The most unusual Patek Philippe case designs of the past 100 years

By A Collected Man

The design of a case can make or break a watch. Instinctively, it’s one of the first things that grabs your attention and it’s also probably the biggest contributing factor to how comfortably it wears on the wrist. The designs of Patek Philippe have been almost peerless in their excellence over their near two-century history, helping to build their reputation as one of the finest manufacturers in the world.

Despite being most associated with classic aesthetics, this does not mean that the Genevan watchmaker has remained conservative in its designs throughout. Patek Phillipe may appear to change very slowly, but it does not stand still. There have been many deviations from the norm, enough in fact to fuel a whole category of collectors, who crave and chase the outliers and oddballs, within Patek Philippe’s production.

 

three unusual patek philippe case designs from the 1960s and 1970s Three of the curious designs to have left the Maison in the last 100 years.

 

The manufacture’s ability to innovate in its designs, pushing the aesthetics of the whole industry forwards, as well as taking risks alongside young, promising creators, has been a contributing factor to their long-standing success. Over the course of the last century or so, we break-down some of their most unusual and iconic designs.

Understanding the classic rules

 

When we spoke to Jean-Pierre Hagmann, one of the most fabled casemakers of the 20th century, often described as “celebrated” in auction catalogues, he insisted that great case design come from harmony. As he puts it,

 

“First of all, the cardinal function of a watch case is to offer protection. Then, there are also some obvious aesthetic considerations. You need to learn to balance these, within a very small amount of space.”

 

According to Hagmann, who spent much of his career working attentively on Patek Philippe designs, you must first develop an intuitive sense for the classic rules of case design, before you can innovate. In his own words, “It’s important to first learn the way things are done, so that you can then start to question them.”

In many ways, the classic rules for what a case design should be, were mastered early on with the first-ever Calatrava, the reference 96. It has been the blueprint for dress watches ever since 1932. With no superfluous details or unnecessary flourishes, its proportions are remarkably well balanced and refined.

 

Patek Philippe Calatrava 96 in yellow gold

 The clean and classic design of the Calatrava 96 provides a good baseline for this article.

 

The three-part case design with tapered lugs is often cited as a classic example of form following function, as the slope of the lugs hugs the wrist for a snug fit. This was really one of the first times the lugs of a watch had been treated not as an afterthought, but rather considered as a crucial element of the case design. This is partially why this model remains a reference point to this very day. With this design and many others, from the fluted lugs on a 2499, to the sloped bezel on a 3448, Patek Philippe set the bar.

Why break the rules?

 

If these classic cases are so balanced, elegant and well loved, then why deviate from them? Roni Madhvani, a design-led collector of wristwatches from Patek Philippe, to Cartier and Audemars Piguet, believes that these designs are first and foremost reactions to when they were made. “A lot of these pieces can be seen as a reflection of design overall at the time. For example, Gilbert Albert was working as part of the Modernist Art movement.” Proof that even Patek Philippe did not exist in a bubble.

Be it the roaring twenties, or the flamboyant seventies, Patek Philippe put their own twist on the design trends from these periods. They were very much part of the artistic and aesthetic movements evolving around them at any given time, which created some of the most unusual and elaborate case designs of the 20th century. Their longevity as a company is partially due to this capacity to adapt, while at the same time remaining true to their founding principles. After all, whilst they certainly had a unique understanding for the design sensibilities of a certain period, their ability to create compelling designs based on this finely attuned sense for trends was arguably, second to none.

 

Patek Philippe ref 492 with a vintage car showing similarity in design

The similarities and crossover between car and watch design started far earlier than many thought. 



These cases were rarely ever made in-house, as is the case today – pun intended. The task was often handed over to specialist makers, which Patek Philippe selected for their knowledge and craftsmanship. Whereas today we fetichise the in-house production of all watch parts, back then it was common practice to outsource tasks to the best possible specialists, from Lemania for movement ébauches, to Stern for dials.

Names such as Vichet, Wenger and Markowski are often mentioned alongside special references in auction catalogues, as the masters behind the watch cases. Hagmann, though he mostly focused on cases for complicated pieces such as minute repeaters, is possibly one of the last of these specialists still around today. His iconic JPH hallmark has become a coveted feature on some of the finest pieces found among the pages of auction house catalogues.

The Gondolo collection

 

As we mentioned in our previous article on double-signed watches, the connection between Patek Philippe and the Rio de Janerio based jeweller, Gondolo & Labouriau, was one of their strongest partnerships. Indeed, an estimated 12,000 Patek Philippe watches were sold through Chronometro Gondolo, with their name signed on the dial. The influence of the South American retailer was so extensive that they could actually request certain design changes be made to their watches, from Art Deco style numerals, to the famous “moustache” escapement.

The design cues didn’t stop there either. At the time, between 1900 and 1920, there was a heavy Art Deco influence permeating thoughout the design and visual arts world, from architecture and furniture to cars and ocean liners. During its heyday, Art Deco represented luxury, glamour and exuberance, coupled with a faith in social and technological progress. Combining modern styles with fine craftsmanship and rich materials, it is no surprise that it also had an extensive impact on the world of watches. It was particularly appreciated by the newly empowered, wealthier classes of South America.

 

Patek Philippe Gondolo wristwatch shot by A Collected Man London
Patek Philippe Gonodo style wristwatch shot by A Collected Man London

The curved case of a Gondolo style watch that Patek Philippe made and sold through Tiffany & co in 1924.

 

While many of the earlier pieces sold through Gondolo were pocket watches with fairly standard casings, the later wristwatches saw some intriguing design choices, which one would not normally expect from Patek Philippe. These models adopted the name of the retailer, despite also being available for purchase at a handful of other locations, such as Eberhard in Milan. Curvature seemed to be a key concern at the time, with elongated, rectangular and tonneau-shaped cases, which hug the wrist as they follow its curves.

These designs, as Madhvani stated earlier, were products of their time. During the same period, other companies at the forefront of innovative design were not immune to their influence. The most noteworthy comparable being Cartier, with their elongated and curved Tank Cintrée. Even Longines had Gondolo-style watches being produced in the 1920s.

 

A Patek Philippe Gonodolo watch with a Longines "Gondolo" style watch and a Cartier Tank Cintree

The popularity of this look was clear by how many other brands were doing it at the same time. 

 

Produced in several sizes, the largest variation measured an impressive 50mm from lug to lug, retaining a remarkable, oversized appearance to this very day. On the wrist, the case design is visually overwhelming, in the most elegant way possible. Even now, these models remain sought-after by collectors, given their rarity, originality and heft.

The key features of these pieces created such a strong identity that 100 years later, there is still a line of Gondolo pieces being produced by Patek Philippe; though not as distinctive as the originals. With a range of hourglass, cushion and tonneau case shapes on offer, these seem to occupy the outskirts of the company’s design language, despite their roots dating back further than many of the other models in the core collection.

The free-flowing designs of the 30s, 40s and 50s

 

While Gondolo & Labouriau sadly closed its doors in 1927, this did not mark the end of creativity from Patek Philippe. Despite the fact that the world at large was struggling, with the long-lasting impact of the Great Depression and politically tumultuous inter-war period, there was a small renaissance of watch design in Switzerland. In the following thirty years, we see a scattering of imaginative rectangular designs, accompanied with equally inspired nicknames, from the “Top Hat” to the “Tour Eiffel”.

During this time, as previously mentioned, Patek Philippe outsourced some of its case-making to specialists in the field. This not only took some of the work load off the manufacture, but also allowed for more creative designs to be executed to a higher quality, than would have been achieved in-house. This helped creativity flourish.

 

Three Patek Philippe Top Hat watches

Three styles of the emblematic "Top hat" design.

 

One of these specialists was C. Markowski, who is known for making many of the rectangular case designs, which were proving increasingly popular in the post-war years. One of these models was the ref. 1450, or as the collecting community refer to it, the Top Hat, due to its unique profile and hooded lugs. Rather simply, the watch appears to be wearing a top hat, a common accessory for men around the turn of the century.

It is possible to identify a case made by Markowski by the Geneva key hallmark, stamped with a number eight inside the caseback. He is known to have run his own workshop from before 1934, up until 1963. We can’t confirm how much earlier he started working, as the 12th of September 1934 is when the Swiss Central office for Precious Metal Control, required all casemakers to register their Poinçon de Maître.

 

Patek Philippe Top hat wristwatch in platinum
Patek Philippe Tap hat wristwatch in yellow gold

The prominent domed crystal of the "Top hat". 

 

The Top Hat was produced for a two-decade period, between 1940 and 1960, and is known to have been made in yellow, white and pink gold, as well as platinum. These were most commonly produced with leather straps, but a few are known to exist with an integrated metal bracelet and a possibly unique example is known to have blue, sapphire hour markers. This model was assumed to be a special request for a client, rather than a standard production piece.

 

Patek Philippe Hourglass wristwatch

The curvaceous case of the ref. 2442 "Marilyn Monroe".

 

The next model worth highlighting from this period, is the ref. 1593, otherwise known as the “Hourglass” due to its curved case and lugs that flare outwards. These were produced from 1944, through to 1967, with it being believed that 1,000 were made during this timeframe. That’s less than 50 a year. Available most commonly in yellow gold, with fewer in pink gold, only 250 pieces were ever made in platinum, with about 70 of these having come on to the secondary market.

 

Patek Philippe Hourglass showing the edged crystal

 The faceted crystal of this model can prove tricky to replace if damaged today.

 

Another standout feature of this model is the domed and faceted crystal that follows, but doesn’t stick to, the curvature of the case. This crystal distorts the dial of the watch when viewed under different angles, creating a satisfying variation in shape and proportions. At times, some dial features can seem completely abstract when viewed through this rather curious, and certainly not easy to produce, crystal. The careful design of the crystal, which becomes an integral part of the case and the overall design, really highlights the attention to detail which existed at the time.

The dramatic proportions on the case, that flare up in the centre, before folding back on itself as it descends towards the lugs, reflects the post-war glamour that in many ways, this model embodies. Some of the platinum versions of this watch were also produced with a full white gold brick-style Gay Frères bracelet. It doesn’t get any more distinctive.

 

Patek Philippe Hourglass wristwatch
Patek Philippe Hourglass wristwatch

An "Hourglass" as seen from the side. 

 

We would not have been able to compile this article without also including the ref. 2442, or as many people refer to it, the “Marilyn Monroe”. It is similar in its overall aesthetic to the Hourglass, but with smoother lines and more rounded edges, giving it a far more feminine feel, hence the name. It has also gained other nicknames over the years, from “Banana” to “Osso da morto”, which perhaps less glamorously, is Italian for “Dead Man’s Bone”.

 

Patek Philippe Marylin Monroe wristwatch
Patek Philippe maryline Monroe wristwatch

The pronounced curves of the "Marilyn Monroe".  

 

All three of these models were powered by the tonneau-shaped 9”90 calibre. This movement was produced in-house at Patek Philippe, from 1934 through to 1967, initially made with a flat hairspring beating at 19,800 VHP, which was later replaced by a Breguet overcoil hairspring. There were also versions made with the Gyromax balance later in its production run. Measuring only 18mm by 25.6mm, with a thickness of 3.65mm, it was an incredibly versatile movement and, as such, found its way into many of the rectangular and shaped watches that Patek Philippe produced in the post war period.

 

Patek Philippe marylin Monroe wristwatch hallmarking
Patek Philippe Marylin Monroe wristwatch lug shape

The small details of an "Marilyn Monroe" model. 

 

When opening the caseback of these watches, it is satisfying to see a movement which harmoniously follows the shape of the case, rather than awkwardly sits in it. Unfortunately, too often today, rectangular or unusual designs from many manufacturers house awkwardly shaped round movements, carried over from other models. It goes to show the attention to detail embodied by Patek Philippe during this period, that they chose to develop such a calibre, especially when it was hidden under a caseback.

When the brand moved into their new headquarters in Plan-les-Ouates, in 1996, they actually found a box containing 100 of these movements, which were made in 1957. That’s almost 40 years prior. They ended up being cased in a limited run of platinum 5105 watches, to celebrate the reopening of the Patek Philippe boutique in Geneva in 2006.

 

Patek Philippe 9-90 movement

The movement that powered all of these creative designs. 

 

A famous and elusive modification to this calibre occurred in 1958, when famed watchmaker, Louis Cottier, developed a module that attached to the top of the movement to allow it to display time in a linear form. This was a one-of-a-kind project between Cottier and legendary case designer and jeweller Gilbert Albert. The end result was the ref. 3414, more widely known as the “Cobra”.

Dogu Tasoren, a watch collector and avid enthusiast of unconventionally shaped Patek Philippes, has been particularly fascinated by this mysterious prototype. In his own words, “Gilbert Albert worked with Louis Cottier on this watch, which was the first-ever to display the time in an analogue, linear way. It was really a breakthrough.” However, after its creation it wasn’t sold, nor did it go to the Patek Philippe Museum. 

 

Early advert showing the Patek Philippe Cobra

An early advert for the travelling museum containing the Cobra provided by Dogu Tasoren.

 

As Tasoren explains, “The watch was taken around the United States by Patek Philippe, as part of their travelling museum to demonstrate their craft. If you look hard enough, you can find articles and photographs of the Cobra from the 1970s, including in a few advertisements for this travelling museum.” He goes on to say, “probably around 1975, the watch came back to Geneva and as there was no permanent museum at the time, the watch was displayed in their manufacture in a small display area.”

 

Modified 9-90 movement for the Cobra watch

The genius of Cottier's work is shown here as he modified the movement to display the time in a linear fashion.

 

“There is no literature that documents this at all, but I’m sure it was there. Indeed, there is an old documentary from the time that shows, very briefly, this area of the manufacture. If you look very carefully, you can see the side-profile of the Cobra sitting in a display case”, he explains. Nowadays, the rather curious watch can be found in the world famous Patek Philippe Museum, on the rue des Vieux-Grenadiers.

The asymmetry of Gilbert Albert

 

Whilst the Cobra was a one-off creation from Gilbert Albert, it was not the limit of his talent or work. Not even close. His designs have carved out their own sub-section in the Patek Philippe collectors’ community, thanks to their distinct asymmetric silhouettes and bold shapes. A brave new direction for the company to take, when even the most daring designs of the previous decades all had some semblance of symmetry.

The designs came as quite a shock to many of the brand’s customers at the time, hence the low production numbers. In 1961, a leading French art magazine, Connaissance des Arts, gave a handy guide to Albert’s work, “In dealing with men’s wristwatches, after years in which fashion has alternated between square and round shapes, Gilbert Albert has introduced asymmetrical and even triangular models for Patek Philippe. His creations are influenced by the broad trends of modern sculpture.” They go on to say that there are “no geometrical rules” but rather “a fragile, mysterious equilibrium.”

 

Patek Philippe 3424 designed by Gilbert Albert

A 3424 with an integrated beads of rice bracelet.  

 

Before joining Patek Philippe, Albert graduated from the prestigious Ecole des Arts Industriels in Northern France. He was only in his mid-20s when he joined the manufacture, which at the time was under the helm of Henri Stern, himself a trained jeweller. Though we only have room for speculation, it may have been that the jeweller’s eye possessed by both men, contributed to their joint willingness to embark on more adventurous designs.

The talented young artist would work for the brand for the next seven years. Not only a watch designer, many consider Albert to be an important part of the Modernist movement, which he further contributed to with his later work creating jewellery. Indeed, he took inspiration from modern artists such as Brancusi and Mondrian, yet again proving the influence that innovative artistic and design movements in the 20th century, had on Patek Philippe design.

 

Patek Philippe Gilbert Albert watch next to a sculpture from Brancusi

The influence of Brancusi's Madamoiselle Pognay II here on the ref 3412 is clear.

 

Specifically, if one looks at Brancusi’s sculptures, the similarity with Albert’s work is evident. Whilst we’re unaware of whether Albert ever saw himself as part of any wider movement, we can clearly see he hits many of the same notes as some Modernist sculptors. Indeed, sculptors during this period placed their emphasis on design, form, and volume, over and above the representation of a specific subject.

In the same vein, Brancusi often referred to capturing the “essence” of whatever he was sculpting, rather than perfectly reproducing it. This led to a greater consideration of abstraction, fragmentation, and non-representation in sculptural objects, that is to say, a conscious movement away from realism. In many ways, Albert’s work feels similar, for breaking away from conventional form and pursuing more abstract lines and a sense of motion – another feature prevalent in Modernist sculpture, but rarely ever integrated into the watch wold. 

 

The inside of Brancusi's sculpting studio

The inside of Brancusi's studio, probably a little different to Albert's place of work.

 

Among the few pieces designed by Albert, there are five core designs made by Patek Philippe and penned by Gilbert Albert, which we think are worth pointing out as particularly noteworthy. However, Madhvani, possibly one of the world’s top Albert collectors, believes that he sketched many more designs in his time at the brand than the ones which made it to production. Indeed, Tasoren shared with us a rare Basel Watch Fair catalogue from 1957, dedicated solely to Patek Philippe’s unusual designs. Within it, you can see some of Gilbert Albert’s earliest prototypes, most of which were never produced. A rare glimpse at some rather unconventional watches.

 

Catalogue from Baselworld 1957 showing some of Gilbert Albert's early designs
Catalogue from Baselworld 1957 showing some of Gilbert Albert's early designs

A sneak peak inside a catalogue from 1957 Baselworld that shows some of Gilbert Albert's earliest designs provided by Dogu Tasoren.

 

Perhaps the one of the rarest of his oddly-shaped timepieces produced by the brand is the ref. 3422. The asymmetrical rhomboid shape makes for a striking design, which proved tricky to sell in the 1960s. However, it was clearly ahead of its time, as it has now gained cult status. Starting its production run in 1960, it was only made available to clients for four, brief years. It is understood that only be 24 were ever made, with examples appearing in rose and yellow gold. Seldom seen, fewer than 4 examples of the 3422 were made in rose gold. A small handful of yellow gold models are also known to exist with a matching yellow gold brick bracelet.

 

Patek Philippe ref 3422 designed by Gilbert Albert

The 3422 with its difference in width between top and bottom lugs.

 

Whilst similar in silhouette to the 3422, this next model designed by Albert is quite possibly his most recognisable work. The 3424, or “Ricochet” watch, has proven to be of increasing interest over the past decade or so to those in the collection community who, like Madhvani, are design-led in their collecting.

 

A grid of Patek Philippe ref 3424 designed by Gilbert Albert

Just a selection of the different variations of the ref. 3424 that Albert dreamt up. 

 

Another rhomboid shaped case, it was produced in all four precious metals which we have come to expect from Patek Philippe, namely white, yellow and pink gold, as well as platinum. This is also a model where Albert was able to stretch his jeweller’s muscles further, with some platinum examples found with baguette cut diamonds mounted onto the bezel. You can also find a few rare examples of this reference in yellow and white gold with matching, integrated mesh bracelets.

Both the 3424 and the 3422 have Albert’s signature, black sector lines painted in enamel on the dial, radiating out form the centre. This design cue is yet again reminiscent of some Modernist sculpture, where the interplay of geometric forms, combining straight lines and more rounded shapes, is a common theme. For example, some of Ruth Duckworth’s sculptures feature a similar harmony to Albert’s pieces, with straight lines cutting through her work in a way which reinforces the overall balance. There are also a few examples of the 3424 known to feature painted Roman numerals, replacing these sector lines.

 

Patek Philippe ref 3412 designed by Gilbert Albert

The angular edges of the 3412. 

 

Not to hurt anyone’s feelings, but the 3412 might just be our favourite of Albert’s design. The dramatic difference in proportions between the two sides of the case, with the sharp line on the right-hand side intersecting the tip of the triangle, works wonderfully well. It looks like something from a science fiction film, rather than a mid-century design from Patek Philippe. It’s so unexpected and counterintuitive, yet somehow the overall balance in shape works.

 

Patek Philippe 3270 design by Gilbert Albert on a leather strap
Patek Philippe 3270 designed by Gilbert Albert on a gold bracelet

The two ways of mounting the angular 3270. 

 

Last, but certainly not least. Clearly born from the same mind, the reference 3270 shows Albert’s take on a lady’s watch. The diamond-shaped case highlighting his connection to the jewellery world, this design would be rotated, depending on whether it appeared on a strap of bracelet. The editions that appeared on bracelets, had the case perpendicular with those on a leather strap, with the dial adapting accordingly, in order to always be displayed in the conventional way.

Clearly, Albert felt that the variation lent greater balance to either design. Rather than integrating a bracelet as an after-thought to an existing model on a strap, he re-adjusted the design in a way which feels harmonious and logical. Indeed, the prolonged case integrates with the bracelet, with only the crown protruding on the side. It all blends into one. From a distance, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a simple bracelet. Yet again, this watch proves that paying attention to small details, often treated as an after-thought, can make all the difference.

The children of the Quartz Crisis

 

Possibly the most talked-about and referenced moment in the annals of watch history is the Quartz Crisis. Whether addressing the decimation of a substantial section of the market, or the change and innovation which it spurred-on, it seems to be the inescapable shadow to the industry. Some have said that when a company or industry faces the greatest pressure, there is also potential for the greatest creativity. If you look at the designs that came out of Patek Philippe in the wake of the Quartz Crisis, you’d certainly be inclined to agree. Indeed, from the Ellipse, to the television-shaped Beta 21 watches, as well as the iconic Nautilus, the seventies generated some of the most sensational designs from the manufacture. 

Starting off with the troublemaker at the centre of it all. Quartz. As the whole Swiss watchmaking community did their best to embrace the new technology, the Genevan watchmaker also worked on their own interpretation of the battery-powered movement. In fact, Patek Philippe had an Electronics division since 1948, so they had clearly seen the potential of quartz technology coming a long way off, though not necessarily its impact.

 

Patek Philippe Beta 21 movement inside the watch

The often controversial and overlooked Beta 21 movement. 

 

Enter the Beta 21, a movement that Patek Philippe helped to develop in cooperation with 20 other Swiss brands which made up the Centre Electronique Horloger (CEH). A forward-thinking, futuristic movement needed a case design which shared the same traits. Enter the ref. 3587, introduced at Baselworld in 1969.

Measuring an imposing 43mm in diameter, this reference was the largest diameter, serially produced wristwatch ever made by Patek Philippe at the time. With its television-shaped design and absence of visibile lugs, the case is very much a product of its era. This reference was followed four short years later by the ref. 3597, which was powered by the same movement.

 

Patek Philippe 3597 Beta 21 wrist shot by A Collected Man London
Patek Philippe Beta 21 shot by A Collected Man London

The "Swiss Cheese" bracelet seems to be the perfect match for the oversized beta 21.

 

Unashamedly a reflection of its age, the assertive design and often polarising effect of the television-shaped Beta 21 watches, only add to their appeal and explain their cult following among certain collectors. It seems so unusual, looking back, that Patek Philippe would ever make these. John Reardon, the former Head of Watches at Christie’s and an expert on Patek Philippe, explains his long-standing love for these funky Beta 21 designs in the following way , “In the early 1970s, the quartz revolution was redefining the whole direction of horology. This particular watch to me represents that monumental shift, not only for the world of horology, but for Patek Philippe in particular.” For Reardon, the polarising nature of the design is precisely what speaks to him. As he puts it, “It couldn’t be further from my preferred aesthetic, and for that reason I’m in love with the watch.”

 

John Reardon holding a Beta 21

John Reardon holding a Beta 21 during our recent interview.

 

It is believed that only 18 of the first reference were ever produced, which may come as no surprise, as the number of movements that Patek Philippe had access to was limited, with only 6,000 Beta 21s produced and shared between all 21 companies. The aim of the model was not to directly compete with the cheap quartz pieces coming from the East, but rather to stay true to Patek Philippe’s core ideals and values, while incorporating the technology and innovation of the day. 

Maintaining their use of precious metals and a high level of finishing, they also refused to display the time through LED or LCD displays. Another interesting feature of some of the later ref. 3597 models is that they came on an interchangeable “Swiss cheese” bracelet. An intriguing design, it builds on Patek Philippe’s long-standing tradition of intricate watch bracelets.

 

A grid of Patek Philippe Beta 21 watches

The variety of Patek Philippe's electronic designs. 

 

Moving slightly closer to what one would normally expect from the brand, this next model, the Ellipse, was originally dreamt up to combat quartz watches in a different way. In Philippe Stern’s own words, he wanted this model to be “more elegant than a quartz watch”, as he knew a mechanical movement could never compete in terms of accuracy. Harnessing the visual power of the Golden Section, the shape of this new timepiece was distinctly modern and timeless at the same time.

 

Three Golden Ellipse watches from Patek Philippe

Perfectly proportioned and endlessly versatile, the shape of the Ellipse. 

 

The idea behind the shape of the Ellipse was a topic of much debate for a while, as some in the company believed that its designer had gotten the idea from the view of American highway junctions, as seen from a plane.

Meanwhile, the promotional material at the time emphasised the idea that the Ellipse had been designed according to the principles of the Golden Ratio, which had informed design, architecture and nature for millennia. Advertisements from the period even reference the Pantheon. Eventually, it was released that though American highways may have helped the shape take form, it was the Golden Ratio that informed the final design. This svelte watch would later be upgraded with the ultra-thin automatic calibre 240 in 1977.

 

Patek Philippe Ellipse advert from John Reardon

An advert for the Ellipse in John Reardon's collection.

 

The Ellipse is also singular in the Patek Philippe line up, as being one of the few models to inspire a line of accessories alongside it. Ellipse shaped cufflinks, key chains, clocks and lighters entered the market around the same time, showcasing the true power of a pure and versatile design.

Next, we come to possibly one of the most talked-about and recognisable models that Patek Philippe has ever produced, with a back story that has been told more times than can be counted. As Nick Foulkes describes in Patek Philippe: The Authorized Biography, “The Nautilus was not just a new watch for Patek Philippe, but an entirely new concept.” A concept that had been tested by one of their direct competitors, Audemars Piguet, only years prior with the Royal Oak. The idea of a luxury steel sports watch was born.

Patek Philippe ref 3700 nautilus shot by A Collected Man London
Patek Philippe ref 3700 Nautilus shot by A Collected Man London

The original 3700 Nautilus. 

 

The design of the Nautilus, as many known, came from the now legendary Gerald Genta, with a significant portion of the design originating from the new function that this model had to fulfil. Now that the sports leisure industry was beginning to emerge, people were seeking a rugged, utilitarian watch that could go anywhere with them, without compromising on elegance.

Remarkably, Gerald Genta is said to have sketched the 3700’s design whilst dining meters away from Patek Philippe executives. His “five minutes of work”, is today considered one of the masterpieces of modern design. Its etymology comes from Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, after the ‘Nautilus’ submarine, used by Captain Nemo. The inspiration came from the shape of a porthole, like those found on transatlantic liners. The patented case was formed by a solid middle-case, with the distinctive octagonal bezel secured by four lateral screws to ensure water-resistance. Each of the eight sides of the bezel are subtly curved, tracing the perfect arc of a circle. An understated, yet powerful, detail.

The Nautilus has become a veritable horological icon thanks to its pioneering role amongst high-end, luxury sports watches, with only 3,300 examples of the original, estimated to have been produced. The reference 3700 is often referred to as ‘Jumbo’, on account of its relatively imposing size for the period.

The need for a robust case, unlike anything that Patek Philippe had created prior, coincided with the manufacture beginning to produce their own case prototypes in-house, with their very own foundry. Jean-Pierre Frattini, who had worked for the casemakers Vangère, making cases for Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and many others, moved back to Patek Philippe in 1970, bringing back with him an important amount of knowledge .

 

Patent for Patek Philippe Ref 3700 nautilus

The patent showing how Genta made his design waterproof and stylish at the same time. 

 

Genta would provide Frattini with the technical drawings of this new case and leave him to construct a working prototype. The original plan, according to Frattini was to have Gay Frères produce the case with integrated bracelet as no-one else could make them like they did, but unfortunately, they shut down soon after the prototype was made. Ateliers Réunis would step-up and start production, soon coming under the ownership of Patek Philippe themselves. This gave life to the 3700. The rest is history.

 

Three Patek Philippe ref 3770

The curious combination of the 3770. 

 

One interesting off-shoot from the Nautilus and Ellipse families was the 3770. With the ears and integrated bracelet of the Nautilus and the elongated, oval dial shape, this was, as Phil Toledano, a collector of unusual watches and proud owner of a 3770 put it, “a bit of a freak.” The combination of their two most popular sports and dress watch lines sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, especially when you consider that it was only ever offered with the in-house E27 quartz calibre.

However, offered in stainless steel, two-tone steel and gold and all gold variations, this model seems to have taken on a life of its own in the second-hand market, lovingly referred to as the “Nautellipse” or “Ellipsus” by some. We’re not sure which one works best. Having a quartz movement powering the watch not only allowed it to be light, but also slim, measuring only 6.5mm in height.

This model was only produced for a decade, from 1980 through to 1990, when the popularity of Ellipse models began to wane as we entered the last decade of the millennium. While we can’t see this model returning to the current Patek Philippe catalogue anytime soon, we’re certainly glad they made it and that there are still versions out there to hunt for. It’s a watch that doesn’t take itself too seriously, nor does it expect you to.

Parting Thoughts 

 

Considering all the unusual designs birthed by Patek Philippe over the last century or so, it is difficult not to be struck with a certain awe. The manufacture’s ability to consistently create challenging, forward-thinking designs, while remaining true to their core principles, is impressive. Knowing to trust young designers such as Albert or Genta, often against all commercial odds, shows a clairvoyance not shared by many others in the industry. It’s probably why they’re number one.

We would like to thank Roni Madhvani, Dogu Tasoren and Phil Toledano for taking the time to talk to us and share their passions for these unique timepieces. 



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