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Deep Dive: All about the Patek Philippe Nautilus

Deep Dive: All about the Patek Philippe Nautilus

Nils Rau

Few watches enjoy cult status such as the Patek Philippe Nautilus. Since its launch in 1976, the luxury watch has stood out from the crowd - originally outlandish in style for its time and today as a luxury icon. We are going back to the 70s and delve deeply into the history of the Patek Philippe Nautilus.

The legend of Nautilus

The design of the Patek Philippe Nautilus was created in just a few minutes, but nevertheless - or perhaps precisely because of this - the importance of the wristwatch is greater than ever before, some 45 years later. The Nautilus is, in fact, one of the most distinctive and sought-after wristwatches in the world. At the same time, in the 1970s it played a decisive role in the beginning of sporting luxury and has had a lasting influence on the watch world to this day.

Over the decades, the Nautilus collection has produced numerous models: From the original two-handed watch from 1976 to the reference 5740G with perpetual calendar, the complication for which Patek Philippe is famous, which was introduced in 2018. So there are many reasons why it's worth taking a close look at this legendary watch series. 

With innovation from the quartz crisis

If we think back to the 60s and 70s, we find a world that from today's point of view seems to be quite antiquated. At that time, looking at the wristwatch was indeed still essential for finding one's bearings in time. There were neither smartphones nor other digital devices that made the hours and minutes omnipresent. Wristwatches were a necessity and far from being an accessory. In those days, everyone who could afford it wore dress watches made of precious materials, especially yellow gold. Watches made of stainless steel were worn more out of monetary necessity.

Besides these everyday watches, tool watches have existed since the 50s. Thus Rolex launched the Submariner in 1954, a year later the first GMT-Master appeared. These watches were used almost exclusively as instrumental timepieces for professional use, as there were neither dive computers nor iPhones with world time functions available at that time.

The genesis of the Patek Philippe is causally linked to the quartz crisis that almost brought the Swiss watch industry to its knees in the 1960s and 1970s: In the 1960s, Switzerland's world market share was still over 50 percent, but by 1978 it was only 24 percent. An innovation was needed to enable high-calibre manufacturers to set their price heavy models apart from the cheap and precise quartz watches. 

Five minutes to Patek Philippe Nautilus

A key figure in the movement was the now legendary Swiss watch designer Gerald Genta, who has designed for Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Rolex, Omega and other renowned brands throughout his career. During Baselworld 1971, he received a call from Georges Golay, then CEO of Audemars Piguet. It had been realised that high-end innovation was needed to ensure that the quartz watches from Asia did not go under. Golay therefore commissioned Genta to design an unprecedented steel watch by the next morning - and Genta delivered: right on time the next morning, he presented Golay with the design of the Royal Oak, which was largely inspired by a diving helmet. The Royal Oak was finally presented at the upcoming Baselworld.

While Audemars Piguet commissioned Gerald Genta, it was the other way around at Patek Philippe: In an interview in 2009, the watch designer told us that he discovered Patek Philippe's management in a restaurant in 1974, and then asked a waiter to bring him something to write. Five minutes later, he had put the design for the Nautilus on paper and presented it to the Patek team.

In 1976, this design finally came to public attention when Patek Philippe presented the Nautilus with the Ref. 3700 at Baselworld. The name comes from the submarine in Jules Verne's novel "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and is reflected in the design, which was inspired by the portholes of large cruise liners. In addition, the Nautilus was water-resistant to 120 meters - a novelty for watches from the traditional manufacturer. In contrast to the angular Royal Oak, the Nautilus has a much softer design and is therefore more restrained.

Patek Philippe and the invention of sporting luxury

Both the Royal Oak and the Nautilus marked the beginning of sporting luxury in the watchmaking world. Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe are two manufacturers of the "holy trinity", the holy trinity of the most exclusive watch manufacturers. While stainless steel watches were previously reserved either for the lower price segment or professional applications, both models were now the first luxury watches made of stainless steel - and at the same time the first sporty luxury watches. Patek Philippe positioned the Nautilus in the upper price segment right from the start. The watch was advertised with slogans such as "one of the world's costliest watches is made of steel". The price at the time of publication was 3,100 USD. Just for comparison, a Rolex Submariner cost only 230 USD in the early 1970s.

As so often, the new directions were accompanied by criticism. Patek Philippe had always been the epitome of conservative, traditional watchmaking - the Nautilus, on the other hand, resembled an antithesis: it had a stainless steel case and an integrated metal band and, with its diameter of 42 millimetres, was larger than average in contrast to the 34 to 36 millimetres that were common at the time. The latter gave the Ref. 3700 the nickname "Jumbo". It is therefore not surprising that the tradition-conscious clientele of the last family-owned Geneva watchmaker had little use for the Nautilus. Philippe Stern, then CEO of the company, told years later that he himself was not sure whether the Nautilus was the right way to go.

However, the course of history shows that contrary to all scepticism, Nautilus became a model of success. Initial criticism is quickly voiced, but the true charm of a novelty only becomes apparent after some time. The Nautilus has long been Patek Philippe's most sought-after model and nothing less than the face of the brand. Together with the Royal Oak, the Nautilus has been instrumental in making sports and stainless steel watches part of everyday life and in making the watch landscape as it is today.

The Genta Trio: Nautilus 3700, 3800 and 5711

In the course of time, there were numerous variants of the Nautilus. Patek Philippe currently has 30 different versions in its collection, including both men's and women's watches. From the classic Nautilus, on the other hand, there are three references that have been successively replaced.

Ref. 3700: The original Nautilus

The classic Nautilus Ref. 3700 is the version that originated from the pen of Gerald Gentas. In accordance with this original design, the watch has a two-piece case which - measured from 4 to 10 o'clock - is 42 millimetres large and 7.6 millimetres flat. It is composed of the bottom centre part (lower element) and the bezel (upper element). Since this constructional peculiarity does not have a separate case back, the movement can be reached via the dial side.

In the Ref. 3700, Patek Philippe used the caliber 28-255 C. This is a modified version of the ultra-thin Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 920 with its 3.05 millimetres, which was also used in the first Royal Oak Ref. 5402 and in Vacheron Constantin watches. It operates at an unusual frequency of 2.75 Hz (19,800 vibrations per hour) and has a power reserve of 40 hours. Patek Philippe has built his own Gyromax hairspring and regulating masses (Masselottes) into the movement.

The Ref. 3700 already has the characteristic dial with horizontal lamellae. The colour is blue, but varies between blue-grey and blue-black, which is typical for the model. The indices are made of gold. There are two versions of the integrated bracelet - depending on the exact reference. The strap of Ref. 3700-01A, produced between 1976 and 1982 is wider and straight, while the strap of Ref. 3700-11A, produced thereafter until the end of production in 1990 is narrower and tapers.

It is estimated that a total of about 4,800 Ref. 3700 were built in stainless steel, of which about 3,500 were built on Ref. 3700-01A and 1,300 on Ref. 3700-11A. Furthermore, about 2,400 bi-color and yellow-gold models were produced (Ref. 3700-1AJ, 3700-11AJ, 3700-1J and 3700-11J) and about 65 white-gold versions (Ref. 3700-1G and 3700-11G). There is also a Platinum Nautilus (Ref. 3700-1P), which was auctioned at Christie's for 783,750 CHF in 2013.

Ref. 3800: The Mid-Size-Nautilus

Five years after the launch of the original reference, Patek launched a second reference, which was sold in parallel: the Ref. 3800, with this watch, Patek initially defused the "jumbo factor": The diameter was now no longer 42 millimetres, but 37.5 millimetres, which was more contemporary for the time. One can only assume that Patek Philippe wanted to meet their target group with a smaller successor reference based on the avant-garde design of the Ref. 3700.

As far as the design is concerned, the Ref. 3800 is by and large the same as the Ref. 3700. The case construction is still in two parts, the dial design and color is the same as the Ref. 3800. The biggest difference to the original reference is both optical and technical: the mid-size nautilus has a second hand. While the original Ref. 3800 was equipped with only two hands in accordance with Gentas' design, Patek Philippe has now added a central second hand to the successor Reference, which brings a little more movement to the dial.

From a technical point of view, Patek Philippe has implemented the seconds indication with the in-house calibre 335 SC (SC for "seconde centrale": central second), which is superior to the Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre of the predecessor reference in several respects: the power reserve is 45 hours, the calibre has over 29 jewels and the frequency is 21,600 vibrations per hour, corresponding to 3 Hz. To this day, the 335 SC, which even had a stop-seconds function, is considered one of the best ultra-thin movements on the market.

The Ref. 3800, with a production period from 1981 to 2005, is still the longest produced Nautilus and enjoys an immense variety of models: bi-colour versions were available as well as solid gold models, and the Ref. 3800 was also available with different dials. 

5711: The anniversary model

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary, Patek Philippe gave Nautilus a makeover and launched the Ref. 5711 in 2006 which is still in use today. This reference also has a central second hand. The case of the current Nautilus is no longer in two parts, but now in three and consists of the central main part, the base and the bezel. The sides of the new case have been subtly rounded off. The diagonal diameter is 43 millimetres, which corresponds to about 40 millimetres. The overall height has increased and is now 8.3 millimetres due to the new, slightly higher calibre 324 SC - still an extremely respectable value and still "ultra thin". The dial is kept in an electrifying blue; the indices are somewhat stronger.

In the first years of production, the Ref. 5711 was only available with the classic blue dial (Ref. 5711/1A-010). In 2012, the 5711/1A-011 with the white dial was added. As early as 1978, a prototype of the original Ref. 3700 with a white dial was produced without ever going into mass production. In January 2020, it was announced that the white Ref. 5711 was on the run-out list for 2020 and - as of February 2020 - will no longer be produced.

In 2019, the Ref. 5711 has undergone a small facelift: Instead of the caliber 324 SC, the newer caliber 26-330 SC will be used. In contrast to the caliber 324 SC used before, this caliber again has a stop-second function.

Shop the Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5711

Calendar, Chronograph, Travel Time: The most important complications

Of course, the success story of the Patek Philippe Nautilus is not limited to the classic two- or three-hand models. Over the decades, the traditional manufacturer has launched numerous variations of the watch, which feature a wide range of complications. In addition to variants for ladies, these include perpetual calendars, chronographs and models with a travel time function.

Ref. 3712/5712 with moon phase and power reserve

The dial design of references 3712 and 5712 is not for everyone due to the asymmetrical arrangement. Both models - especially the Ref. 5712 - are nevertheless among the most sought-after Nautilus models alongside the Genta Trio. They represent the power reserve at 11 o'clock and the date and moon phases at 7 o'clock; a small second was positioned at 5 o'clock. The Patek Philippe logo is at 2 o'clock.

The Ref. 3712 was launched in 2005 and was produced for only one year before being replaced by the Ref. 5712 in 2006. The serial numbers indicate that the Ref. 3712 belongs to the Ref. 3700 and the Ref. 5712 to the Ref. 5711.

At first sight, the two models are hardly distinguishable from each other. Only on closer inspection do the small but fine details reveal themselves. Concerning the shape of the case, the blue tone of the dial as well as the case construction, both references do not differ from the two- or three-hand versions. In contrast to the Ref. 5712, the Ref. 3712 has an index at 7 o'clock and slightly wider hands. The typography of the Ref. 5712 appears somewhat more powerful and thus more modern. In addition, it has four red dots instead of three in the power reserve indicator.

Shop the Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5712

Ref. 5980: chronograph with bi-colour option

The Ref. came onto the market in 2006 - together with the Ref. 5711 and the Ref. 5712. The chronograph fits perfectly into the concept of the luxury sports watch. The diameter is 44 millimetres and the overall height is 12.2 millimetres. Instead of a classic bi- or tri-compax arrangement, Patek Philippe has given the Ref. 5980 only a totaliser, located at 6 o'clock and displaying measured minutes and hours. The chronograph is currently the only model in the Nautilus collection available in a bi-colour version (stainless steel and rose gold, ref. 5980/1AR).

Shop the Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5980

Ref. 5990: Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph

The Nautilus is also not immune to the GMT trend. What Patek Philippe calls "Travel Time" was already used in the 1960s in Calatrava Ref. 2597. Then as now, the second time zone, Travel Time, can be conveniently moved forwards and backwards by means of two push buttons. The Ref. 5990 was introduced in 2014 and combines a flyback chronograph with the Travel Time function just explained.

A round date was positioned at 12 o'clock. On the right-hand side of the case, the chronograph push-pieces are located in the conventional, familiar arrangement, while on the left-hand side, the Travel Time push-pieces have been integrated into the side panel of the case in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Local and home time indicators indicate whether the hands are currently showing the twelve hours of day or night by means of a white or blue display. 

Shop the Patek Philippe Ref. 5990

Ref. 5726: Nautilus with annual calendar and moon phase

With Ref. 5726, published in 2010, Patek Philippe gave Nautilus an annual calendar and a moon phase. Day and month are located in the typical date windows next to each other at 12 o'clock. Despite the sophisticated complication, Ref. 5726 is bursting with symmetry and coherence. Launched in 2010, the grey dial was joined in 2012 by a white dial, which was removed from the range in 2019.  In 2019, Ref. 5726-1A-014 with a blue dial was launched. The grey dial is now only available in combination with a leather strap (Ref. 5726A-001).

Ref. 5740: Nautilus with perpetual calendar

In 2018, a Grande Complication, which belonged to the Nautilus, appeared for the first time. The Ref. 5740 comes in a white gold case and features a perpetual calendar represented by three totalisers at 3, 6 and 9 o'clock. The blue sun-brushed dial shines in a blue that is stronger than that of the Ref. 5711. Its height is only 8.42 millimetres, only 0.12 millimetres higher than the three-hand version.