Riding The Sea Change

The Rise Of Patek Philippine’s Nautilus

The year of the Nautilus was 1976. Out in the wider world, the space race had recently culminated in the joint Apollo-Soyuz mission that saw a US Apollo craft dock with the Soviet Soyuz 19 in space — an extended act of diplomacy. The Cold War was at the uneasy stage of hiatus known as détente. The Concorde took its inaugural flight across the Atlantic while oil prices continued to spike. Seismic shifts were taking place in the international economic and political spheres. In Geneva, a revolution was brewing that would change the face of the luxury watch industry and stir up no end of extended, opinionated discussion.

The undisputed focus of horological attention that year was the Patek Philippe Nautilus, a stainless-steel watch that famously commanded the price of a gold timepiece. Audemars Piguet had released their Royal Oak — also a stainless-steel luxury sports watch — four years before, but the prevalent school of thought at the time was still that luxury watches did not come in steel. Luxury watches were made of gold; they fit discreetly on the wrist, with their conservatively shaped and demurely sized cases. Yet here was a timepiece from that revered house of haute horlogerie that not only defied all conventions of watch design, but did it with such astounding assertiveness that it left observers quite breathless.

To Boldly Go Where No Watch Has Gone Before

A 42mm diameter. A vigorous, decidedly masculine case profile. An emphatic bezel that combined the geometrical strength of an octagon with the effortless athleticism of a circle. The features of the Patek Philippe Nautilus may have been a drastic departure from the typical market product available at the time, but they were even more startling when viewed in light of the brand’s existing oeuvre. To this very day, aficionados of the Nautilus (and of its subsequent design offshoot the Aquanaut) count themselves a breed apart from the main body of Patek Philippe collectors. On various online forums, where horological grandstanding waxes fast and furious, the Nautilus is still occasionally snootily dismissed as “not a REAL Patek”.

We at REVOLUTION respectfully beg to differ. The designer behind the Nautilus was something of a creative savant whose declared purpose was to “discover a sense of identity for someone who may not be aware they have this identity” — a watch whisperer, if you will. The late Gérald Genta, the same man who gave Audemars Piguet its Royal Oak, Bulgari its BVLGARI-BVLGARI, and Omega its Constellation, also put his inimitable stamp on the Patek Philippe Nautilus. According to Genta in an early REVOLUTION interview, these watches “represent the rupture between a brand’s past and its future”. It’s true that the Nautilus bears little superficial resemblance to the rest of its Patek Philippe brethren, but the quality of its construction and its flawless execution of design are clear evidence of its parentage. The Nautilus also has the distinction of being the first Patek Philippe timepiece that CEO Thierry Stern owned — a gift on his 20th birthday from his father, Philippe Stern.

The 1976 introduction of the Nautilus was a watershed moment in redefining the meaning of a luxury timepiece. Its design pedigree, stemming from one of the most influential names in the industry, cements its current standing as one of the world’s most recognizable watches. The long waiting list for even its basic models and the strength of its performance in the resale market are testaments to the enduring and fundamental desirability of the Nautilus.

the Nautilus bears little superficial resemblance to the rest of its Patek Philippe brethren, but the quality of its construction and its flawless execution of design are clear evidence of its parentage. The Nautilus also has the distinction of being the first Patek Philippe timepiece that CEO Thierry Stern owned —
a gift on his 20th birthday from
his father, Philippe Stern

A Story That Writes Itself

The Nautilus arose from the sea, like a Hellenic god of old, like its best-known namesake — the mighty submarine of Jules Verne’s science-fiction epic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Its name is appropriately derived from the Greek word meaning ship or sailor, and the wide steel bezel of the watch takes its design cues from the hermetically sealed portholes of marine vessels. The defining visual characteristic of the watch, the protruding “ears” on either side of the case, are meant to evoke the prominent hinges on these watertight windows.

Another interesting factoid: Although it’s widely known now that Gérald Genta designed the Nautilus, it was common practice before for watch manufacturers not to publicize the names of watch designers. The patent papers regarding the various features of the Nautilus name only Philippe Stern in the creation of the watch, without crediting Genta. Just as in the Verne novel, the man behind the Nautilus was shrouded in secrecy — Verne’s fictional captain took for himself the name Nemo, which is Latin for “no one”.

An ‘A’ -series Nautilus ref. 3700/1 with its original box and papers
An ‘A’ -series Nautilus ref. 3700/1 with its original box and papers

The original 42mm Nautilus, the ref. 3700/1 in stainless steel with hours, minutes and a small date at three o’clock, came to be affectionately known as the Jumbo, due to its size. The outré nature of its design and scale relative to other timepieces of the era meant that — all fanfare and critical interest aside — markets took some time to warm up to the Nautilus. In fact, it was notably in the ’80s that the Nautilus came into its own. Instrumental in the watch’s burgeoning popularity was an advertising campaign that emphasized the versatility of the Nautilus in casual and formal situations, and unabashedly put the spotlight on the audacious price point of a stainless-steel watch.

Culturally, the Nautilus was also riding a wave of evolving attitudes and lifestyles, not the least of which included the rise of hyper-masculinity in society in response to second-wave (read: angry) feminism. Corporate life — one of the last bastions of male dominion — was changing, as female executives in massive-shouldered suits led unprecedented charges up the career ladder. It’s no accident that the ’80s was also the decade of the action hero. The relocation of gender paradigms was only to be expected, and the increasing demand for a powerful-looking men’s watch in a strong material turned market niche into market segment.

And increasingly, the embracing of an active lifestyle and overt athleticism by the upper classes also helped boost demand for a watch that expressed luxury, exclusivity and rugged masculinity all at the same time.

An Inspired Evolution

The earliest Nautilus models had an ingenious case construction that differed from the usual tripartite case of their contemporaries. Most watches, then and now, come with a caseback, caseband and bezel that, sandwiched together, protect the movement from external elements. In order to achieve its notable water-resistance depth of 120m, the Nautilus utilized a monocoque construction, reducing the number of points of entry to the movement. A single block of stainless steel was milled to exact proportions to accommodate the movement, with the bezel-and-crystal unit screwed to the case at four points. The watch took more than design inspiration from nautical portholes — an enhanced solution to water resistance was also developed from the same source. The wide case lugs, along with the symmetrical “ears”, provided uniform compression on a rubber gasket that allowed the case to become more resistant to penetration as water pressure increased, just as in actual seagoing vessels.

In 1980, Patek Philippe once again anticipated trends by bringing out a ladies’ model, the ref. 4700. Women had taken to the Jumbo with unexpected fervor, and the current predilection for oversized men’s timepieces among members of the fairer sex can be traced to the cultural shake-ups that defined that period in time. It may sound simplistic to view 1980s fashions purely through the lens of female empowerment, but the reality of what was going on at the time often boiled down to the fact that women wanted what men had — and more importantly, they could afford it, both financially and in terms of favorable societal norms. Just one year later, the 37.5mm-wide ref. 3800 hit the market, a watch that preserved all the appeal of the original Nautilus design while possessing true versatility in its mid-size appeal.

The first Nautilus to boast anything more complicated than the time and a small date was 1998’s ref. 3710 with winding zone indicator. From that one step into the pool of horological complications, however, the Nautilus dove straight into the deep end with its triple-complication ref. 3712 in 2005. The ref. 3712 had lasting appeal, as seen by the continued popularity of its successor, the ref. 5712, which was introduced barely a year after. The three complications of the ref. 3712 — moonphase, analog date and power reserve indicator — went some distance toward reconciling the conflicting desires of those who wanted the sportiness of a Nautilus but also yearned for some technical muscle behind their wristwatch. Listen to enough Nautilus enthusiasts and you’ll find that they fall into either of two camps: those who champion the cleanliness and primacy of the Jumbo, and those who prefer the technical virtuosity of the triple-complication models. The fact that it’s a matter of personal preference has never daunted anyone from claiming the superiority of their choice — then again, where would be the fun in debate be if people were obliged to be reasonable about it?

Instrumental in the nautilus’ burgeoning popularity was
an advertising campaign that emphasized the versatility of
the Nautilus,
and UNABASHEDLY put the spotlight on the audacious price point
of a stainless-steel watch

Nautilus Redux

The refreshed Nautilus collection that was released in 2006, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the original, features a sapphire-crystal exhibition caseback (with the exception of the 38.4mm mid-sized model). The addition of this relatively modern feature necessitated the use of the tripartite case construction, leaving the monocoque case as a readily identifiable feature of the much sought-after earlier pieces. However, the outstanding 120m water-resistance depth is still maintained due to advances in Patek Philippe’s watchmaking savoir-faire.

Design tweaks that set the post-anniversary pieces apart from their 1976–2005 stablemates were subtle, but resulted in a modern, contemporary piece that still retains the essence of what gave the Nautilus its iconic status. The hinge-inspired “ears” were just as prominent as they ever were, but underwent a softening of sorts — whereas the models up to and including 2005 had straight edges to the jutting appendages, those of the 2006 and beyond models had a gentle curve to them, echoing the bezel more closely. The striated dial kept its recognizable striping, but featured a new cast to its coloring — a faint sunburst gradation in hue that went from dark blue or charcoal at the center of the dial to black at the periphery, achieved by a combination of galvanizing and lacquering the dial. The effect is one of liveliness and depth, imparting character to what would otherwise be a flat canvas. The rounded baton hands — some called them popsicle-stick hands — gained slightly in width, presenting a bolder, more assertive look to the eye. The shape described by the outer ends of the luminous hour indices followed the lines of the bezel instead of forming a circle as they did in earlier models. The bracelet, with its alternating satin and mirror finishes, retained its interlocked H-links, but with a more streamlined profile to suggest sleekness and performance.

The refreshed 2006 Nautilus Jumbo in a larger 43mm case
The refreshed 2006 Nautilus Jumbo in a larger 43mm case

Debuting these new features in 2006 were a reinterpreted Jumbo (ref. 5711), the successor to the triple-complication ref. 3712 (ref. 5712) and the mid-sized ref. 5800. Each of these new models had historic ties to well-loved pre-anniversary pieces, and each was a watchmaking triumph in and of itself. It was only to be expected, however, that Patek Philippe had something special in store for the Nautilus anniversary. Completing the quartet of new pieces was the ref. 5980 chronograph, the first chronograph of the collection. The Nautilus chronograph was unique in its dial layout, combining the chronograph hour and minute counters at six o’clock.

In 2010, Patek Philippe premiered a range of calendar watches at BaselWorld that spanned its various collections — key amongst them was the ref. 5726, being the first Nautilus annual calendar as well as the brand’s first annual calendar in steel. The ladies’ Nautilus timepieces have kept pace with their male counterparts, with two new self-winding mechanical models in stainless steel introduced in 2011, featuring a diamond-studded bezel and full stainless-steel bracelet.

The 2012 crop of Nautilus watches introduced white dials to the collection for a touch of casual weekend elegance. Despite its original designation as a sports watch, the consistent presentation of the Nautilus with a dark dial has always kept the timepiece looking just this side of formal. In terms of wearability, this has most definitely helped the Nautilus to be as versatile as it is — equally at home in the boardroom or beach house. The white-dial Nautilus doesn’t hedge its bets in this department, and these models take on an ease of manner that make them even more charming than their dark-dialed brethen, if such a thing could be possible. We like to think that at least part of this has to do with how long the collection itself has been around. It’s been a while since the Nautilus had anything to prove, and quite a journey from its rabble-rousing beginnings. Despite the occasional online growlings of your average under-the-bridge citizenry, the Nautilus is, by general consensus, an icon of watchmaking. The 40th anniversary of the collection is on the horizon, and with 36 years in this brave new horological world under its belt, the Nautilus is comfortable enough to let its age show and spend a little more time on the weekend yacht than behind the desk, even if said desk is in a corner office with a view of the river. The white-dial Nautilus models, it seems, are more than a design tweak — they mark the collection’s coming of age.

(Apropos of this, an additional public-service announcement: Four years is but a single heartbeat in the Patek Philippe Weltanschauung, and 2016 is sooner than you think. Don’t wait any longer to buy that “A”-series Jumbo. We’ve seen the amount of bidding that came in on the “A”-series Royal Oaks in the recent Antiquorum 40th-anniversary Royal Oak sale. It’s fierce.)

The success of the Nautilus has led to widespread acceptance of the concept of a luxury sports watch, even spawning an in-house variant in the form of the 1997 Aquanaut. It’s all the more startling when you consider the Nautilus’ relatively brief voyage — by comparison, the Calatrava line turned a venerable 80 years old this year  — but in those few decades, the Nautilus has achieved a rare balance of popularity and prestige.

At The Helm Of The Nautilus

The original Nautilus Jumbo was powered by a truly outstanding and — by many accounts — legendary movement. The self-winding Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 920 with free-sprung Gyromax balance (known as the caliber 28-255 C in Patek parlance) was never used by the Le Sentier manufacture itself in any of its timepieces, but it has the distinction of being the only movement to be used in watches by all the brands that make up the so-called high trinity of horology — Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin. The rights to manufacture and supply the movement went to Audemars Piguet following the acquisition of Jaeger-LeCoultre by the Richemont Group.

A unique bidirectional winding system featuring a full rotor supported at the periphery with four ruby rollers, each roller set in an instantly recognizable hotdog-shaped plate, was a distinctive attribute of the caliber 920, which saw use in the 1976 Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 3700 as the caliber 28-255 C. The Nautilus was driven by the caliber 28-255 C for a decade, but was then replaced by the caliber 335 SC, the result of Patek Philippe’s efforts to develop a slim movement of its own.

With the 30th-anniversary reissue of the Nautilus Jumbo in 2006, the 3Hz (21,600vph) caliber 315 SC stepped up to fill the 43mm steel case of the ref. 5711. Subsequent iterations of the ref. 5711 (including this year’s white-dial model) use the improved cal. 324 SC, which beats at 4Hz (28,800vph), and boasts an altered gear-tooth profile that reduces overall friction.

Other movements wearing the Nautilus case include the caliber 240 PS IRM C LU with recessed micro-rotor that drives the complicated ref. 5712 (below) and also the ref. 3712 that preceded it. Relative to the rest of the Patek Philippe catalog, the Nautilus has never been much of a vehicle for complications, but the solidly practical annual calendar ref. 5726, powered by the caliber 324 S QA LU 24H, wears the Nautilus case well. While the brand is deservedly celebrated for its perpetual calendars, the annual calendar, which needs manual adjustment only once a year, is ideal for the sporty Nautilus.

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