What Makes a Transitional Watch?
Evolutions in watchmaking are rarely quick or abrupt. Aesthetics don’t suddenly change. Traditional production techniques aren’t updated overnight. Rather, as is often the case elsewhere, things evolve gradually, shifting from one state to another over an extended period of time. Because of this, it's sometimes possible to pinpoint watches that are arguably transitional in nature, marking those changes, in a subtle, but noticeable way.
These pieces offer a glimpse into how things are evolving at a given moment in time, through objects which are often a product of various influences. They can mark a transformation in the industry at large, by being identifiably different to what came before them and what came after. Alternatively, certain references with a long lifespan can be updated over time, such that the evolution becomes obvious within the confines of a single model.
The evolution of the Aquanaut is an interesting study of vintage to modern.
Though the examples of this are plentiful, we thought we’d look more closely at the late 20th century, a period when the watchmaking world was experiencing a range of different changes. Often considered as the transition between so-called “vintage” and “modern” horology, there are a few interesting pieces which document this development. From the first serially produced complicated Patek Philippe's, to Rolex’s own sport models, there is much to draw on.
Complicated Watchmaking at Patek Philippe
There are two models from Patek Philippe which immediately sprang to mind when we were considering this topic – the perpetual calendar 3940 and its sister reference, the perpetual calendar chronograph 3970. Both pieces were produced for long enough – and at the right time – that they bore witness to the transformation which was occurring within the brand. The former was made from 1985 to 2007, whilst the latter was around from 1986 to 2004.
Two perpetual calendars from Patek Philippe that straddle the worlds of modern and vintage.
To truly understand the transformation that both watches reflect, you must first compare them to what came before. The model which immediately predates the 3940 is the 3448. This reference was around for two decades, yet less than 600 examples were ever made. Admittedly, its production does span the most challenging period the watch industry has faced, between 1962 and 1981, as the Quartz Crisis was wreaking havoc. That said, these circumstances alone cannot account for the stark contrast with what was about to come. Indeed, in two years, Patek Philippe managed to make more perpetual calendars than they had in the previous twenty.
The shift in subdial design from the first generation of 3940 to the next.
It’s not just the numbers that mark the difference between the two. For the 3940, a completely new design was brought in for displaying the information necessary in a perpetual calendar. Gone were the small apertures and razor-sharp case design, in favour of three subdials and a smoother, more rounded approach to the overall aesthetic. While this design shift isn’t as apparent in the 3970, the discrepancy in production numbers is certainly similar. Its predecessor, the 2499, was only made in 349 pieces over 35 years, yet the transitional model that followed was closer to 4,000, during its production run. These figures clearly show an increase in production capability at Patek Philippe, whilst also demonstrating a shift in mindset as well. No longer were they going to be as restrictive on the quantity of watches they made, including the complicated pieces. While their watches were still far from being mass-produced, they were now being made in series, consistently and frequently over time.
The 3970 and the Lemania-based movement that helped it reach more people than its predecessor.
Furthermore, the progression that the 3940 takes through its long 22-year lifetime is possibly one of the most interesting examples of transition in the watch industry. The earliest pieces featured recessed subdials, which were engraved by hand. Later, Patek Philippe shifted to sloped subdials, which were easier to produce and didn’t require as much manual intervention, demonstrating the manufacture’s gradual shift towards more contemporary production techniques. Aesthetically, they also made a few choices which demonstrated their desire to move in a different direction. The font was gradually modernised over time, whilst the “Patek Philippe” signature consistently increased in size over the next two decades. As they started catering to a wider audience, one can imagine that brand recognition was becoming increasingly important, such that a larger signature would’ve made good sense. These subtle changes in design reflect Patek Philippe’s modernisation, both in production technique and mindset.
An original brochure supplied with the 3940, listing the details of its movement, courtesy of Patek Philippe.
An important distinction between the 3448 and 3940, was the new movement that was deployed. The 240Q effectively “dethroned” a calibre that had been the jewel in Patek Philippe’s crown for decades, the calibre 27-460. By opting to build a perpetual calendar on a micro-rotor movement, Philippe Stern was putting the company’s fortunes behind this new, modern approach. To then move away from tradition, by showcasing this decision with a display caseback, was a real statement from the Genevan watchmaker. Placing a sapphire window on the back of their latest perpetual calendar, just as the grip of the Quartz Crisis was starting to slip, seems something of a stroke of genius, looking back.
Close up on the 22kt yellow gold rotor, that kept the 3940 running.
Mechanically, there was also a change between the 2499 and the 3970, with the Lemania 2310 becoming the new ébauche of choice. The base chronograph movement, which Omega had been successfully using for decades by this point, proved to be an ideal starting point for Patek Philippe’s calibre 27-70Q. Opting to go with an ébauche that had a proven track-record and was readily available at scale, shows Stern’s intentions when it came to this latest perpetual calendar chronograph – he wanted it to be reliable, as well as repeatable.
The Last Rolex GMT-Master
The world of vintage Rolex and the plethora of iterations observed over the years is staggering. By just focusing on the GMT, and the transition from GMT-Master to Master II, it is possible to highlight some interesting developments in the way Rolex made watches. The last few references of the GMT-Master still hold vestiges of distinctly vintage features, from tritium lume to the coupled hour and GMT hands. However, the newer “five digit” reference numbers started to show clearer signs of modernity creeping in, by adding features such as the quickset date change and updated dials.
The first and latest iterations of the Rolex GMT-Master, courtesy of Hodinkee.
The 16750 is a prime example of this. It entered production in 1980 and left by 1988, a relatively quick run considering the references either side of it were in the catalogue for 20, and 17 years each. However, in this short run, we see a move towards modernisation, similar to the one that can be observed in the Submariners produced around the same period. Something that made these final GMT-Master references easy to label as transitional was that they were manufactured, for much of their run, in-line with the new GMT-Master II. Having both in the catalogue at the same time allows for instant comparison and an easy way to see where Rolex were, and where they were heading.
A highly sought-after Tiffany-signed 16750.
Launched in 1983, the GMT-Master II looked practically identical to the GMT-Master, but housed an updated movement with a quickset hour hand, which allowed for local time to be set without having to interfere with any of the other hands. The earliest produced versions were still equipped with matte dials that were carried over from the 1675, a feature which is broadly associated with the vintage Rolex world. These were replaced by glossy lacquer dials, that are easily distinguishable thanks to the addition of white gold applied contours to the hour markers. These changes gave these pieces a distinctly more luxurious feel, as they gradually moved away from a utilitarian design, to something more deliberately refined.
A Rolex GMT-Master II ref. 16710, courtesy of WatchClub.
For a while you could still find the more dated luminous material, tritium, on some of the new “modern” lacquered dials, as indicated by the “T < 25”, printed below the minute track. While the switch to SuperLumiNova would happen well into the GMT-Master II run, in 1997, there was still a GMT-Master reference being produced at this time, the 16700. Picking up where the 16750 left off in 1988, this final GMT-Master reference would stay in production until 1999, combining a range of vintage and more contemporary features. After all, the fact that aged tritium and white gold contours can be found on the same watch, bearing witness to two different eras of Rolex’s history, forms part of an interesting appeal to some of these pieces.
The quintessential pilots’ watch, in part thanks to this advert, courtesy of Rolex.
Overall, families such as the GMT or the Submariner offer excellent case studies to examine the evolutions that occur within the watch world, because the core of their design remains the same, over several decades. As such, small changes such as the texture of a dial, the luminous material used or the manufacturing process of a bezel, all allow us to notice the changes occurring within Rolex at a given time, as well as the industry at large.
Modernising the Patek Philippe Aquanaut
The origins of the Aquanaut are somewhat mysterious. Seemingly transitioning out of the Nautilus family and setting out on its own, it quickly became the more casual, everyday face of Patek Philippe. The widely agreed inaugural year is 1997, the first time that the 5060/1A appeared in catalogues and in window displays, with its distinctive rubber strap, steel porthole case and checkered dial.
The original window display for the first series of Aquanauts, courtesy of Collectability.
These early Aquanauts are an fascinating combination of different trends. On the one hand, they are distinctly modern. Being the first Patek Philippes to be equipped with rubber straps and housed in unusual stainless steel cases, they were targeted at a younger audience which had never really been a focus for the brand. On the other, the first iterations also gather a range of features which we would consider as decidedly vintage – they measured 36mm, came with a closed caseback and used tritium lume on the dial, which often develops a warm, creamy patina over time. The fact that both rubber and aged indexes can be found on the same watch, especially a Patek Philippe, firmly places these within the category of transitional watches, at least in our mind.
The difference in colour between a tritium and SuperLumiNova dial.
Beyond the first Aquanauts, the development of the model itself paints an interesting evolution for the manufacture, which gradually moved towards more contemporary aesthetics and production techniques. Following the initial concept, it only took them one year to update the collection. Both the 5065 and 5066 brought in sapphire casebacks and the former updated the size to 38mm, which was supposedly better suited to modern tastes.
The colour difference between the lume on hands and hour markers is common on early Aquanauts, courtesy or Rolex Forums.
The use of tritium is an interesting one in the Aquanaut. The move to exclusively use SuperLumiNova came later than much of the watch world, in 2004. While this transition may appear to be clear-cut, there are a couple of discrepancies that have been noted over the years. Collectors have spotted a few models that were made in 2004 that combine both SuperLumiNova and tritium components, across the dial and hands. If they were made much earlier on and displayed SuperLumiNova hands, it would be reasonable to write these off as service parts. However, a few models produced around 2004 appear to have been made during a transitional period, when the manufacture must have had tritium and SuperLumiNova components available.
These models have been the subject of some debate between collectors, but the fact that they could have been made right in the middle of this transition is an interesting proposition. Over the coming years, Patek Philippe would continue to modernise the Aquanaut, increasing its size, modernising its aesthetic, and adding some colour here and there.
By no means intended to be an exhaustive overview, we hope these three examples provide an insight into some of pieces one might consider transitional in nature. Produced towards the end of the 20th century, they sit at interesting crossroads, where manufactures such as Rolex or Patek Philippe, were gradually pivoting in new directions. With changes to be observed across production techniques, materials and target audiences, transitional pieces can be the result of a multitude of different pressures and trends.