its 42mm diameter, it was very large for the time. However, this criticism has become almost a virtue for the 3700s: 40 years after its launch, the ‘Jumbo’ looks wearable and stylish, perfectly in keeping with today’s taste for large watches. Unlike the Royal Oak, which was produced in a linear A/B/C series, making it easy for collectors to discern the age of their watch, the Ref. 3700/1A had no age designation and was produced for almost 15 years, being discontinued in 1990.
Whilst the Royal Oak's design saw a vast changes since its creation with a grand perpetual calendar being released in 1981, a day/date moonphase in 1984 and the Royal Oak Offshore in 1993 (Which Genta declared as having completely destroyed his Royal Oak design), the Nautilus instead gradually and gracefully matured into middle age. The references 4700 and 3800/1A were added in 1980 and 1981 to broaden the collection to accommodate ladies and those with smaller wrists and it wasn't until 1998 that Patek added a power reserve in the Ref. 3710/1A, the first complication that wasn't a date window. A few millimeters might have been added or taken away over the years but these changes always stayed true to Genta's original design
In 2005 Patek released the Ref. 3712/1 which added a power reserve, analog date display and a moonphase, and for the first time the Nautilus had a sapphire crystal display back which showed the solid gold micro-rotor of the new Calibre 240 PS. The Ref. 3712/1 was discontinued after one year so is incredibly popular among collectors searching for the first truly complicated Nautilus.
Just like other aging children of the 1970's who realized that the bell bottoms and platform shoes of their youth were beginning to show their age, Patek chose in 2006 to reinvigorate the Nautilus's design so it could remain as fashionable and luxurious as it was in 1976. The reference 5700/1 is almost identical to the 3700/1 however the new three-piece case was increased in size to 43mm with the 'ears' now curving more to accommodate the larger size and the dial now had a gradient finish with the blue becoming lighter towards the centre of the dial.. The Ref. 5711/1A also came with a white dial variant; however this wasn't truly the first white dial as a prototype was made in 1978. Dubbed the 'albino', this one-of-a-kind dial, entirely white and with the same horizontal ribbed finished as the regular production dial, was made specially for a client. It was consigned by the original owner to Sotheby's in 2015 where it sold for a record-breaking 250,000 Swiss Francs.
It is Nautilus models like the Albino that really get collectors excited, extremely rare watches that were made for important clients with only one or two examples ever made. Currently Christies is hosting a series of four 40th Anniversary Nautilus auctions in four different cities. The rarest and most desirable watches are those with the Omani Royal crest on the dial; those co-branded with Tiffany & Co are almost equally desirable, given their relative rarity and their significance to the story of Patek Philippe’s success in North America.
The price of the Nautilus has always been high. When it was released in 1976, the time and date only Ref. 3700/1A cost $3,100 – at a time when the median income in the United States was just over $12,000. Today the median income in the US is $52,000 and the equivalent reference, the 5711/1A, costs $24,000 – an interesting comparison in relative values.
While the Nautilus was conceived as a steel sports watch and is best known in that form, Patek dabbled in solid yellow gold or two-tone models in the early 1980s and '90s then in 2004 released a full white gold Nautilus, the Ref. 3711/1G. Recently Patek has explored using rose gold and platinum in the Nautilus line but only in small quantities; from 2011 to 2015 Patek made the Ref. 5711P which you could buy only after successfully passing through an application process. Most recently, the two limited edition pieces to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the Nautilus, are in white gold and platinum respectively. These watches do beg the question of whether a Nautilus should be in a precious metal when the thing that made the original so revolutionary was the very fact that it was made of steel.
Indeed, it is the steel Nautilus that remains the most popular among collectors. There will always be a market for precious metal pieces but to many, a true Nautilus is made from steel because it represents a time when Patek Philippe dared to imagine something different. Patek's advertising from the 1980s shows that the Nautilus could be worn with a dinner suit or a wetsuit with equal ease and it's this dual nature of the Nautilus that makes it so appealing. It’s also why collectors will still spend thousands more on a rare steel Nautilus than a more common one in gold.
Those unaware of it's legacy could be tempted to dismiss Patek Philippe’s Nautilus as 'just another luxury sports watch' but that would be wrong. Until well into the 1970s watches in gold and precious metals were the very definition of luxury, with steel used only for 'ordinary' watches. However, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, thanks to the brilliance of Gerald Genta, showed the world that the design of a watch can be just as valuable as the metal that is used to make it. The Nautilus isn't just another luxury sports watch, it helped to define a new style and redefine Swiss luxury watchmaking. Forty years later it remains just as modern and desirable as it was in 1976.