In retrospect, the success of essential Patek collection follows a fundamental ‘no risk – no glory’ rule. Nowadays the brand’s catalog is unthinkable without the Nautilus, but forty-something years ago, in the midst of the quartz crisis, its premiere seemed quite an adventurous move.
Experiencing difficult times the industry was desperate for new ideas and people able to offer them. One of such visionaries was Gerald Genta, who managed to design a whole bunch of horological icons including Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, Patek Philippe Nautilus, Omega Constellation and IWC Ingenieur in about ten-year time. The thing with Patek, as you’d surely know, was that almost all of its production consisted of gold dressy pieces. Few chronographs in ultra thin cases, – that was all that could loosely fall under the ‘sport’ definition. Enter the bulky steel watch in a shape of a ship’s porthole bearing the name of Captain Nemo’s submarine.
When describing the original idea behind the Nautilus in romantic tones, any media usually uses the legend about the first sketch, drawn in a restaurant during the Baselworld. Genta was having a dinner, and when the managers of Patek Philippe took the next table, he decided to sketch his vision of a future Patek-y design just for fun. And when later the unsuspecting customers came up with a business proposal he was more than ready. However even if the story is 100% true, that does not change the plot of an industry blockbuster a bit. Royal Oak – designed by Genta himself – has been shaking the industry for several years now using pretty much the same strategy. Patek desperately needed a similar kind of product, aimed at the same target audience. Fortunately, the existence of this audience was no longer in question.
Introduced in 1976, the Nautilus (ref. 3700-1A) has changed the odds dramatically. The perfect fit of the case and the bracelet, stylish horizontal pattern of the dark blue dial, an octagonal bezel with rounded corners and massive ‘ears’ on the right and left, giving the piece some extra masculinity – the wrist-presence was astonishing.It was a 42 mm watch – a giant for that era – that dared to rival the mandatory presence of gold in the luxury timepiece. The advertising campaign put it as bold as possible: ‘one of the world’s costliest watches is made in stainless steel’. The watch came in an exclusive corkwood box, offering the client two exotic objects instead of just one. At that time, the in-house was not yet a big thing, and sourcing movements was common practice. Ironically, the Nautilus – just like its archrival Royal Oak and the other 1970s legend, Vacheron Constantin 222, later becoming the Overseas collection, was powered by a slightly modified Jaeger-LeCoultre 920 caliber.
By the way, despite the popular belief, the production of gold Nautiluses started right after its inception, and the same goes to the diamond-set versions. The reason? Patek Philippe always treats the important customers in a special way. Remember those unique steel chronographs of the 1940s, now setting one auction record after the other? Four years later, those versions were finally available to the general public. There was now even a ladies’ sized piece. The second full-fledged installment came with Ref. 3800. The case shrank to 37.5 mm, and the in-house movement 335 SC featured a central second hand and a gold oscillating weight, decorated with Geneva stripes. Growing demand was pushing the brand to make a collection out of Nautilus, so in the mid-1980s the catalogue was full of Nautiluses in different colors, sizes and case materials, including a quartz women’s version.
The 1990s were the era of experiments. The dial with no pattern, roman numerals, rubber strap, lugs, you name it! The result was an interesting gold watch, that had almost nothing in common with the original Genta design. And standing at a crossroads, Patek Philippe once again proved to be the giant of business strategy, moving on in both directions the same time. The Nautilus quietly made it back to the roots, while the new concept soon became the Aquanaut, another successful and highly praised Patek collection. Over the next ten years, the Nautilus dial will regain its original blue color and stripes, and tries on a beautiful moonphase and a power reserve indicator. The more functions are in the mechanism, the more pleasing it’s to the eye, so the transparent caseback was only a question of time. Fortunately, in terms of finishings, the brand has always been in a class of its own.
For the 30th anniversary of the collection in 2006, the manufacture has released several new Nautilus pieces, including its first chronograph with the in-house automatic movement CH 28-520. The original steel ‘Jumbo’ case was also back for good. The biggest surprise was the Nautilus with an annual calendar and all its numerous indication visually arranged in a vertical symmetrical line. And for the very first time the watch came on a leather strap instead of a usual bracelet.The Nautilus celebrated its 40th birthday with two limited editions featuring metallic-blue dials and baguette-cut diamonds acting as hour markers. A version with three hands and Jumbo case was now available exclusively in platinum, while the 5976/1G chronograph was available in white gold. Once rebellious and funky, the Nautilus has grown into a true classics. And whatever the guys at Patek have in their minds for the future, one of the hottest watches on the planet Earth will hold its ground for years to come.
Apr. 23, 2019