The Story of the Patek Philippe Chronograph
The Importance of the Patek Philippe Chronograph
The initiative to create a chronograph at Patek Philippe was the result of a voyage undertaken to America by the company’s co-founder, Antoine Norbert de Patek, in 1854. The United States was an emerging market at the end of the 19th century as it came out of an economic downturn and Patek’s voyage was of great importance to raise awareness about the company there. Patek wrote numerous letters back to the manufacture in Geneva, sharing his impressions of the country and the timekeepers that were popular there. One such letter mentioned: “Americans demand above all inexpensive watches which, nevertheless, should allow them to determine the speed of their horses to an accuracy of one quarter of a second.”
Following Patek’s observations, the manufacture’s watchmakers started work on the company’s very first chronograph, Ref. 10 051, which was unveiled in 1856. This handsome pocket watch featured three sub-dials at three, six and nine o’clock and was marked with four divisions for the jumping chronograph second hand. The pocket watch did not as yet have a reset mechanism and was returned to zero with a separate key.
The design of this first chronograph was the precursor to the many chronographs that would come out of the Patek Philippe Manufacture over the following two centuries – its three subdial architecture, discrete lines, white enamel dials and its shaped bridges have stood the test of time.
The American Connection
Over the following decades the chronograph continued to be driven by the American market. Even after Patek passed away in the 1870s, the chronograph continued to grow in popularity. It wasn’t only the chronograph that was in great demand, but the desire to have the chronograph function paired with other complications such as the perpetual calendar and/or the equation of time. These grand complications were extremely sought-after by America’s elite, as can be seen in the famous bespoke timekeepers created for banker, Henry Graves Jr., and the founder of the Packard automobile company, James Ward Packard.
From Pocket to Wrist
By the 1920s wristwatches were becoming increasingly popular as people embraced this new way of wearing a timepiece. This period also saw the arrival of the wrist-worn split-seconds chronograph, which enabled the user to time two different events that begin, but do not end, at the same time.
The split-second chronograph function works by pressing the start button, which sets both hands – the chronograph hand and the split-seconds hand – in motion. If we take the horse race example, the pusher is pressed again when the first horse passes the finish line and the time is noted. A further push and the split-seconds hand catches up to the chronograph hand and can be stopped again to record the finishing time of the second horse, and so on. At the end of the race, both hands can be stopped and returned to zero.
In 1902 the brand patented a double chronograph that wasn’t a split seconds chronograph, but had the same functions, thanks to two separate movements. After both had been started together, the second one, unlike the split seconds type, could be stopped, reset and restarted.
In 1922 a special commission for such a split-seconds chronograph on a bracelet was received, and the following year, it was redesigned in a gold Officer’s-style case for the regular collection.
The Ébauches Era
The first Patek Philippe chronographs were built using movements from external partners. In the early 1900s, this was the most efficient way to put chronographs into series production. In 1927 Patek Philippe produced a simple chronograph using a Victorin Piguet movement, and in 1929 it started to use calibers from the Raymond Frères company, better known today as the Valjoux company. These movements powered some of the most elegant chronograph complications of the 1900s.
The Stern Family’s Impact on the Chronograph
In 1932 the Patek Philippe manufacture was acquired by the Stern family who continued to celebrate the chronograph by pairing it with other complications. One of the most famous chronograph combinations was with the brand’s renowned World Time mechanism that had been perfected by watchmaker Louis Cottier. This Ref. 1415 World Time Chronograph remains one of the most sought-after historic timepieces today thanks to its practical and easy-to-use functions, and great design.
The World Time Chronograph was immediately joined by Ref. 1518, the world’s very first series perpetual calendar chronograph. The architecture of the dial set the standard for the future of Patek Philippe chronographs, and for other watchmakers too for that matter. Its day and month apertures were positioned at the top of the dial, two chronograph subdials were situated at three and nine o’clock, and the moon phase and date were placed at six o’clock. The 35mm timepiece featured the Valjoux caliber 13Q (13 130Q) base movement, with modifications made by movement maker Victorin Piguet to incorporate the perpetual calendar.
The combination of a chronograph movement with perpetual calendar produced in series, along with its aesthetically well-balanced design, made Ref. 1518 the icon it is today. In the references that followed – 2499, 3970, 5970 and 5270 – the dial architecture was such a success that it remained exactly the same.
The next important reference to enter into the history books of the brand was the slightly larger (37.5mm to 37.8mm) Ref. 2499, a moon phase chronograph that came to market in 1951. There were four different series of Ref. 2499 produced between the years 1951 to 1985. The collection came to an end when Patek Philippe exhausted its stock of the classic hand-wound Valjoux 23 vz movements and moved to the Nouvelle Lemania 27-70 caliber, which was designed exclusively for the brand.
As an anecdote, musician Eric Clapton once owned a rare platinum version of Ref. 2499 (the only other known model is owned by Philippe Stern) and when he put it up for auction at Christies in 2012 it fetched 3.5 million dollars.
The Nouvelle Lemania Era
The new Lemania 27-70 movement powered Ref. 3970 for 18 years, until Thierry Stern was given the task of updating the design of Ref. 3970 by his father Philippe Stern. In a conversation with watch journalist Nick Foulkes for the Patek Philippe magazine, Thierry Stern shared: “My father told me, ‘Now you have to change Ref. 3970. It’s a beautiful watch, but now you have to find a new design.’ That’s never easy when everybody is telling you that it’s an iconic watch. I really worked very hard to find a design. And I did it.”
The resulting Ref. 5970 was launched in 2004 and was a great success. Changes included a larger 40mm case size (4mm larger than its predecessor) and a tachymeter scale. Ref. 5970 was produced in rose gold, yellow gold, white gold and platinum and remained in the collection until 2009. The diamond version continued 12 months longer, until 2010. There was also a simple chronograph version, the Ref. 5070, and a split-seconds chronograph perpetual calendar, Ref. 5004, that also used the same Nouvelle Lemania 27-70 movement; they stayed in the collection until 2009 and 2011 respectively.
The In-House Adventure
In 2005, Patek Philippe unveiled a new series of calibers entirely developed and produced in-house, notably the ultra-slim, split-seconds chronograph movement, Ref. CHF 27-525 PS, which powered the 5959, the thinnest split-seconds chronograph in the world at the time, and also the stainless steel, cushion-shaped, single pushpiece Ref. 5950 unveiled in 2010.
The year 2006 saw the arrival of the self-winding chronograph, Ref. 5960, with its distinctive bull’s eye subdial at six o’clock, and in 2009 it was the turn of the Ladies First Chronograph, the first hand-wound chronograph that debuted in a women’s collection, introducing the first in-house classic manually wound chronograph Caliber CH 29-535 PS.
Since then Patek Philippe has continued to enhance its chronograph offering with timepieces such as Ref. 5170, with an in-house, manually-wound chronograph movement first launched the year before for ladies; the 5951 ultra-slim split-seconds perpetual calendar chronograph and 5270 perpetual calendar chronograph, which were all perpetual calendar chronographs; and Ref. 5208, a triple complication with a self-winding chronograph, perpetual calendar and minute repeater, to name just a few.
The 2017 lineup
This year Patek Philippe continues to please chronograph aficionados with three new references: Ref. 5170 in platinum; Ref. 5960/1, a self-winding flyback chronograph with annual calendar in stainless steel; and Ref. 5960/01, a self-winding flyback chronograph with annual calendar in white gold.
The Ref. 5170P
Following on from the classic Ref. 5170R in rose gold (available in both white and black dial versions), this elegant men’s chronograph now comes in platinum for the very first time. This all-new version is housed in a 39.4mm platinum case and features a blue sunburst dial that graduates in color from blue to black and is adorned with baguette diamond hour markers (~0.23 ct). Ref. 5170 is powered by the manually wound CH 29-535 PS movement that has no less than six patented innovations.
The functions include a chronograph with a central chronograph hand, instantaneous 30-minute counter, seconds subdial and tachymeter scale.
The Ref. 5960/1
Ref. 5960/1 is a new version of the Ref. 5960/1A self-winding flyback chronograph with annual calendar that was first launched in 2014 with a 40.5 mm stainless steel case and a high contrast white dial with black and red details. The “A” stands for the French world acier, and translates into English as stainless steel.
This year the new Ref. 5960/1 comes on an ebony black opaline dial with white and red accents. Other subtle changes include a silver outline around the apertures and the edge of the dial. This timepiece unites two extremely popular Patek Philippe complications – the chronograph and the annual calendar – and is powered by the same caliber CH 28-520 IRM QA 24H as its predecessor.
The dial highlights the personality and uniqueness of this model with three apertures arranged along an arc for the day, date, and month. A black and white chronograph mono-counter is positioned at six o’clock and indicates the chronograph hours and minutes. The chronograph seconds are measured by a sweeping central hand. There is also a power reserve indicator at 12 o’clock and a day/night indicator at six o’clock. Like its predecessor, it comes on a sporty stainless steel bracelet, making it a very practical watch for the active man.
The Ref. 5960/01
Ref. 5960/01 is the brand’s self-winding flyback chronograph with annual calendar that is now being presented in white gold for the very first time, and on a leather strap (also a first for this version). Its technically elegant looks are underscored with a deep blue varnished dial, a brown calfskin leather strap with contrast stitching, and guilloched pushers that recall certain Patek Philippe “vintage” chronograph models.
Powered by the brand’s CH 28-520 IRM QA 24H caliber, functions include a flyback chronograph and a 60-minute and 12-hour chronograph monocounter. Other details include a sweep seconds hand (chronograph hand), day, date and month in apertures, power-reserve and day/night indication.
The Patek Philippe Seal
One important feature of the modern-day Patek Philippe chronographs is that they are all crafted in accordance with a proprietary set of quality criteria called the Patek Philippe Seal. In 2009 the company decided to abandon the Geneva Seal for a more extensive set of standards encompassing the entire watch, not only the movement, that would respect the technical aspects, aesthetic factors and the integrity of all the functions of a timepiece. The Patek Philippe Seal is the company’s promise to the consumer to maintain the highest possible craftsmanship and raise awareness about the quality of each Patek Philippe timepiece.
The Continuing Story
The beauty of the Patek Philippe chronograph story is that it is ongoing. Every year, the brand releases new models that offer something completely new and exciting to increase our appreciation for the beautiful art of measuring elapsed time.
The complete story of the Patek Philippe chronograph could fill a book all by itself. This simple overview shows the main chapters of the story, from the early Piguet and Valjoux movements, through to the Nouvelle Lemania-powered collections, the in-house chronograph movements and the timepieces that have marked time. Apologies for everything that is missing, the timepieces that also deserve to be featured, the intricacies of the chronograph technology evolution…maybe we should write a book!
Photographer: Sidney Teo
Fashion Stylist: Marie Lee
Fashion Assistant: Carissa Marie Lim
Groomer: Rina Sim using Dior and Kevin Murphy
Model: Philippe H / AVE