Origin stories, be they mythical, Biblical or horological, have a way of growing in stature as they get older until no one questions their authenticity anymore. Athena sprang, fully armed, from the forehead of Zeus, Eve from Adam’s rib, and the Patek Philippe Nautilus from a napkin sketch at the Basel Watch Fair. Whether apocryphal or not, the tale of the Nautilus’s birth is now part of the iconic watch’s rich lore, a history that, as of Baselworld 2016, spans forty years.
As the story goes, the famed watch designer, Gérald Genta, best known for penning Audemars Piguet’s sensational Royal Oak, was having lunch at a cafe during the 1974 Basel Watch Fair (now Baselworld). He was struck with an inspiration and pulled out a pen and sketched, in a few lines, a watch design to present to Patek Philippe.
Genta was friends with the Stern family, Patek Philippe’s owners, and knew of Henri Stern’s passion for sailing and all things nautical. His new watch design thus took inspiration from the hinged portholes on ocean liners and yachts.
The watch would be a bona fide sports watch unlike any Patek Philippe that came before it—steel, highly water resistant and rugged. Given its aquatic capabilities and aesthetics, the watch would come to be named the Nautilus, named for Captain Nemo’s vessel in Jules Verne’s famous 1870 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
The Nautilus made its debut in 1976 at the Basel fair and was a sensation. To understand how radical its introduction was, it’s important to consider the state of the Swiss watch industry at the time.
The so-called Quartz Crisis, brought about by the prevalence of accurate affordable quartz watches, many from Asia, led many Swiss brands to rethink their own offerings and drove many out of business. Patek Philippe was an old proud company, not one to yield to trends but one that realized that some change was needed. It had long been known for its elegant, complicated watches and was considered the old guard and old money of the industry. A 42-millimeter steel sports watch was a gamble, but one that has paid off for Patek Philippe. The Nautilus has since become a legitimate timepiece icon.
Not only was the Nautilus a marked departure for Patek Philippe, it flew in the face of the entire industry, which was focused on consolidation and cost cutting. One advertisement for the new watch proudly proclaimed that, One of the World’s Costliest Watches Is Made of Steel and indeed, the Nautilus cost as much as most high-end gold dress watches in the late 1970s. Rather than driving away business, this bold move made the Nautilus a runaway success. It arrived in a box made from cork, a nod to its nautical character, and in the late 1970s had a solid-steel caseback. Display backs were not yet in vogue, so its owner could only wonder at the lovely Jaeger-LeCoultre-based thin calibre inside.
Far from a mere design element, the porthole shape of the Nautilus helped give the watch its ample 120 meters of water resistance, respectable for any watch but unheard of for a Patek Philippe. The left side of the case, like a porthole, had a hinge while the right side screwed the entire top of the watch down around the crown, compressing a gasket under that octagonal bezel.
While no one would ever mistake the Nautilus for a diving watch, finally there was a Patek Philippe watch that Henri Stern could wear from his Geneva offices to the deck of his sailboat on Lac Leman without fear of damage.
The original Nautilus, ref. 3700/1 was available only with a steel case and a black dial that had a distinctive horizontal ribbed pattern. The watch had a small date window but lacked even a sweep seconds hand, giving it a lean, functional feel.
But over the subsequent years, the watch’s popularity drove additional colors and features. In 2006, thirty years after the Nautilus’s introduction, the ref. 3700 was replaced by the newer ref. 5711, with some significant changes to the case construction and given a new folding clasp. The two-piece case of the original was replaced with a three-piece version that had a screw-on caseback; gone was the hinged, porthole-style bezel, though visually the change was almost undetectable. The movement was also changed, from the Jaeger-LeCoultre-derived motor to a new in-house Patek Philippe caliber 324 SC that was proudly shown through a sapphire caseback.
More recently we’ve seen more complicated versions of the Nautilus, from moonphase and power reserve displays to an innovative chronograph that incorporated minutes and hours into a single intuitive counter. At the 2014 BaselWorld show, the ref. 5990 Travel Time Chronograph made its debut, adding day/night apertures for Home and Local times and a second time zone hand that could be set using push-pieces that are perfectly integrated into the case’s left flank. It is a perfect companion for the globetrotting, well-heeled adventurer.
While the Nautilus has changed greatly in the forty years since its debut in 1976, it has remained a standard bearer for the luxury sports watch, which is no small feat given the explosion of this market segment. One could even argue that it defined the category, towards which the watch market has tilted ever since with sports watches still immensely popular and classic dress watches scarce. Despite the myriad new references that are part of the Nautilus family, that familiar silhouette remains as fresh and groundbreaking as it did when it sprang from Gérald Genta’s napkin all those years ago.
Forty years after its creation, the Nautilus by Patek Philippe appeared for the first time clad head-to-toe in pink gold last year. After paving the way for luxury watches in steel, it here lends itself to a more precious guise in a version without complications. Patek Philippe has refined the links in the metal bracelet for greater comfort and to reduce the weight, an important factor when working with gold. Complementing the warmth of the pink gold, 40mm Reference 5711/1R comes with a gradient dial in brown-black that also bears the characteristic horizontal stripes of the collection. The three-hand automatic movement 324SC caliber is hallmarked with the Patek Philippe Seal and has the benefit of a Spiromax silicon balance spring.