Nautilus, a lasting coup de foudre

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The 1970s was a period of immense change. It was the decade of the oil shock, punk rock, runaway inflation, and a humiliating defeat for America in Vietnam. This was an era of disruption, but it was also a decade that marked some outstanding achievements. Take 1976. It was the year that the supersonic Concorde entered regular service; the year that Toronto’s CN Tower became the world’s tallest building; and the year that Patek Philippe launched its steel sports watch, the Nautilus, water resistant to a depth of 120 metres. Mankind was travelling faster and building higher than ever before; and for the first time since the company was conceived in 1839, Patek Philippe customers could take their watch diving. Concorde would remain in service until 2003, after which we had to return to subsonic crossings of the Atlantic. The CN Tower would retain its title as the world’s tallest tower until 2010. But the Patek Philippe Nautilus is still very much in service and on the wrist.

Nautilus Ref. 5976/1 and Ref. 5711/1.
Nautilus Ref. 5976/1 and Ref. 5711/1.
In 2016, the 40th anniversary was marked, fittingly, with a model that mirrors the aesthetic of the original Nautilus: the white gold 44 mm Ref. 5976/1 chronograph, made in a limited edition of 1,300. Its sibling, of which there are only 700, is the platinum Ref. 5711/1. Both models sport diamond hour markers and an anniversary inscription on a blue dial.

Today the Nautilus is a family of watches with numerous members, and also a close relative, the Aquanaut, introduced in 1997 (see sidebar).

Back in the 1970s there was just the Ref. 3700/1a, the watch known fondly as the “Jumbo”, but it was enough. Almost everything about it was different from the Patek Philippes of the past: a steel watch that was more expensive than a gold one; the depth underwater to which it could be worn; the stunning integrated case and bracelet design conceived as an aesthetic whole; the idiosyncratic porthole-shaped case; the unusually large case diameter; and even the funky period packaging of a cork box were all departures from the Patek Philippe norm. Conceived by the designer Gérald Genta, this watch has entered horological history as one of the outstanding and enduring designs of the second half of the twentieth century. It is interesting therefore to hear Philippe Stern say of the watch: “I was not quite convinced in the beginning.” At the time Philippe was taking on more responsibility from his father for the running of the company, and in that context his caution was understandable. “It was some time after Gérald Genta suggested we make something like this for Patek Philippe that we finally said okay,” he recalls. “We decided we were going to make a prototype. And once we had made the prototype, we decided to launch the Nautilus.”

His hesitancy was rooted in the belief that the watch was counter-intuitive. “This was during a difficult time. It was difficult for us to fight against quartz watches that were very thin and very fashionable.” The Nautilus dared to be different: it was mechanical and it was big. “A fine watch used to be small and thin. This was not quite a new philosophy but a new strategy for Patek Philippe. The Nautilus was a completely new line; it was for new customers, younger customers, people who travelled and played sports.” In short, men like Philippe Stern himself.

One of the first advertisements for the Nautilus, stressing the versatility of the watch.
One of the first advertisements for the Nautilus, stressing the versatility of the watch.

 (1976-2016) 40th Anniversary of the NAUTILUS


Following on from the success of the original steel “Jumbo” (top left) of 1976, which remained in the collection until 1990, the Nautilus has been remodelled in a variety of metals, sizes, and dial designs. Milestones include the introduction of medium-sized models in 1981; in 1996, Roman numerals and the first strap model – this hybrid watch paved the way for the Aquanaut launched the following year (read sidebar); and the first ladies’ version in 1980.
In 2009 the original designer, Gérald Genta, collaborated on a new ladies’ model; while 2013 saw the launch of new strap and bracelet versions with more feminine dials; in 2015, the most recent ladies’ watch in the collection was launched, the first self-winding steel ladies’ model without diamonds. Initially a simple time and date only watch, the Nautilus incorporated complications for the first time in 1998, introducing a winding gauge, followed in 2005 by a moon-phase model.
The collection’s 30th anniversary in 2006 was marked with a self-winding chronograph; while 2010 saw the introduction of an Annual Calendar model with a strap (a metal bracelet version followed in 2012) and the first strap chronograph.
Two popular, practical complications, a Travel Time function and a chronograph, were combined for the first time in a Nautilus case in 2014.
In 2016, the 40th anniversary was marked, fittingly, with a model that mirrors the aesthetic of the original Nautilus: the white gold 44 mm Ref. 5976/1 chronograph, made in a limited edition of 1,300. Its sibling, of which there are only 700, is the platinum Ref. 5711/1. Both models sport diamond hour markers and an anniversary inscription on a blue dial.

Then in his late thirties, Stern was a vigorous man. He was an accomplished skier who, had he not entered the watch industry, could have competed at the highest level. He was a keen yachtsman, too, and a frequent victor in regattas on Lake Geneva – a fact of which Genta was well aware, as his widow, Evelyne Genta, explains, “The Stern family was always sailing. So Gérald thought of boats, and when he thought of boats he thought of the shape of the portholes.”

Gérald Genta had designed the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet a few years earlier. It shares some of the characteristics of the Nautilus, but the later watch shows the development of Genta’s style. Much like the great artists whose work continues to evolve over the course of a creative lifetime, looking at the preliminary sketches and paper maquettes it is possible to follow the designer’s thinking as he worked toward a horological expression of functional elegance or elegant functionality. In Genta’s opinion, the Nautilus represented a progression from the Royal Oak.

“He wanted it to be more anatomical than the Royal Oak,” Evelyne Genta continues. “He felt the Royal Oak was really only sporty – although now people wear them with dinner jackets,” she laughs. “By contrast, he felt that the Nautilus was sporty but that it could be worn all day.” This was something that early advertising for the Nautilus made clear, stressing the versatile elegance of the piece as much as its ruggedness and water resistance. “They work as well with a wet suit as they do with a dinner suit,” was one advertising slogan. However, there was a downside to this new type of Patek Philippe watch. It was incredibly difficult to make. It appeared at a time when watchmaking companies were bringing more of the manufacturing process in-house and that included case and bracelet making. A few years ago I visited the polishing workshops at Patek Philippe where I marvelled at the satinage, polissage, chutage, anglage, avivage, sablage, lavage, feutrage, emerisage, lapidage… all of the various polishing techniques applied to the Nautilus’s many surfaces: some rounded and smooth, some sharply defined and angular, some polished to brilliance, others satinated.

Creating the Nautilus and its bracelet remains demanding and exigent work, even 40 years after its launch. In the early 1970s, it was positively daunting, recalls Jean-Pierre Frattini, the veteran Patek Philippe case maker and designer who worked with Gérald Genta. “When waterproof watches came in, they brought new problems. We made water resistant watches that could withstand being held under a tap, but they were not waterproof for wearing while swimming,” remembers Frattini. “There were problems with production at first, relating to the joint that was visible from the side. We had many discussions about this. The waterproofing was farther inside the watch, not at this joint where there was a kind of lip, so if some water did get into the watch it couldn’t get out again and could stagnate.”

Working with specialists, the problems were gradually overcome. Nevertheless, it is ironic that, at first, such an avant-garde design had to be made in a traditional way with parts that were not interchangeable and case components that needed to be numbered to insure that they remained paired, and dials and glass that would sometimes have to be recut to fit. However, by 1975 the functioning prototype was undergoing testing, albeit of an informal kind, on the wrist of Gérald Buchs, who was in charge of watch creation at Patek Philippe at the time. “I remember being in Zermatt in 1975 and I was wearing the first prototype,” says Buchs. “I would dip it into all the fountains and streams I came across –testing it to find out if it was watertight. I would put it in the sun to see if it showed any condensation under the glass as it dried. And of course, it passed the test!”

“When the watch made its debut, it was greeted with overwhelming… incomprehension. At the beginning, the public was not really ready to understand it or to accept it.”

The following year the watch made its debut. It was greeted, Philippe Stern recalls, with overwhelming… incomprehension. “Maybe at the beginning, the public was not really ready to understand it or to accept it,” he says, adding with typical understatement, “but little by little it became established.” There were some for whom the Nautilus was a coup de foudre – a case of love at first sight – among them its designer. “It was his favourite watch. He loved his Nautilus,” recalls Evelyne Genta of her late husband. Among all the various models he owned, it was “the prototype that he liked best of all. Later in life, a few years before he passed away, he worked on a new dial.” Far from being bored by revisiting a design he had made a generation before, “he loved it, he absolutely loved it. He felt that this watch hadn’t got a wrinkle. To him the Nautilus was an amazing masterpiece; it always was.”


Aquanaut Reference 5168G
Aquanaut Reference 5168G

In 1996, 20 years after the Nautilus was launched, its seemingly unstoppable popularity appeared to stall. In response, Patek Philippe decided to launch a new version designed to appeal to a younger clientele. Thus the reference 5060/S became the first Nautilus to come with a leather strap. The dial was given Roman numerals, and some alterations were made to the 35.6 mm gold case: the two “hinges” on either side, affectionately called the “ears”, were shaved back, giving the watch an appreciably different look from previous Nautiluses.

This new reference was very well received by the public. So much so, in fact, that it was sent off to found its own family, closely related to the Nautilus. And so the following year, 1997, the Aquanaut was launched. The octagonal steel case of the new Aquanaut was reminiscent of the Nautilus, but the design was rounder, more mellow. The highly distinctive embossed chocolate-bar dial motif was echoed on the composite rubber strap. The applied Arabic numerals and chunky hands made it highly legible. The first model was equipped with the same 330 SC movement as the Nautilus that inspired it. The Aquanaut thus offered the younger generation a watch that was both sporty (being water-resistant to 120 m) and stylish: truly a go-anywhere watch. It was instrumental in helping Patek Philippe win over new, younger, converts.

Like the Nautilus, the Aquanaut collection would go through a number of iterations over its (so far) 20- year history. It would be produced in gold, with a gold bracelet, and its size changed, inflating up to 38.8 mm for men and shrinking down to 29.5 mm for the ladies’ model. In 2004 Patek made a definitive bid for the women’s market with the highly anticipated 35.6 mm Dame Aquanaut Luce collection. This model introduced a whole new colour palette – Pure White, Mysterious Black, Midnight Blue, Adventurous Khaki, Ocean Blue and Luscious Plum – and a diamond-set bezel.

For its 10th anniversary, in 2007, the design was slightly modified to give it a sturdier, more powerful presence. Then, in 2011, a complication became available for the first time: the Aquanaut Travel Time.

This year, to celebrate the Aquanaut’s 20th anniversary, Patek Philippe is proposing the Aquanaut Reference 5168G, a men’s model in a new 42.2 mm diameter Jumbo size, driven by the automatic calibre 324 SC. With an embossed dial subtly shading from black to midnight blue, a satin-brushed bezel and a generously proportioned white gold case water resistant to 120 m, its unapologetically masculine appearance is the epitome of contemporary sport chic. (PM)

Nicholas Foulkes is the author of the newly published Patek Philippe, The Authorized Biography.
Nicholas Foulkes is the author of the newly published Patek Philippe, The Authorized Biography.

Source: Europa Star TIME.BUSINESS/TIME.KEEPER Chapter 2 - March 2017