Why the Patek Philippe Ellipse Matters
It almost goes without saying, circles rule the wrist. This sensible design is largely due to the cyclical nature of time, but convention and conservatism also play equally important roles. Watches that don't conform to the circular mould are either short-lived, fashion-led objects or, more rarely, transcendent icons; bold shapes that literally stand out from the pack and have proved their place in a collection many times over.
Patek Philippe has its share of unconventionally shaped stars in its stable, including the Art Deco-inspired Gondolo, the blockbusting Nautilus and the somewhat more classical star of today's feature, the Golden Ellipse.
The unmistakable shape of the Golden Ellipse, courtesy of Christie’s.
At the heart of charm and enduring appeal of the Golden Ellipse is its universality. The design is timeless, genderless and offers an admirably blank slate for Patek Philippe to showcase their many and varied skills. The Golden Ellipse is also a watch with quite a pedigree, with this year marking the design's 53rd anniversary, making it the second-longest-running line in the collection, bested only by the more conventional Calatrava.
Patek Philippe expert and noted Ellipse enthusiast John Reardon of Collectability, and former Head of Watches at Christie's, describes the reaction to the watch in 1968 and its initial importance to the brand: "I have been told by people who were around back then that the Ellipse was well received at the time of release. There was a significant presence of the Ellipse at the Basel Fair, and retailers globally were introduced to the "the next big thing".
The marketing around the Ellipse was also significant. By the early 1970s, people were clamouring to be part of the "exclusive circle of Patek Philippe" as the marketing described the Ellipse. It was at the height of luxury watchmaking and fashion – and the relatively thin watches were a significant counterpoint to the thick quartz watches of the 1970s."
A timeless design, with timely appeal
For all that the Ellipse has proved itself over the years, it fits right into the broader design landscape of the late 1960s – this was the decade of Eero Aarnio's Ball Chair after all. Examined through a lens of socio-cultural change, the subtly non-conformist shape of Patek Phillipe's newest hero can be seen as the brand literally pushing the boundaries of convention. If the design of the Ellipse was only driven by the spirit of the times, it is unlikely it would still have relevance today. But the underpinnings of the design speak to something far more fundamental – mathematics.
A dress watch that doesn’t stick to all the classical rules, courtesy of Hodinkee.
It's easy to assume that the "Golden" in Golden Ellipse refers to the precious metal of the case. The reality is a little more fundamental, the Golden Ratio. This ancient mathematical formula describes a ratio widely believed to be aesthetically pleasing. It’s visible in the fronds of a fern, the architecture of Le Corbusier and the art of Da Vinci. It was this timeless series of numbers that inspired the softly curving case of the Golden Ellipse.
Aside from its mathematical underpinnings, the case design of the Ellipse was significant for another reason. It was conceived within the house of Patek Philippe. While today that is not a remarkable concept, at the time, it was far more common for elements of the habillage, such as the case, to be designed by external suppliers responding to the watchmaker’s brief. It would be decades before the concept of vertically integrated, or "in-house", design would become pre-eminent, but we can see the seeds of it sown in the Golden Ellipse.
More than a watch
Another important delineating factor in what made the Golden Ellipse stand out was that it was more than a watch. According to John Reardon, "the Ellipse was the first Patek Philippe family of watches supported by a full array of accompanying accessories. Lighters, rings, cufflinks, money clips and even Ellipse clocks were part of this first superfamily of watchmaking. No watch better encapsulates the feeling, aesthetic, and quality of Patek Philippe of the era."
A Golden Ellipse lighter is one of the most desirable parts of the Golden Ellipse family.
Advertising material at the time billed the Golden Ellipse as a "non-watch", showing the distinctive blue dial and yellow gold bracelet surrounded by other Ellipse paraphernalia; a signet ring, a key fob. The copy bills the Ellipse as less of a tool and more of a jewel. With this thriving ecosystem of affiliated products and a design language that applied itself to a range of categories, the Golden Ellipse transcended the category of "watch". It became a brand in its own right.
Blue dials, before they were cool
Today, of course, blue dials are de riguer - but they're hardly new. In the free-wheeling era of the Ellipse, blue offered a non-conformist, vibrant alternative to the monochrome that was perfectly in keeping with the shape and aesthetic of the collection. But, just as the case had to be exceptional, so too the blue. Here, Patek Philippe made magic happen.
The eye-catching sunburst patten on the Ellipse dial and its buckle perfectly reflecting the case shape, courtesy of Bulang & Sons.
The dial of the first Ellipses, ref. 3548 and ref. 3546, stand out not just because of its shape and pared-back simplicity, but also because of the execution of the dial. Patek Philippe, along with assistance from their dial manufacturer, created a stunning starburst dial in cobalt blue, achieved through vacuum plating, an 18k gold dial ébauche with a vaporised mix of cobalt and 24K gold. The effort involved paid off, as the colour is as remarkable today as it ever was.
The Evolving Ellipse
While it was born in '68, the style of the Ellipse has evolved over the years. Fundamentally, the watch has remained an ovoid dress piece for men and women. Still, its path has been varied, with some models remaining as relevant today as ever and others having more limited present-day appeal. For Reardon, the most interesting reference is the 3605: "It's the first oversized Ellipse and the first self-winding version. It's perfect for the modern wrist, full of personality, and still relatively affordable. Perhaps not coincidentally, it has the same automatic movement as the ref. 3700, the first Nautilus."
The Ellipse didn’t always keep the same silhouette throughout its lifetime, very much evolving with the times.
Speaking of the Nautilus, another fascinating reference is the quartz-powered 3770, a hybrid between the Nautilus and the Ellipse that was first released in 1981 and boasted the recognisable bracelet and "ears" of the Nautilus, with the Ellipses elongated oval case-shape. A fascinating fusion and one that is understandably fuelling interest and appreciation in the broader Ellipse family.
Another, more modern example of the Ellipse with contemporary appeal is 1997 reference 5028, an unusual white gold automatic with white Arabic numerals on a black dial, with plain stick hands, a railroad chapter ring and even an off-centre small seconds hand. A surprisingly tool-like take on the typically dressy design.
A star of the company’s catalogue, the Golden Ellipse was the star of many, now collectable, adverts.
As you can see, 50-plus years leads to real variety. If you're in the market, this adds up to a lot of options. Reardon's advises: "Be patient to find the best examples you can buy. With the blued gold dials in particular, I recommend buying only the best condition examples with pristine dials that you can find. It's still a buyers’ market."
First the Nautilus, now the Ellipse?
Given the legacy, innovation and general shape of the Ellipse, comparisons to its younger and sportier cousin – the Nautilus – are inevitable. While interest in the latter is white-hot and showing no signs of cooling down, the scholarly interest for the Ellipse has always been quite muted. The model came into focus in 2018, when it celebrated its 50th anniversary and saw a series of well-received celebratory releases, like the ref. 5738R "Grande Taille" Golden Ellipse, in a larger case size in rose gold, with an onyx dial that served as the follow up to 2008's platinum equivalent.
A quartz powered Golden Ellipse ref. 3788, courtesy of Bukowskis.
Then there was the ref. 5738/50P, with an impressive hand-engraved dial. As to why it's taken this long for the Ellipse to earn its time in the sun, Reardon has some thoughts: "There is a lot of attention now on the modern Ellipse, the ref. 5738. Perhaps the interest is in the fact it is a somewhat readily available modern interpretation of the Ellipse compared to some of the earlier models."
As for the earlier models themselves, "They're starting to gain attention again for the first time in decades. It literally took a pandemic to spark interest. Perhaps it is because there is so much attention being made to seemingly neglected Patek Philippe families of references, but more likely it is because collectors are looking for alternatives to overheated references in the line." As time passes, their appeal might also potentially grow. "They are solidly in vintage territory, being over 40 years old. They are affordable icons of the past and offer incredible value for the dollar."
Possibly the most famous Golden Ellipse advertisement.
The relationship between Ellipse and Nautilus is an interesting one. They bear similarities – long-lived shaped designs from Patek Philippe, but also startling differences. The Ellipse was, by all accounts, an instant hit, a fresh twist on the conventional gold watch. The Nautilus, by contrast, was a much slower burn, as it took some time for consumers to catch up to the idea of a high-priced steel sports watch.
Of course, the current state of the watch collecting landscape, with its hyper-focus on a narrow field of steel references, explains why the inverse is true today, with the finer and dressier Ellipse's light being hidden under the proverbial bushel. However, as the ready stock of Nautilus models becomes increasingly out-of-reach, Patek Philippe collectors might potentially turn to the Ellipse, or it may remain appreciated by a small, dedicated group of enthusiasts. Only time will tell.