Patek Philippe: Endgame Watches Part 2

Posted by Jason Swire on February 24, 2021

Many collectors consider Patek Philippe to be one of the most prestigious watch brands in the world. While there are other high-end watch brands that might match or even exceed the storied Swiss manufacture in some aspects of watchmaking, Patek Philippe stands apart for two main reasons. Firstly, a Patek watch almost always appreciates in value over time, making this brand (along with Rolex) one of the best investments in the watch world. Secondly, Patek Philippe has a rich and glamorous history that other brands can only envy.

2021 may be the Year of the Aquanaut for Patek Philippe, due to the discontinuation of the steel Nautilus 5711. © 2021 PATEK PHILIPPE SA

The company that would become Patek Philippe was originally known as Patek, Czapek & Cie, and was founded in 1839 by Antoine Norbert de Patek and his partner Francois Czapek. The pair split in 1844 and by 1851 Antone Patek had partnered with a French watchmaker named Adrien Philippe, forming Patek Philippe & Co. At the very first World’s Fair that year, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in London, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert both purchased Patek Philippe pocket watches. At 17 subsequent World’s Fairs between 1855 and 1923 the company was awarded a Gold Medal. In 1851 Patek Philippe established a client base in New York by partnering with Tiffany and Co.

Antoine Patek travelled extensively over the following decades, building an international client base. In 1872 the company established a relationship with the luxury Brazilian jeweller Gondolo & Labouriau in Rio de Janeiro. By 1902 they were ordering custom pocket watches from Patek Philippe with golden gear trains (called the “Chronometro Gondolo”) which were being offered as incentives for membership to an exclusive social club run by the jeweller, called the “Gondolo Gang”. The relationship ended in 1936, but the modern Gondolo collection launched in 1993 draws upon this name and history. Patek’s modern catalogue has unfortunately relegated the Gondolo to the role of jewellery watch, but some excellent art-deco inspired unisex versions can still be found on the second-hand market.

Patek Philippe Gondolo 5024, circa 1995. (C) 2020 Sotheby’s.

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Model Specifications
Crystal Sapphire crystal
Lug to Lug 38 mm
Case Diameter 30 mm
Case Material White gold

In 1880 Patek Philippe won first prize in the Astronomical Observatory of Geneva awards. Between 1900 and 1951 the company went on to win the first prize for timekeeping another 325 times. In 1886 the Geneva Seal was introduced by the canton of Geneva, a certification that guarantees the quality and local craftsmanship of movements manufactured in the region. Patek Philippe movements carried the Geneva Seal until 2009, when they replaced it with their own in-house certification called the Patek Philippe Seal. The company’s reasoning for this is that while the Geneva Seal is a certification of both quality and finish for a watch movement, it does not measure or certify the overall timekeeping accuracy of the cased watch, nor the quality of the case, dial, bracelet and other non-movement components of the watch. Patek Philippe wanted to differentiate themselves by introducing a more stringent set of criteria.

Patek Philippe Seal © 2021 PATEK PHILIPPE SA

The new Patek Philippe Seal requires that cased movements larger than 20mm in diameter must deviate by no more than -3/+2 seconds per day, while movements smaller than 20mm must deviate by no more than -5/+4 seconds per day. This is a tighter accuracy requirement than COSC, and applies to the whole watch rather than an uncased movement. The Patek Philippe Seal is also a promise of the serviceability of the watch for future generations.

In 1887 the company registered the Calatrava Cross as their brand logo for the first time. The reasons for adopting this emblem are unknown, but it evokes both the cross and the fluer-de-lis, which are symbols of French royalty and also feature on the coat of arms of the village in which Jean-Adrien Philippe was born.

In 1888 the company added Maria Pia, the Queen of Portugal to its list of clients, followed by Ferdinand I the ruler of Bulgaria in 1890 and Nicolas II, the Emperor of Russia in 1895. The list of royal clients continued to grow with King Rama V of Siam in 1897 and King Alexander I of Serbia in 1900.

By 1932 the dial suppliers of Patek Phillipe invested in and acquired the company, two brothers named Jean and Charles Stern. Patek Philippe is still run by the Stern family to this day. The same year, Patek Philippe released their first Calatrava model, a Bauhaus-inspired minimalist dress piece whose name is derived from the company’s logo.

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Model Specifications
Crystal Sapphire crystal
Case Diameter 37 mm
Water Resistance 30 meters
Power Reserve 44 hours
Movement Caliber 215 ps
Case Material Yellow gold

In 1933 Patek Philippe produced the “Graves Supercomplication”, the most complicated mechanical pocket watch ever created at the time (and would remain so for the next 50 years), with 24 different functions.

Between 1949 and 1951 Patek Philippe invented and patented an improved balance system, called the Gyromax, which replaces screws with small weights on the balance wheel. As the weights do not protrude from the wheel the way that screws do, air resistance is reduced. This is a similar design to the Rolex Microstella balance invented in 1931.

In 1968 the “Golden Ellipse” is launched, a collection featuring an elongated oval dial with proportions based on the “golden section” (also known as the golden ratio), a mathematical concept of balance that has inspired artwork and architecture for thousands of years.

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Model Specifications
Crystal Sapphire crystal
Water Resistance 30 meters
Power Reserve 48 hours
Case Diameter 34.5 mm
Case Thickness 5.9 mm
Lug to Lug 39.5 mm

In 1976 one of Patek Philippe’s most iconic collections is launched, a steel sports watch called the Nautilus. This was the company’s response to the huge popularity of Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, and was also designed by Gerald Genta. While the Royal Oak had been inspired by a divers’ helmet, Genta drew inspiration from a ship’s porthole for the Nautilus. The blue-dialled reference 5711/1A-010 is the most iconic modern incarnation of the Nautilus and is often subject to wait lists in excess of 10 years at distributors. Patek’s president Thierry Stern has announced recently that this model has been discontinued, making this reference all but impossible to obtain. With any luck a successor reference will be announced this year and those wait lists will start up again, although it will likely be a long time yet before any prospective buyers could attain one at retail.

In 1989 to celebrate the company’s 150-year anniversary, Patek Philippe created the Calibre 89, which overtook their own Graves Supercomplication as the most complicated watch in the world. The Calibre 89 has 33 functions, and it would remain unsurpassed as the world’s most complicated watch until 2015 when Vacheron Constantin created the Reference 57260, which now holds the title.

In 1996 Patek Philippe released the world’s first annual calendar, a simplification of the perpetual calendar mechanism that allowed consumers access to a high astronomical complication at a lower cost than a full perpetual calendar.

In 1997 Patek Philippe launched the Aquanaut collection, a water-resistant steel sports watch with a more casual aesthetic than the Nautilus, which also represents the most affordable entry level models in the company’s modern catalogue. With the most popular Nautilus reference being discontinued, the Aquanaut should see an increase in interest and value as the only attainable steel sports Patek.

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Model Specifications
Crystal Sapphire crystal
Water Resistance 100 meters
Case Diameter 40 mm
Lug to Lug 47 mm
Case Thickness 8.1 mm
Power Reserve 45 hours

This Aquanaut reference wears similarly to the outgoing Nautilus 5711, with a 40.8mm case diameter compared to the Nautilus’ 40mm and a thickness of 8.1mm compared to the Nautilus’ 8.3mm. Although very slightly larger in both dimensions, the tropic-style rubber strap of the Aquanaut will naturally wear easier and lighter than the steel bracelet of a Nautilus. Movement-wise they are also mostly identical, with Patek-patented Gyromax® balance wheels and Spiromax® hairsprings on both calibres, identical 35-45hr power reserves, both vibrating at 28,800vph (4Hz) and both hallmarked by the Patek Philippe Seal.

The dressy Calatrava and Golden Ellipse are both beautiful, if somewhat formal and traditional, while the Gondolo has that Art Deco flair and character. However, in a post-covid world where most of us have been working from home in casual attire while our suits gather dust, and given the discontinuation of the most popular steel Nautilus, I really feel like 2021 is the year of the Aquanaut for Patek Philippe.

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