Why is the Patek Philippe Nautilus such an icon?
– A deep dive into one of horology’s biggest names.
Setting the scene
Released in 1976, the Patek Philippe Nautilus is perhaps one of the most iconic watches of the modern horological industry. While there are undoubtedly other contenders for that title, no watch has gripped modern watch enthusiasts quite like the Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711 in recent times. With the growing importance of social media in horology today, it makes sense that a watch that looks as unique as the Nautilus would be the poster child of the industry in the 21st century. To be fair, watchmaking couldn’t let itself be represented by anything less than its best, could it? The fickle answer is no; it couldn’t. This is the story of the Nautilus; its history and why its as iconic as it is.
Second isn’t always a bad thing
The seventies were a hard time for luxury watchmakers. The industry was on its knees battling the Quartz Crisis. Cheap Japanese-made quartz-powered watches decimated the market for luxury mechanical watches, and the end was nowhere in sight. Given that quartz watches were the new technology, were far more accurate and were a fraction of the price of mechanical watches – it made sense that people would buy them. This caused Audemars Piguet to have someone design a new revolutionary watch in 1972. The watch? None other than the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. As the Royal Oak was unlike anything anyone had seen before it made quite a splash. Such a splash in fact that Patek Philippe knew they had to get in on the action. Reaching out to the very same man that designed the Royal Oak, Patek commissioned Gerald Genta to create the brand’s, first luxury steel sports watch in 1976. They originally hoped for the Nautilus to compete with the Royal Oak, but like the Royal Oak, it was slow to sell originally. With the precedent set by the Audemars, Patek knew the market existed for their watch, so they took their time with evolving the Nautilus. This ultimately paid off, however, as the Nautilus experiences demand unlike any other standard production piece in the world.
Some of the most striking features of the Nautilus are shared with the Royal Oak. That’s just what happens when you use the same designer. The Nautilus, named after the submarine featured in Jules Verne’s classic novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was borne from a very nautical aesthetic. The Nautilus’ rather distinctive case shape was inspired by a ship’s porthole. The story goes that Genta sketched the Nautilus on a napkin in five minutes while sitting across a table of Patek executives in a restaurant in Basel. While the case shape is certainly a distinctive feature of the Nautilus, its integrated bracelet is just as important to its design. Like the Royal Oak, the integrated bracelet flows into the case and makes the entire watch easy on the eye. The original ‘Jumbo’ Nautilus, the ref. 3800, was a rather huge-at-the-time 42mm and received quite a poor reception from the public upon its release. While the design was certainly new and unique, collectors just couldn’t get past the enormity of the watch. So how did the Nautilus become what it is today given it wasn’t originally received very well?
Know your markets
With the Nautilus failing to catch the Royal Oak, Patek knew they had to do something. In 1980 they released a quartz ladies Nautilus, the ref. 4700, and in 1981 a mid-side reference, the 37.5mm ref. 3800. These two new offerings completely changed public opinion of the Nautilus. The ladies ref. 4700 allowed women to wear a Nautilus and the ref. 3800 allowed men to warm to the fresh aesthetic of the Nautilus without also having to get used to the massive case. The ref. 3800 also came with an in-house calibre 335 SC movement. This was different from the JLC-based calibre 28-255 C as it included a centre seconds hand, a welcome addition. These updates expanded the market for the Nautilus far beyond what it originally was with the original ref. 3700 as it wasn’t a watch that only early-adopters could wear, but those that wanted a timepiece that, while it looked new, would wear like a watch they were more comfortable with.
The Nautilus today
The most iconic Nautilus reference today is without a doubt, the 5711. With its 40mm case, 120m water resistance and iconic aesthetic the ref. 5711 is the ultimate luxury sports watch. One of the 5711’s most iconic features is perhaps its horizontally embossed dial. While the dial’s colour can vary, the navy blue is, without a doubt the most desirable option. Just like the distinctive case shape, integrated bracelet and octagonal bezel of the Nautilus, the dial helps to build upon the vibrant aesthetic that the watch has – ultimately driving demand skyward. With such a unique design, the Nautilus has become a mainstay on social media as collectors scramble to get their hands on a watch so highly-coveted that waiting lists are often reported to be up to seven years long – if you can even get on one that is.
With such unparalleled demand, it is no surprise that the Nautilus ref. 5711 can grab prices on the market that are more than double retail. With its mesmerising design, the Nautilus is immediately identifiable as being one of the hardest watches to get on the planet – ultimately driving its status as the contemporary icon of the horological world that it is. While the AP Royal Oak, Rolex Daytona and Omega Speedmaster are also icons in their own rights, the Nautilus has a certain X-Factor to it that is very in vogue at the minute. Will it last forever? Who knows, but it’ll certainly be interesting to see how Patek tries to keep the Nautilus as in demand as it is now.