In the mid-1970s, Patek Philippe was searching for its next big design: a watch that not only maintained the tradition of excellence the brand was known for, but that also introduced a new level of contemporary design into the world of horology. With this in mind, Patek turned to Gérald Genta, the famed designer who had already come up with the Polerouter for Universal Genève and the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet, to execute this brand new concept.
In 1976, the ship’s-porthole-inspired Patek Philippe Nautilus (Ref. 3700/1, below) was released to the general market. The watch, named after the Submarine in Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, quickly proved a hit among critics and consumers. Once again, Genta’s magic touch as a watch designer was proven, and the world accepted another luxury steel sports watch into the mainstream.
Today, the contemporary Nautilus is the Reference 5711/1A -010. This watch maintains many of the original Nautilus’s design codes, including the white-gold applied hour markers, horizontal-embossed black-blue dial, 3 o’clock date indicator, and an integrated stainless steel bracelet. The watch is about 43 mm across in stainless steel, powered by the automatic Caliber 324 S C, and has a relatively high water resistance of 120 meters. Some other features to notice on the piece are the seconds hand, the clear sapphire caseback, and wide “ears” on both sides of the rounded octagonal bezel. This piece is priced new at around $28,000.
The very cool thing about Patek Philippe’s Nautilus series is that each watch is so distinctively “Nautilus.” Although the Ref. 5711/1A differs in a variety of ways with the 3700/1, the piece does very well in keeping to its heritage without straying too far. While the Nautilus was always a relatively large piece, the contemporary version plays along that line of hyper-masculinity with an increased case size — from 42 to 43 mm. The black-blue dial color instead of the plain black better expresses the piece’s aquatic roots, and a seconds counter is a very useful addition to the modern watch that the vintage reference lacked. I’ve expressed in the past that I think sapphire casebacks are great, and although this watch no longer uses the historical Caliber 28-255 C automatic movement (based on Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Caliber 920), the view of the movement adds a little something special to help justify the overall cost of the piece.
The next watch we’ll take a look at was released in 2014, the Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph (Ref. 5990/1A-001, below; click here to read WatchTime’s report on the watch from Baselworld 2014). Very noticeably, this is a much more modern and intricate piece than the original Nautilus. Within the 40.5-mm (measured from the 10 o’clock to 4 o’clock position) steel case resides the automatic Caliber CH 28-520 C FUS. A. The movement powers a 12 o’clock date dial, “local” and “home” day/night indicators, and chronograph with a seconds hand and 6 o’clock minute-counter subdial. The horizontally embossed dial is black with white-gold hour markers, and the ‘PATEK PHILIPPE / GENEVE” logo are at an unusual 6 o’clock position. This watch also has a sapphire caseback displaying the movement, and is listed at fluctuating prices at different retailers for around $55,000.
Although this is a very different watch than both the 3700/1 and the 5711/1A, it still does a rather excellent job of maintaining the Nautilus’ heritage. The series has always been known for being bold, so while this watch certainly does have many differences from its precursors, it is by no means out of line in its design. The rounded octagonal case, bezel “ears,” integrated steel bracelet, and horizontal embossed dial — the traits that are distinctly Nautilus — are all there; The watch then goes further to distinguish itself with a variety of complications, and (possibly an homage to the original Nautilus?) with a black dial instead of the contemporary black-blue. While I feel the dial is a bit crowded, and the black-and-white color scheme could make it difficult to read, it is plain to see this watch is a true Nautilus that has grown along the lines of its forbears.
Overall, the modern Patek Philippe Nautilus line does well with its vintage inspiration. Both the 5711/1A and the Travel Time stick true to what made the series initially special, and because of that are still able to maintain a strong following from a variety of watch geeks. Personally, I am not the biggest fan of the contemporary watch — if I had to choose a luxury sports watch I would probably go with the smaller vintage model (Ref. 3800/1A) or the classic Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, but I get why people love it. The Nautilus is the peak of Genta design and an icon of luxury menswear, and those two features alone are what truly make it a classic.
Caleb Anderson is the Director of Outreach at the online vintage watch boutique theoandharris.com. Since starting at Theo & Harris, he has garnered extensive knowledge on vintage watches, and spends much of his time sharing his opinions within the field. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on watches, and a casual runner.