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The Patek Philippe Nautilus is one of two watches that introduced the world to the concept of the “luxury sports watch” — a steel timepiece with an integrated bracelet that is, in many cases, more expensive than a precious metal watch in equivalent weight. Though the Nautilus product line does indeed include precious metal watches, it’s the steel, time-and-date model — currently embodied by the reference 5711 — that has become iconic and emblematic of this category of watches. And given that Patek is retiring this now-legendary reference after nearly 20 years, we thought it was time we dove deep into the world of this fascinating wristwatch, including history, purchasing, favorite references and more.
Arguably, there’s no single more important person than Genta when it comes to watch design over the past 50 years. It was Genta who crafted the Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet in 1972, and the Nautilus for Patek Philippe in 1976. These two timepieces were arguably the first “luxury sport watches” in the world. And what the heck does that even mean, exactly?
Well, you’ve gotta understand that before the Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus , a steel sports watch, like the Rolex Submariner, was really and truly a tool. An enlisted soldier might buy one in a post exchange in Southeast Asia — for a month’s salary, to be fair — and then wear it on operations against the Vietcong. That sort of thing. It certainly wasn’t something to be precious about.
That changed during the Quartz Crisis. In 1969 the world was hit with the first battery-powered quartz watch. Despite the fact that this tech was wildly expensive when it first debuted, the writing was on the wall for the Swiss watch industry: Cheap, accurate and robust battery-powered watches from Asia had the power to make mechanical watchmaking obsolete. And all the more so if the storied brands continued to produce stuffy, dated designs without innovating. They needed to do something bold if they were going to survive.
Enter Genta. His designs for both the Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus were a revelation. Nautically-inspired and featuring integrated bracelets and automatic movements, they were suffused with high-quality finishing and inspired industrial design. And they were expensive — like, ludicrously expensive for something not executed in precious metals. “One of the world’s costliest watches is made of steel,” an early Nautilus guide boasted. Not exactly subtle, but it worked.
Boy, did it work; buyers positively flocked to these two designs. The Patek Philippe Nautilus reference 3700/1 cost $3,100 in 1976 — roughly $15,300 today. Now, that might not seem absurd in today’s, ahem, wildly absurd watch market. But imagine the sticker shock in the mid-70s, a time of rapid inflation and double-digit interest rates. Certainly, the Nautilus was no “tool watch” despite its steel housing — it was a luxury product, for wealthy people. And it has only become more so.
But let’s backtrack for a second. We mentioned that both the Audemars Piguet and the Patek Philippe Nautilus were designed by Gérald Genta. But what is the Nautilus? What makes it special?
Genta took inspiration from the porthole on a transatlantic ocean liner for the watch’s case — even the two “ears” are present, the hinges on either side of the porthole on which it swings open and closed form part of the design. Patek formed the case from a steel alloy of nickel, chrome and molybdenum, which was known at the time both for its strength and relative lightness.
The watch’s dial was simple, consisting of thin, rounded sword hands, matching applied indices, and a date window at 3 o’clock, all against a unique background with embossed, horizontal striping. And it was powered by the ultra-thin Calibre 28-255C movement, based on the Calibre 920 from Jaeger-LeCoultre with in-house finishing by Patek. (Somewhat unsurprisingly, given the similarity of their designs, this was the very same movement used to power the original Royal Oak.) Thinness was a major factor in Genta’s approach.
The steel bracelet, which is integrated into the case, was also a design revelation. Most other 20th-century watches featured bracelets that could easily be detached and swapped for a simple leather or other band. Not so the Nautilus — the steel bracelet is an integral part of the package and design vision, and with its elegant H-links and rounded, rectangular center links, has become something of an icon in and of itself.