The History of the Patek Philippe NautilusBy Cheryl Chia
The year was 1976. NASA successfully landed a robotic probe on Mars known as the Viking 1 which for the first time offered mankind a glimpse of what lies beneath the pink Martian sky. The Concorde, the world’s fastest commercial plane, took its maiden flight while Steve Jobs founded a company called Apple. In the watch world, quartz ruled the roost. Swimming against the tide was the great English watchmaker George Daniels who unveiled the co-axial escapement, acclaimed as nothing short of a technical revolution. But a conceptual revolution was underway that would change the face of the luxury watch industry forever, and that was the birth of the Patek Philippe Nautilus.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, launched four years prior, might have remained just that — an experimental niche on a side road leading nowhere — were it not for the arrival of another luxury watch, brazenly made out of stainless steel but commanded the price of a gold watch. With the epiphany of quartz technology, the meaning of a mechanical watch as a tool almost vanished. The market was in need of a design intervention that would tilt the scales and offer a fresh perspective on the concept of a luxury watch. Together they subverted the prevalent school of thought that luxury watches were made of precious metal and could easily slide under a cuff with their conservative forms and discreet dimensions.
Unbending and unapologetically industrial, the Nautilus committed so thoroughly to the new vision of modern luxury in its size, shape, material, robustness and most of all, price tag that it worked. In fact, Patek Philippe advertisements of the era boasted that one of the most expensive watches in the world was made of steel. By its 40th birthday in 2016, demand for the Nautilus had already grown strong. From there, temperatures rose steadily, inspiring innumerable derivatives and pastiches in the market while waitlist stretched to nearly a decade. Finally, the brand announced the retirement of the steel Ref. 5711 last year, which sent prices spiralling into madness on the secondary market.
Since the end-of-series green or Tiffany blue dial, many began envisioning a worthy successor to the iconoclastic icon. In the lead-up to that, we take a look at the entire lineage of what has become the most coveted wristwatch on the planet.
The First of its Kind: Ref. 3700 “Jumbo” (1976-1990)
The Nautilus of 1976 was the ref. 3700/1A with hours, minutes and a date at three o’clock, fondly known as the “Jumbo” due to its generous case diameter of 40mm (42mm ear to ear). Its inspired design, as with the Royal Oak, was the brainchild of the late Gérald Genta, who famously sketched its blueprint in five minutes while dining metres away from a table of Patek Philippe executives. Whereas the eight-sided octagonal bezel of the Royal Oak was modelled after deep-sea dive helmets, the rounded octagonal shape of the Nautilus drew inspiration from the hermetically sealed portholes on transatlantic ocean liners.
Beyond their steel cases, both watches went against the grain of how luxury watches were discreet but shiny objects that sparkled from under a shirt cuff. Instead, their large cases with emphatic bezels were predominantly matte – brushed on their flat surfaces with just a hint of shine by way of polished bevels.
In contrast to its famous contemporary, the Ref. 3700/1A had a two-part case construction so as to reduce the risk of water entry, accomplishing a depth rating of 120m. It comprised of a case middle/back and a bezel with two lateral protrusions or “ears”. Both parts are secured by four lateral screws, concealed at the “ears” at three and nine o’clock, with a bezel gasket in between.
Despite its imposing size, the Jumbo had an elegant height of just 7.5mm thanks to the ultra-thin calibre 28-255C inside, which is the Jaeger-LeCoultre cal. 920 that also powered the Royal Oak. Because of its monobloc case, the movement had a split stem so that it could be inserted and removed through the dial side. It was equipped with a Gyromax balance and offered a power reserve of 40 hours.
Most crucially, its bracelet, with its H-links and rounded, rectangular center links, was seamlessly integrated into the case, which preserved the integrity of the design as a whole, setting it apart from watches that came before which had traditional lugs that could accommodate aftermarket bracelets and straps. The production of the model was demarcated into two main series: the ref. 3700/1 (1976-1982), featuring a slightly wider and straight 16mm bracelet and the ref. 3700/11 (1982-1990) with a narrower and tapered 14mm bracelet.
The blue dial was embossed with a distinctive ribbed texture, achieved by carving each individual horizontal groove by hand. Across the reference, the dials themselves also demonstrated an evolution with earlier examples featuring small painted baton minute track while later examples had a dotted outer minute track with “sigma SWISS sigma” printed at the bottom of the dial.
The ref. 3700 was originally produced only in steel, followed by a bimetal combination of steel and gold and subsequently yellow gold. There are approximately only 11 known white gold examples and only two unique executions in platinum.
The first platinum example with diamond markers sold for CHF 783,750 at Christies in 2013 while the second with a pave diamond-set dial and bezel sold for CHF845,000 in 2015. A steel example with a prototype case and a one-off white-dial made by Stern Frères on special request by the owner has also surfaced. Affectionately referred to as the “Albino”, the watch, which also included a spare black dial as part of the package, sold for CHF 250,000 at Sotheby’s in 2015. Limited quantities of double-signed watches were also produced for its retailers including Tiffany & Co., Beyer, Gübelin and the elusive Asprey as well as for the Sultan of Oman, featuring the distinctive Omani national emblem of a khanjar.
The last transacted prices for a classic steel ref. 3700/1 with a blue ribbed dial was CHF 176,400 at Phillips Geneva sale in May 2022 and EUR 113,400, approximately CHF 108,100, at Sotheby’s in September 2022.
The Midsize Nautilus: Ref. 3800 (1981-2006)
Due to the Jumbo’s rather slow initial sales, Patek Philippe introduced the midsize ref. 3800 in 1981 in a bid to broaden its appeal. The ref. 3800 saw a reduction in case diameter to a more modest 37.5mm while preserving the design and construction of the ref. 3700. Crucially, the ref. 3800 was powered by an in-house movement that was built to modern standards with a center seconds, bringing more utility to the Nautilus.
It was initially powered by the manufacture caliber 335 SC (Seconde Centrale) which ran at 4Hz with 29 jewels. The movement, however, did not bear the Geneva Seal nor was it equipped with the Gyromax balance. Later on, it was upgraded with a quick-set date and in 1992, the caliber 335 SC was replaced altogether by the caliber 330/ 134 SC, which was certified with the Poinçon de Genève and saw the introduction of a two-spoke, eight-weight Gyromax balance. In 1997, the caliber 330/ 134 SC was supplanted by the 330/194 SC, which had a lower frequency of 3Hz to boost power reserve up to 48 hours, while all other specifications stayed the same.
The caliber 330 SC also established an architecture that would persist through to the modern-day 324 SC and subsequent 26-330 SC. To achieve a central seconds while retaining a slim height, the third wheel in the movement drives a pinion in the middle for the central seconds with both the second and fourth wheels located off-centred to free up space in the middle to accommodate the automatic winding mechanism. Meanwhile, the third wheel also drives the minute wheel in the motion works on the dial side.
The ref. 3800 was produced in a greater variety of configurations across all metals, which included rose gold, as an attempt to bring the Nautilus to a wider audience. While only a prototype ref. 3700 is known to have a white dial, the white striated dial became a permanent part of the ref. 3800 offering in steel, along with classic dark blue with baton indexes, smooth charcoal grey dial with Arabic numerals as well as black with Roman numerals.
Special dial varieties have since surfaced including a platinum example with an anthracite grey dial featuring printed radial indexes, which sold for CHF212,500 at Phillips in 2018. There are also fully bejewelled examples such as the ref. 3800/108 in yellow gold, owned by Jiro Yanagawa, the notorious Yakuza boss that sold for HKD750,000 at Antiquorum in 2015 and more recently in 2020, a white gold version sold for CHF 287,500 at Phillips. Double-signed watches include those made for Tiffany & Co, Beyer, Gübelin and Asprey, of which there are only two publicly known examples, as well as those produced for the Sultan of Oman.
A Tiffany-signed example with a black dial and roman numerals sold for USD 113,400 at Sotheby’s in December 2021 while the standard-production steel model with a classic blue ribbed dial last transacted at HKD 504,000, approximately CHF 63,300, at Sotheby’s on 5th October 2022.
The Forerunner of the Aquanaut: Ref. 5060/SJ (1996-1997)
The introduction of a smooth black dial with Roman numerals on the bi-metal ref.3800/1JA in 1996 simultaneously saw the birth of the ref. 5060/SJ, which marked Patek’s first attempt at reinterpreting the design of the Nautilus. It preceded the Aquanaut ref. 5060A by a year and can be considered a transitional model. It featured a redesigned porthole case and traditional lugs that would come to define the Aquanaut but retained a case of precious metal, and like the ref.3800/1JA, featured Roman numerals on a matte black dial. It saw a further reduction in diameter to 35mm and was fitted with neither a bracelet nor a rubber strap but instead, a leather strap, which is interesting as it suggests a momentary attempt to hew to the prevalent norms that the Nautilus broke away from. It was equipped with the same caliber 330 S C and was executed only in yellow gold with a black as well as a white dial before the birth of the Aquanaut, with its 36mm porthole steel case, checkerboard dial and rubber strap.
The Nautilus Power Reserve: Ref. 3710 (1998-2006)
As the midsize ref. 3800 entered its seventeenth year of production, Patek Philippe introduced the stainless-steel ref. 3710 in 1998, the first Nautilus to feature an additional complication in addition to the date. The watch marked a return to the original Jumbo case size of 42mm and incorporated a power reserve indicator at 12 o’clock. The movement is the 330 S C IZR, which stands for Indication de Zone de Remontage. The indicator comprises of a metallic graduated scale that rotates as the watch is being wound and a pointer that rotates as power is discharged. The steel case was combined with a matte black dial that saw the continuation of applied Roman numerals and a railroad minute track.
The watch was executed in a single configuration and remained in production for the next eight years. A unique execution of the watch, dubbed the “Lucky Thirteen”, where the roman numeral VIII is replaced by XIII at the request of a superstitious owner, appeared in 2015, selling for CHF254,600 at Phillips auction. The standard production model last sold for USD 94,500 at Sotheby’s in June 2022.
The Transitional Models: Ref. 3711/1G (2004) and Ref. 3712/1A (2005)
Six years after the launch of the Nautilus with a power reserve display, it was time to bring back a time-and-date Jumbo, which had been absent in the catalogue for 14 years by then. This came in the form of the ref. 3711 of 2004. But although it was faithful to the original at 42mm (ear to ear), it was only produced in white gold with a black ribbed dial. Additionally, this reference saw a transition from a two-part to a three-part case with the addition of a sapphire case back. It was powered by the cal. 315 SC, which is virtually identical to the cal. 330 that powered the midsize Nautilus but with four parts less as the date disc is located at the edge of the movement. The ref. 3711 was produced for only two years, paving the way for the modern legend – the ref. 5711.
In 2005, Patek also introduced the ref. 3712/1A with a 42mm (ear to ear) case diameter. It had a blue gradient dial with an unusual asymmetric layout, featuring a small seconds sub-dial between four and five o’clock, a moon phase display with an analogue date and a power reserve indicator at 10 o’clock. Most notably, the ref. 3712 was also the first Nautilus to use the beautifully constructed micro-rotor base cal. 240.
Measuring just 2.53mm high, the cal. 240 was conceived in the thick of the Quartz Crisis with the intention of demonstrating an elegance in engineering that could eclipse the precision of quartz. To maintain its height, the rotor had to be made from solid 22k gold to ensure sufficient inertia. As with a majority of Patek Philippe movements, the rotor winds unidirectionally to eliminate the need for reverser gears, thus reducing friction. Notably, the ref. 3712 had an integrated sapphire case back, which marked a return of the monobloc case while suitably allowing the cal. 240 to be admired.
There are two variants of the 3712/1A, colloquially segmented as “first series” and “second series” examples. The first series featured three dots towards the end of the power reserve indicator while the later examples had four dots. This reference was discontinued approximately nine months after its release, making it an extremely rare reference.
The ref. 3711G, from circa 2003, last sold for 1,827,000 HKD, approximately CHF 218,200, at Sotheby’s in October, 2021 while a double-sealed ref. 3712A last fetched a sum of CHF 315,000 at Phillips Geneva auction in May 2022.
The Modern Icon: Ref. 5711 (2006-2021)
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Nautilus in 2006, Patek Philippe brought back the steel “Jumbo”, unveiling what has now become the hottest watch on the planet – the ref. 5711. It incorporated subtle refinements that set it apart from the original ref. 3700 but still retained the path-breaking codes that gave the Nautilus its notoriety. It was slightly wider than its predecessor, measuring 42.5mm from ear to ear.
Notably, the 5711 reverted to a three-part case construction with a classic six-notch sapphire screw back, as employed in the earlier ref. 3711. While the ref. 3712 demonstrated the possibility of an integrated sapphire case back, a three-part case ultimately offers greater convenience during servicing as the movement can be removed from the back without the need for a split stem. For this reason and due to the self-winding caliber 315 SC and subsequent 324 S C within being inherently thicker than the Jaeger-LeCoultre 920, the case measures 8.3mm thick versus the ref. 3700’s height of 7.6mm due to.
The hinge-inspired ears themselves were slightly softened at the edges, echoing the curvature of the bezel whereas the models up until then had straight edges. The blue dial retained its recognizable striping but featured a sunburst gradation in hue that began with dark blue at the centre of the dial and faded to black at the periphery.
The rounded baton hands were slightly broader, giving it a more assertive character while the shape of the hour indices followed the contour of the bezel instead of being uniform as they were in earlier models. The bracelet, with its alternating satin and mirror finishes, retained its interlocked H-links, but with a more streamlined profile and incorporated a double folding clasp.
The movement used in the ref. 5711 from its inception until its discontinuation in 2021 presents an evolution, with the earliest examples, colloquially defined as the first series, being equipped with the cal. 315 S C. For the second series from 2007 up until 2019, the cal. 315 S C was replaced with the new cal. 324 SC, which used a new generation four-spoke, four-weight Gyromax balance, a Spiromax hairspring and operates at a higher frequency of 4Hz for better rate stability. Other improvements include a new wheel tooth profile for greater transmission efficiency, a bipartite minute train bridge, asymmetric date train, a reinforced winding wheel, and lower-friction wheel arbor pivots.
The final evolution of the movement is the 26-330 SC in 2019 which saw the introduction of a hacking seconds function and notably, a nickel-phosphorous third wheel with a reactive tooth profile made using LIGA (the German acronym for Lithographie, Galvanoformung, Abformung), an additive micro-electro-mechanical technique that allows for extremely precise fabrication of metal parts. As with all central seconds calibers after the Jaeger-LeCoultre 920 in the Nautilus lineage, it is the third wheel that drives the pinion for the center seconds. The new sprung teeth allow for fuller penetration of teeth as they mesh, eliminating backlash or play.
The 5711 has been produced in numerous metals including stainless steel, in all three colours of gold but with a leather strap, as well as platinum, which was only available on request for its top clients but was later produced in a limited edition to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Nautilus in 2016. Notably, in contrast to the ref. 3700, the model was executed with more experimental dial colours including vivid blue, white, brown, grey, green, and finally, Tiffany blue as the reference took its victory lap.
Upon its discontinuation, prices skyrocketed on the secondary market. A double-sealed example with a green dial sold for EUR 416,000 at Antiquorum in July 2021, setting a record for the reference only to be broken within the same year when the final execution of the reference signed by its American retailer along with a matching Tiffany blue dial fetched a whopping US$6.504 million at Phillips New York auction in December 2021.
The Nautilus Moon Phase: Ref. 5712 (2006-present)
Along with launch of the ref. 5711 in 2006, Patek Philippe also unveiled the Ref. 5712. Displaying a date, power reserve and moon phases, the 5712 was the successor of the short-lived ref. 3712. It shares the same subtle improvements as the ref. 5711 from its three-part case to its slightly wider case diameter of 42.5 (ear to ear) to the gently curved ears and its blue gradient dial.
It is powered by the same cal. 240 PS IRM C LU, which now bears the Patek Philippe seal. The emblematic movement is immediately recognizable from the dial due to the unusual position of the small seconds sub-dial at four o’clock. To make room for the micro-rotor, it features a crescent-shaped gear train arrangement, with the fourth wheel, onto which the seconds hand is mounted, is located at eight o’clock when viewed from the case back while the pinion of the second wheel drives the motion works on the dial side.
The ref. 5712 was introduced in steel as well as in pink gold with a brown gradient dial that year. Notably, the pink gold model was the first Nautilus to be fitted with an integrated leather strap. It was subsequently produced in white gold as well as a bi-colour combination of white and rose gold. There is also a one-off ref. 5712 in titanium produced for the Only Watch charity auction In 2007, raising EUR 525,000. In march this year, a bimetal Tiffany-signed 5712GR sold for USD 201,600 at Christie’s.
The Nautilus Chronograph: Ref. 5980 (2006-present)
The year 2006 also saw the introduction of the ref. 5980A, which was the first Nautilus chronograph as well as Patek’s first-ever automatic chronograph. It has a case diameter of 40.2mm when measured from 10 to four o’clock and a height of 12.6mm. While it uses a three-part case like the ref. 5711, the case back features lateral protrusions that are secured to the case middle along with the bezel by four lateral screws at the ears.
While it is thicker than most Nautilus references, it is comparatively slimmer than the majority of automatic, vertical-clutch chronographs on the market. The flyback chronograph cal. 28-520 C within has a thickness of just 6.63mm high, which is attributable to its straightforward chronograph construction as it omits a running seconds counter. Instead, it features a single elapsed minute counter with a co-axial 12-hour scale at six o’clock.
Most notably, such a design allows the fourth wheel to be integrated in the vertical clutch assembly in the middle, and because there is no running seconds counter, no additional gears are needed to relocate the seconds to a sub-dial. This gear train configuration is the most ideal as it realises the true merits of a vertical coupling system, allowing the chronograph to function at its best with negligible effect on amplitude as the clutch and chronograph seconds wheel are within the power flow of the gear train, making it particularly suited for such a dial design. It enables the use of the chronograph seconds as an active running seconds with no amplitude loss while minimizing wear as both the fourth wheel and chronograph seconds wheel rotate in tandem. And like the 324 S C, the third wheel of the movement drives the motion works directly on the dial side. The caliber 28-520 C has a frequency of 3Hz and a power reserve of 45 and 55 hours.
Since the steel model of 2006, the Nautilus chronograph was produced in rose gold in 2010, a bimetal combination of rose gold and steel in 2013 and subsequently as a limited edition in white gold in a 44mm case – christened the ref. 5976G – to mark the 40th anniversary of the Nautilus in 2016. It was produced with various dial colours including blue, white and black.
A ref. 5980A, from circa 2012, with a white dial last sold for HKD 945,000, approximately CHF 121,138, at Sotheby’s in October 2022.
The Midsize Underdog: Ref. 5800 (2006-2009)
As the ref. 5711, the chronograph ref. 5980, and the moon phase ref. 5712 took the lion’s share of attention in 2006, the midsize ref. 5800, launched as a successor to the hugely popular ref. 3800 that same year, was often overlooked. Measuring slightly larger than its predecessor at 38.5mm wide from 10 to four, it bore all the same upgrades in terms of the design, including gently rounded case ears and a blue gradient dial. However, the watch kept the cal. 330 SC with the Poinçon de Genève, most likely to finish off the stock, and also featured a monobloc case with an integrated sapphire crystal case back, first seen in the ref. 3712. As the market was experiencing a trend towards larger case sizes, the model failed to catch on, leading to its eventual discontinuation in 2009.
However, due to its short production run and the recent backswing towards more classical proportions, it hasn’t been spared in the mania for the Nautilus today. An example from 2009 sold for HK$1,071,000 (approximately CHF 137,290) at Phillips’ Hong Kong auction in July 2022.
The Nautilus Annual Calendar: Ref. 5726 (2010-present)
In 2010, Patek Philippe unveiled the ref. 5726, a Nautilus that houses one of the brand’s most emblematic complications – the annual calendar. When it was first unveiled in 1996 in the ref. 5035, Patek’s annual calendar mechanism was a tremendous feat in its day not only for the novelty of the complication but also its construction as it marked a departure from the complex, three-dimensional architecture of a traditional perpetual calendar, characterized by a grand lever and rockers. Instead, it relied on gears and pinion, making it highly robust and reliable.
The ref. 5726 features slightly larger case profile of 40.5mm when measured from 10 to four and 11.3mm high. Like the chronograph ref. 5980, its case back is secured to the case middle along with the bezel by lateral screws at the ears. Inside is the self-winding caliber 324 S QA LU 24H/303.
This reference was only ever offered in steel, initially with a dark grey gradient dial and an integrated leather strap and subsequently with an integrated steel bracelet in 2012. A white-dial model was also introduced in 2012 and eventually a classic blue gradient dial in 2019.
The last transacted price of the reference with blue gradient dial and an integrated bracelet was 945,000 HKD, approximately CHF 118,700, at Sotheby’s on 5th October, 2022.
The Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph: Ref. 5990 (2014-present)
In 2014, Patek Philippe unveiled the Travel Time Chronograph ref. 5990A that was to replace the chronograph 5980A. It combined two highly practical complications – a flyback chronograph and dual time function, along with an analogue date, synchronized to local time. But beyond its utility, the ref. 5990 represents one of the most outstanding references in the Nautilus line up where the aesthetics and mechanics of the complications were masterfully melded into Genta’s iconic design.
By this time, both complications already existed in other Patek Philippe watches – the dual time mechanism, with its bidirectional adjustment feature and day-and-night indicators, was first seen in its current iteration in the Aquanaut Travel Time Ref. 5164A in 2011 while the vertical-clutch flyback chronograph made its debut in the ref. 5980. But the integration of the dual time function with an analogue date and chronograph in a Nautilus meant that its three-part case had to be redesigned. Impressively, the pushers for these mechanisms were integrated without compromising the integrity of the iconic porthole-inspired case, making the ref. 5990 arguably the most interesting among complicated Nautiluses.
The chronograph pushers at two and four on the case were shifted closer to the crown to make way for a date corrector at one o’clock on the case band while the pushers for the time zone correctors were cleverly disguised as its nine o’clock “ear”.
Designed by Louis Cottier and patented by Patek Philippe in 1959, the dual time function comprises of two central hour hands – a skeletonized hand for home time and solid hand to indicate local time. By using the “plus” and “minus” pushers on the case at nine o’clock, local time can be conveniently adjusted not just forwards, but also backwards by one-hour increments without removing the watch off the wrist. In the ref. 5990, as with the Aquanaut ref. 5164, this ingenuously practical mechanism was accompanied by a day and night indicator in the form of two tiny apertures topped by the inscriptions “local” and “home” on the dial.
The date display, which was originally an aperture date at three o’clock in the ref. 5980, was relocated to 12 o’clock as an analogue date, while the 60-minute chronograph counter remained at six o’clock but did away with the hours, resulting in a remarkably balanced dial. Notably, with the addition of a dual time mechanism, the cal. CH 28-520 C FUS gained just 0.3 mm in thickness, in part because the Breguet overcoil hairspring was replaced by a Spiromax hairspring, which oscillates on a single plane yet symmetrically and isochronously.
Measuring 40.5 mm in diameter from 10 to four o’clock, the Ref. 5990 has been executed in only two versions to date – stainless steel with a black gradient dial and rose gold with a blue gradient dial. The ref. 5990A, from circa 2015, last sold for EUR 126,000, approximately CHF 120,100 at Sotheby’s in September this year.
The Nautilus Perpetual Calendar: Ref. 5740 (2018-present)
By 2018, demand for the Nautilus had reached a fever pitch. Along with introducing a price hike on all steel models that year, Patek Philippe also unveiled the ref. 5740G, which added the perpetual calendar – the brand’s most prized complication – to the Nautilus.
The perpetual calendar mechanism, as pioneered by Patek in 1925, has a traditional construction, relying on a grand lever and a classic 48-month cam. Notably, it was built atop the exceedingly elegant, ultra-thin cal. 240, which resulted in a case height of just 8.42mm, giving it the distinction of being the thinnest Patek Philippe perpetual calendar watch.
While it uses a three-part case, the case back, like the chronograph ref. 5980 and annual calendar ref. 5726, features lateral protrusions that are secured to the case middle along with the bezel by lateral screws at the ears. It measures 40mm in diameter from 10 to four o’clock and pairs a white gold case with a classic blue dial.
A ref. 5740, from circa 2020, last sold for HKD 2,016,000, approximately CHF 253,200, at Sotheby’s on 5th October, 2022.