This week we take a look at an original, ground-breaking watch from the 20th century: the Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph. This series — really, more of a dynasty — is founded upon innovation, quality, and artistic appeal that has stayed relevant for 70 years. We’ll be looking specifically at the Ref. 1518 and its descendants, Refs. 5270 and 5271.
In 1941, Patek Philippe began producing the world’s first serially produced perpetual calendar chronograph, the Reference 1518. The 1518 sold for 2,800 Swiss Francs in 1941, and still dominates the industry’s attention, most prominently at auction. A rare “pink on pink” version of this watch sold for over $1 million at the Phillips Auction One this year, to give you an idea of the demand for these vintage pieces.
While the 1518 proved to be quite the technical feat, the clear aesthetic mastery seen in its dial is also notable. The careful placement of enamel, blue undertones, and the balance of technicality with purposeful artistry (especially in the four incredibly rare stainless steel examples) declares this watch a ‘grail’ for many vintage watch enthusiasts. It just looks brilliant. The 1518 technologically changed the watch industry, set a bar for complicated watch production, and placed Patek Philippe at the top of the horological food chain. On top of all of this, Patek released advancements of this series (first in Ref. 2499) half a century before any other brand attempted to serially produce a similar complication.
In 2011, Patek Philippe celebrated the 70th anniversary of the perpetual calendar chronograph line with the Ref. 5270 (details here). The first-generation dial features are reminiscent of its predecessor’s — the day and month indicators at 12 o’clock, a seconds subdial at 9 o’clock, a 30-minute subdial at 3 o’clock, and a moon-phase and subdial for date at 6 o’clock. The most obvious changes are the day/night and leap-year indicators, on the left and right side of the moon-phase, respectfully. Also, the modern reference uses tick marks for hour indicators instead of Arabic numerals. The 41-mm-diameter, white-gold case also houses the first in-house perpetual calendar chronograph movement made by Patek, the Caliber CH 29-535 PS Q. Available in both white and blue dials, as well in a rose- gold variation, this piece can be purchased for around $150,000.
Ultimately, Patek’s release of the 5270 does well in not sacrificing its balance of form and function in favor of a pure tribute to past references. Patek modernized a gentlemen’s watch, improved its readability, and said, “While we’re at it, let’s create our own workhorse movement to go with it.” To me, this move says “Patek Philippe” even more so than the stamp on the dial. This is a great watch, plain and simple.
In 2014, Patek released the Reference 5271, now the fourth adaptation of the modern series. This variation of Patek’s perpetual calendar chronograph features a 41-mm platinum case with a black dial with printed white and applied white-gold accents. The watch comes on a handsome black alligator strap, and is covered in 81 gems from dial to case to clasp. Outside of these aesthetic changes, this watch is virtually identical to the 5270, but at almost double the price ($280,200).
I do not want to heavily criticize this watch because I know it is meant to attract a very different consumer than myself. While I think the diamonds and platinum are to some extent ostentatious, the 5271 doesn’t even come close to many other pieces on the flashy watch scale. While being almost identical in style and design to the 5270, outside of diamonds and color schemes, this watch continues to honor the long history of the series. Some will point out that the month and day indicator now have the same background color as the dial (a feature not available in the 5270), and there is no longer a small dip on the 6 o’clock subdial that pushed into the tachymeter, but these changes are minimal. Overall, it’s another beautiful watch in this historic series, and Patek did a very good job of balancing the gems with the initially subtle look of the watch.
When it comes to watchmaking, Patek Philippe reminds me of the kid who locked himself in his room and spent hours taking apart and rebuilding his computer. By the time everyone outside became familiar with the model, he was already dissecting the next technological thing he could find. Maybe not all of us knew a kid like that growing up, but it doesn’t matter; what matters is that an honest look at Patek, and this watch, reveals that the brand is not aiming to stun you. You won’t see ads with vaguely unrelated celebrities, bright colors, or even serif fonts; Patek Philippe is simply working to create some of the best watches available on the market, and that is all it takes to keep us paying attention.
For part 13 in this series, in which I discuss vintage and modern models of the TAG Heuer Carrera, click here.
Christian Zeron (who co-wrote this article) is the Founder, and Caleb Anderson is the Director of Outreach at the online vintage and antique watch boutique theoandharris.com. Firstly watch enthusiasts and now professionals, Caleb and Christian constantly work to extend their knowledge and grow their circles to find, acquire, and offer hidden affordable gems they love to the public. Both New Jersey natives, the two are persistent students on all things historical, constant NYC diners, and longtime friends.