Understanding the Aquanaut, Patek Philippe's Most Versatile watch
Many people say that the Aquanaut speaks to Patek Philippe’s more dynamic and active side. More than any other watch from the brand, it embraces sportiness and irreverence, with its unconventional rubber strap and often vibrant palette of colours. Where else would Patek Philippe use bright orange or military green? Having long lived under the shadow of its older brother, the Nautilus, it has only recently, really started being appreciated in its own right.
Typically known for its classic, retrained designs and traditional materials, the first major diversion from this trend came from the mind of Gérald Genta. It would then take another two decades for Patek Philippe’s in-house team to produce a sports watch of their own. Although it was inspired by the porthole shape, the Aquanaut was the first modern sports watch truly designed by the brand itself. In the final decade of the 20th century, it was designed to appeal to a new, younger audience of Patek Philippe collectors, by offering steel over gold, rubber over leather.
The distinctive profile of the Aquanaut.
The Aquanaut is a watch full of paradoxes and intrigue. The first references come from an increasingly interesting period of horology, that is neither vintage nor modern, where creamy tritium lume can be found alongside more contemporary production techniques. Their current offering also remains the canvas on which the brand continues to experiment with new designs, colours and complications. In its many forms, the Aquanaut has evolved into much more than the younger, disregarded sibling of the Nautilus. With that in mind, we dive into the origins of the model and the different forms it’s taken over time.
The Mysterious Origin Story
Around the time when Patek Philippe was considering creating a new watch, it was clear that the public was ready to accept sportier designs from heritage brands. In fact, it was almost expected. However, the main problem was that the only athletic offering from Patek Philippe wasn’t designed by them. It had been sketched by Gérald Genta and had his talented fingerprints all over it. So, when a highly-valued client came to them asking for a rugged wristwatch, one which could be gifted to top officers serving in their nation’s military, they knew it was time to go back to the drawing board.
This is, at least, the story of the Aquanaut’s origin as told by Nick Foulkes, in Volume 4 of the Patek Philippe Magazine. Thierry Stern himself is quoted, describing the origins of the brand’s second sports watch. As he puts it, it was intended as “something wearable, not for an evening reception, but for action. It was to be given to the best officers in the army, so the design needed to remind you of something military.” The identity of this mysterious client, or the nation which those officers served, is still unknown to the general public, which perhaps only helps make this origin story all the more intriguing.
The Ref. 5060S
The reference 5060A, introduced in 1997, is widely considered to be the first Aquanaut. It combines a rubber strap, steel porthole case and checkered dial, all of which are fundamental features of the Aquanaut design. However, the origin story of the Aquanaut is complicated in a few ways. Firstly, the first Aquanauts weren’t actually sold as Aquanauts. Rather, they were sold as part of the popular Nautilus collection. This makes sense, considering the design was intentionally derivative and that Patek Philippe would have wanted to include the Aquanaut within an existing line of sports watches.
Secondly, the transition between the Nautilus and what we’ve come to understand as the quintessential Aquanaut is a gradual and blurred one. Enter the reference 5060S. This model was introduced in 1996, predating the release of the reference 5060A by a year. Though it shares some of the traits which would come to define the Aquanaut, notably the redesigned porthole case, it is also distinctly different in other ways, with its precious metal case, smooth dial, Roman numerals and leather strap.
The parallels between this Nautilus 3800 and the 5060S are evident, as seen in a 1996 catalogue.
The 5060S clearly represented Patek Philippe’s first attempt at re-interpreting the Nautilus design, away from an integrated bracelet. In catalogues from the period, it can be found listed alongside a Nautilus 3800 with the exact same dial, hands and date disc, making this lineage all the more obvious. The fact that it was first offered on a leather strap, not a rubber one, might suggest that Patek Philippe initially wanted to create a dressier Nautilus, rather than the Aquanaut design we have become familiar with. This is supported by the fact that the 5060S was only produced in precious metals, such as rose or yellow gold. As a result, some collectors have come to refer to the 5060S as the “Pre-Aquanaut”. Not quite a Nautilus, not quite an Aquanaut, but something in between.
The First Aquanaut?
The Ref. 5060A
Though this is unconfirmed, it is believed by some that the reception to this dressier version of the Nautilus was rather muted, such that Patek Philippe decided to change course one year later, in 1997. They introduced another version of the reference 5060, this time in stainless steel, with a rubber strap and a checkerboard dial. It was known as the 5060A, with the “A” standing for “Acier”, which means steel in French. For many, this steel variant marks the beginning of the Aquanaut.
An Aquanaut 5060A on its original display stand, courtesy of Collectability.
The 5060S would continue to be produced alongside it, later being categorised as the 5060J, with the “J” standing for “Jaune”, which refers to yellow gold. However, the 5060S and subsequent 5060J would only ever be produced with alligator straps and slate dials, bringing into question whether they can truly be considered Aquanauts or not. From our perspective, they lack the salient features like a grenade dial or matching rubber strap, to be labelled as such.
Things aren’t so clear-cut for the steel variant either. During this period, Patek Philippe referred to the 5060A as both a Nautilus and an Aquanaut, making it rather confusing to understand when they themselves started making the distinction. For example, a Patek Philippe catalogue from 1997 shows that both the 5060A and 5060J were sold as part of the Nautilus collection. Meanwhile, an instruction manual for a 5060A, printed in Switzerland in October 1997, clearly categorises it as an Aquanaut.
In this 1997 catalogue, the Aquanaut is still listed as part of the Nautilus collection.
It is believed that the 5060, both in steel and gold, was limited to 1,000 pieces due to the number of 330 SC movements that were available at the time. It is worth noting that the 5060A was only in production for a year, whereas the 5060J is believed to have remained until the mid-2000s.
The Porthole Case
With the reference 5060 in steel now presenting itself as a luxury sports watch, rather than a dress one, it stood out in one major way. Its size. The ‘90s was the time when watches were getting big, with Panerai being a prime example of this trend. Instead of jumping on this bandwagon, Patek Philippe decided to look in another direction for their sportiest offering. They delivered a timepiece which measured just 36.5mm in width, nearly 6mm smaller than the original Royal Oak Offshore, first introduced back in 1989. This feels like a distinctively Patek Philippe approach, with the manufacture seeking to create a watch that was pared back and refined, despite having a more contemporary design. It’s in part this paradox, which seems to have attracted collectors to early pieces, in more recent times.
The reference 5060A is also notable for featuring a closed back, which is replaced by a sapphire display caseback in subsequent generations of the reference. This feature reminds us of more classic Patek Philippe watches, where the decorated movement is hidden from the wearer. There’s a certain vintage charm to this aspect of the design, especially as it’s only found in the first Aquanaut reference.
Details of the case and closed caseback from a 5060A, courtesy of Bukowski’s.
The “Tropical” Rubber Strap
The brand’s meticulous approach also extended to the rubber strap, the first one to ever feature on a Patek Philippe watch. As is to be expected, no corners were cut when deciding on what material composite to use. The unassuming rubber strap took over a year to develop and is comprised of more than twenty materials. This cocktail of different components led to the strap being practically impervious to the external elements; it was advertised as being resistant to salt water, ultraviolet deterioration and bacteria. Branded as “Tropical” in catalogues from the period, this was the go anywhere and do anything strap. Funnily enough, the buckles on the first 5060A watches also read “Nautilus” on the clasp, clearly showing that Patek Philippe still considered them part of that collection, at the time.
Up close with the distinctive rubber strap.
While we’re on the topic of the inception of the rubber strap at Patek Philippe, it’s worth noting that the modern versions of these have almost become collectors’ items in their own right. Finding an uncut rubber straps to fit the current Aquanaut line up, especially in a desirable colour like khaki, has become close to impossible, such that it’s fuelled its own pre-owned market. That’s right, there’s an Aquanaut market and then there’s also an often-inflated Aquanaut rubber strap market. Funnily enough, these straps are so sought-after, that John Mayer thought it worthwhile showing off two uncut green straps during his second Talking Watches episode.
The unusual “Nautilus” signature on the 5060A clasp, courtesy of Bukowski’s.
The “Grenade” Dial
The checkerboard dial of the 5060A, a defining feature of the Aquanaut, is said to have been directly inspired by the texture of a grenade, due to the supposed military origins of the design which we mentioned above. Though there’s no way to know for certain, it could have been that this special commission was what prompted Stern to take the 5060 in a sportier direction, after the muted reaction towards the dressier design. The fact that the patterns on the dial and strap are complementary, was also a first for Patek Philippe and rather innovative at the time.
A 5060A on the wrist.
An interesting feature of these early dials is that the lume on the dial and hands are made out of tritium, which is prone to developing a warmer, often creamy colour over time. This reinforces the aesthetic of these watches as neo-vintage, combining a contemporary design with the appeal of patina. One aspect that many collectors are often curious about, is the subtle mismatch in colour between the hands and dial which so often occurs. This is so frequent that the vast majority of Aquanauts with tritium dials and hands have hour markers that are a few shades darker than the hands.
Whilst this would traditionally be an indication of more recent service-replacement hands, this characteristic is found on almost all early Aquanauts. Even on certain examples from original owners, where there is certainty that no service has been carried out, this mismatch in colour appears. The most plausible explanation is that Patek Philippe used a different tritium mixture for the dial and hands. It may have been that, for the sake of legibility, they wanted the hands to stand out much more distinctly, and therefore charged these more heavily with luminous material. Over time, it’s possible that this more potent mixture is less prone to discolouration, hence why it consistently appears lighter than the lume on the dial. However, this remains a theory, with no way to know for sure.
One thing which is certain, is that lume aging can also vary quite significantly depending on the life of a specific watch. One which has been kept in a safety deposit box for two decades will develop very different patina than one which was regularly worn and exposed to the elements. Some 5060A Aquanauts can develop quite heavy patina, whilst others can preserve their white tone, much more faithful to what they would have looked like when originally delivered.
More close up details of the 5060A dial, courtesy of the Rolex Forum.
It’s also worth briefly mentioning the date disc on the 5060. It is understood that all of these were delivered with a white date disc, featuring a cursive font. This is found across most examples and also appears on all the advertisements, instruction manuals and catalogues from the period which we’ve been able to find. A few examples have emerged with a bolder, thicker font on the date disc, which we can safely assume indicates a later replacement part.
Before ending our section on the 5060A it’s worth briefly pausing to address the public reception of this model at the time. The stories, true or false, of the slow reception to the Nautilus and Royal Oak certainly did not extend to the Aquanaut. The aim of the reference was to attract a new, younger generation of collectors. However, that’s not quite what happened. As Thierry Stern explained to Forbes, “when we introduced it initially, the target was to attract a younger generation, those who didn't have a Patek already and wanted to start at a better price.” However, things went another way. “We actually totally missed the target because most of the people who bought the Aquanaut were already Patek collectors. They were the first buyers because they wanted a great watch for the weekend, so the younger generation had to wait two years to get one.” It looks like waiting lists have been a reality for the Aquanaut from day one…
Expanding the Collection
The Ref. 4960, 5064, 5065 & 5066
A year after the ref. 5060 had proved a success with existing Patek Philippe clients, the company decided to update and expand their Aquanaut offering. The 5064, 5065 and 5066 were released, all bringing something different to the Aquanaut family. The 5064 introduced a more practical, quartz movement, the 5066 was a repetition of the previous reference but with an open caseback, and the 5065 was an upsized version of the previous design.
A Patek Philippe catalogue from 1998, highlighting the new Aquanauts.
With its E 23 SC quartz movement and reduced 34mm diameter, the 5064 became the entry level Aquanaut and one of the brand’s most accessibly priced timepieces. Contrary to common belief, it was mainly targeted at male collectors, with the 29.5mm reference 4960 also released in 1998 for the brand’s female audience. Because of their reduced diameter and non-mechanical movements, the 5064 and 4960 Aquanauts have broadly failed to capture the attention of contemporary collectors looking back at earlier Aquanauts.
A “Jumbo” 5065 on the wrist, with a tritium dial and hands.
The references 5066 and 5065, however, are perhaps the archetypal and most desirable of the neo-vintage Aquanauts. The 5065 took the original design from the previous year and scaled it up to 38mm, hence why it is commonly referred to as the “Jumbo” Aquanaut. As for the 5066, it maintained the same size and movement as the previous generation. Both references showcased their inner mechanics through a sapphire caseback, which the 5060 was previously lacking.
The only Aquanaut advertisement we came across, displaying a 5066A, courtesy of Ad Patina.
Tritium to Superluminova
Both the reference 5065 and 5066 were produced from 1998 to 2006. Other than their different sizes and movements, they share practically all of their design features. This period in Patek Philippe’s history is particularly interesting because it marks the transition from more traditional production methods and materials to more contemporary ones. The legacy of the past, such as closed casebacks and tritium dials, slowly gives away to more contemporary, often commercial, considerations.
One area where this modernisation is particularly apparent is in the move from tritium to superluminova. Roughly, Patek Philippe used tritium from 1998 to 2004, then superluminova from 2004 to 2006. Even if the tritium dials were used for longer, it is believed that Patek Philippe scaled-up production of the reference in the final two years, such that superluminova dials and hands are actually more common than one might initially be led to believe. It is rather easy to distinguish between tritium and superluminova. The former usually develops a warmer, brown patina, whilst the latter preserves its colours over time. Superluminova also has a tendency to veer towards green, rather than white. These superluminova versions of the 5066 and 5065 are often slightly less sough-after than the tritium examples, as they offer less of a vintage aesthetic and warmth.
Tritium and superluminova dials, side by side.
It’s worth noting that, in 2004, when Patek Philippe transitioned from one material to the other, some interesting overlaps of components may have occurred. In fact, a handful of watches are believed to combine tritium and superluminova parts. For example, though a watch from 1999 with a tritium dial and superluminova hands will clearly have service hands, the same watch from 2004 could potentially have had these mixed elements from new. This is plausible considering it coincides with the period when Patek Philippe began manufacturing components on a larger scale, such that they would more arbitrarily select available parts in their inventory.
A superluminova 5065, with its distinctively greener dial and hands.
We’ve also had the opportunity to handle a 5066 from 2004 with a superluminova dial and tritium hands, which is rather more intriguing. Considering hands are much more delicate than dials, it seems highly unlikely that Patek Philippe would have chosen to install a service superluminova dial, whilst maintaining the tritium hands. With the notion of service components all the more unlikely in this case (as we knew the history of the watch) it supports, albeit in a limited and anecdotal way, the idea that tritium and superluminova elements were sometimes combined around 2004.
Wider Choices for Clients
As will be obvious by the expansion of the different references, the Aquanaut was a rapid commercial success for Patek Philippe. That’s also why they began to offer a wider range of choices to collectors, from different metals to bracelet options. From 1998 onwards, the Aquanaut was available with a distinctive, brick-like bracelet that complemented the grenade style dial. Looking at catalogues from the period, it appears that that this bracelet was made available for both the 5066 and 5065 from 1998, the first year of production.
The unusual bracelet provided as an option on some Aquanaut pieces.
Rather curiously, a Patek Philippe catalogue from 1998, focusing on new releases from the brand, also shows the 5060J clearly still in production, listed under the Nautilus section. It can be seen on an unusual gold bracelet, which resembles a contemporary take on a Jubilee or Milanese. This catalogue shows the 5060J remained closely tied to its roots as a dressier Nautilus. Apart from that, the distinctive gold bracelet, which we’d never seen anywhere until we came across this catalogue, is certainly worth a mention.
The unusual gold bracelet seen on a 5060S, from a 1998 catalogue.
Since we’re on the topic of gold, it’s also from this point onwards that Patek Philippe properly introduces gold into the Aquanaut collection, with the 5066 in 1998, and then the 4960 and 5065 in 1999. For the tritium examples especially, the combination of the warm gold case and patinated hour markers has become particularly aesthetically pleasing and sought-after.
The distinctive 5065 in yellow gold, with complementary case and brown lume.
The Transition to Modernity
Ref. 5165 and 5167
As we enter 2007, the tenth-year anniversary of the Aquanaut, the design is yet again reinterpreted by the brand. Enter the references 5165 and 5167. With these two models, the case sees some slight adjustments, but the most sizable changes take place on the dial and bracelet. On the dial, the deep grooves are gone, and, in their place, we find a shallower dial design, with slightly more curved lines to match the added roundness of the case. The hour marker at 3 o’clock has also disappeared, allowing the date window to slide slightly more into the centre of the dial, providing space for a luminous marker on the chapter ring.
The 5165 and 5167 in a Patek Philippe advertisement from 2009.
Gone, in this new generation, is the 36mm case size, replaced by the 38mm of the 5165 and 40mm of the 5167, catering to more modern tastes. In the first year of production the 315 SC calibre was used, the same one found in the 5065. This was then replaced by the 324 SC which appeared the same year as the 5167 with an integrated bracelet.
The 38mm 5165 on the wrist.
Another significant change to this generation was in the “Tropical” rubber composite strap. It fitted to the curvature of the case, becoming much more visually similar to the Nautilus. Even more so than before, this helps give the impression of the dial texture extending seamlessly onto the strap. This addition has now become a defining feature of the family, often being the most obvious giveaway of the difference between a neo-vintage and modern Aquanaut. This new strap design was also accompanied by a new clasp that Patek Philippe developed especially for the Aquanaut range, without a Nautilus signature in sight.
The updated, more modern silhouette of the 5167.
It is important to note that the 5165, the smaller of these two, only lasted five years in the catalogue before being discontinued. Yet, its slightly larger sibling, the 5167, still maintains its position in the current collection. Read into that what you will, but the impact of the 5167 cannot be underestimated. Because of its brief production, the 5165 is often described by some as a transitional model, integrating the size of its much-loved predecessor, the “Jumbo” 5065, with the more modern Aquanaut design.
Whilst the 5165 was only ever offered in steel, Patek Philippe introduced a rose gold version of the 5167, continuing the trend of Aquanauts in precious metals. The dial was also given a browner tint, to complement the warmth of the case. One of their catalogues from 2009 describes it in the following words, “a new model combines the contemporary flair of the composite strap with the nostalgic charm of rose gold – a sure sign that the Aquanaut has achieved classic status.”
It’s rather amusing to think that following the initially muted reaction to a dressier Aquanaut in gold in 1996, Patek Philippe dramatically changed direction, wholeheartedly embracing steel. Then gradually, over the years, gold has worked its way back into the collection, demonstrating the commercial success of the model. Therein lies a certain paradox about gold Aquanauts, which also extends to the Nautilus, which can be quite appealing to some.
A Canvas for Experimentation
The Modern Aquanaut Collection
From the mid-2000s onwards, the Aquanaut has been the canvas on which Patek Philippe has experimented with more contemporary designs, targeted at a younger audience. From bright orange straps, to openwork dials, the Aquanaut is central to the brand’s mission of continually attracting a new, younger generation of collectors. Thierry Stern has always been clear that despite the commercial success of the Aquanaut and the Nautilus, balance is key. These sportier models should be complemented by more classic references, which carry forward the manufacture’s history. It’s easy to see how the Aquanaut fits into this wider strategy, which balances tradition and innovation. Some brands have often veered too dramatically in one direction, compromising their sustainability.
A burst of colour and exuberance within the modern Aquanaut collection.
There are a few models which are worth mentioning, which speak to this approach of continually experimenting on the Aquanaut collection. The Travel Time 5164, for example, perfectly appeals to the young entrepreneur, constantly on the go. There is perhaps no stronger evidence that the Aquanaut has been embraced by youth culture than the fact that Arby Li, the 27-year-old Vice President of Strategy at HYPEBEAST, a website focused on streetwear, wears a rose gold 5164 as his daily watch. Tapping into this market has seemed relatively painless for Patek Philippe over the last few years.
Arby Li’s own 5164 Travel Time in rose gold.
Other notable examples of this are the Advanced Research 5650, with openwork dial, the brightly coloured 5968, with its orange details and strap, as well as the 5168, with its matching khaki green dial and strap. Compartmentalising their different collections is what allows Patek Philippe to put forwards these more contemporary pieces, whilst limiting the critique that they are excessively leaning into the trend for colourful, bold sports watches.
The Singapore Limited Edition Aquanaut 5167.
As ever, the most interesting part of taking a closer look at a specific model is often the outliers, the exceptions, the small handful of pieces with intriguing stories. Despite the relatively young age of the Aquanaut, especially when compared to other families in the Patek Philippe line up, there are a few worth looking at. We’ll focus on those from the early days of the reference, before it became more common for the brand to produce limited or special runs of pieces.
The unusual prototype 5060A, with comet-style power reserve, courtesy of Antiquorum.
The first we wanted to cover is a seemingly unique Aquanaut prototype, which was offered for sale at Antiquorum in Geneva, in May 2019. This prototype was a reference 5060, yet it featured an unusual slate dial with a comet-style power reserve. Rather surprisingly, the dial itself carried the word “PROTOTYPE”, with the movement reading “LABO”, which is short for laboratory in French. Though the origin and provenance of this piece is unclear, it probably represented an experiment in integrating a power reserve indication into the Aquanaut collection. In the end, the comet-style power reserve never made it into production, making this piece all the more intriguing.
There are obvious similarities with the Nautilus 3710, introduced in 1998, which also featured a black, slate dial and a comet- style power reserve indicator. It’s telling that this prototype has the same calibre 330 which would eventually power the 3710. The most obvious theory is that this prototype Aquanaut was made to test a concept that was discarded in favour of the Nautilus, one year later. With an estimate of CHF 50,000 to 80,000, the watch eventually hammered for CHF 401,000.
Made exclusively for the Japanese market.
The next piece we’d like to highlight is a special version of the Aquanaut 5066, specifically made for the Japanese market. Considering the propensity of local collectors for watches with smaller diameters, Patek Philippe’s decision to make a limited edition targeted at them certainly makes sense. It is believed that around 500 pieces were produced, with striking blue dials. Some of these were also delivered with a matching blue “Tropical” strap.
The unusual ruby dial of this seemingly unique Aquanaut, courtesy of Christie’s
It might also surprise some to know that there is a seemingly unique piece out there with a ruby dial. You read that right. A sports Aquanaut with a precious stone dial. It is believed to have been made for a special client of Patek Philippe, having remained unknown and undocumented in a private collection for over twenty years. It is the only white gold Aquanaut from the first twenty years of the model which has come up for sale publicly so far, though it’s unclear whether the brand made any other white gold pieces during that period. Carrying the seemingly unique reference 5063, it was produced in 1997, the first year the Aquanaut was produced. Its most visually striking feature is the nine rubies placed in the centre of the dial, complementing the grenade pattern.
The ruby dial, deconstructed, courtesy of Christie’s.
There are a few other unusual versions of the Aquanaut which were made in the early days of the model, which speak to the brand’s willingness to experiment quite dramatically with this collection.
Two such watches came up for sale at Phillips – one with an electric blue dial and strap, and the other sporting burgundy colours. According to the auction house, this pair of watches was created for a North American client, as part of a set of four ref. 5065 Aquanauts with unique colour schemes. Whilst we might more often hear of complicated Patek Philippe pieces being customised for clients, it’s interesting to see the same thing happening for the much more modest Aquanaut.
Two colourful Aquanauts, courtesy of Phillips.
For a model that is only 24 years old, and possibly even too young to be labelled as a millennial, the Aquanaut has grown quite a reputation and following. Despite being derivative of the Nautilus, it has managed to shape a unique position for itself in the catalogue. Following an attempt to position the Aquanaut as a dressier alternative to Genta’s design, Patek Philippe eventually took it in a sportier direction, with a rubber strap and stainless steel case.
Patek Philippe have been known for their conservatively styled timepieces since their founding, which is why the introduction of this watch caused such an impact. It has allowed them to continually experiment with bolder designs targeted at a younger audience, without diluting the other pieces that have long formed the foundation of the manufacture. Nowhere else have we seen, or will we likely see, such a wide range of colours than in the Aquanaut collection. Bright orange, khaki green, burgundy red, all colours that capture what is probably Patek Philippe’s most fun watch.
John Mayer may have summed it up best when he called the model “the Chuck Taylor version of a Patek Philippe.” We’re not sure there’s much to add to that.