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Feature: Longines vs Patek Philippe Sector Dials

Enjoying luxury watches feels a lot like a pay-to-play kind of business. Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet—beautiful watches, sure, but until wanting something becomes a currency in and of itself, most of us have more chance of getting superpowers. There may be another option, however. Take the Patek Philippe 5296G and seat it side-by-side with the Longines Heritage Sector Dial and you’ll see these two watches have got a lot more in common than the price tags might suggest.

Patek Philippe Calatrava Sector Dial 5296G-001

The Calatrava has been, since 1932, Patek Philippe’s most basic wristwatch. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, because when it comes to fine watchmaking, reserved, classic, clean lines are what it’s all about. The time, elegantly presented, meticulously crafted. What more can a wrist ever want.

The 5296G is a direct descendant of that original Calatrava, sleek, simple, refined. Nothing but the essentials. Well, hang on, you may be thinking. What you’re showing me now is far from simple. That’s because this is a very special version of the 5296G, which gets the unusual addition of what’s known as a sector dial.

No prizes for guessing how the sector dial got its name, clearly divided into sectors as it is, but how about how it got its style? Well, wristwatches didn’t really find much favour until they had to, in the trenches of World War 1, when portability, accuracy and readability became the priority. Pocket watches were too cumbersome and impractical, but by comparison, and despite their benefits, a wristwatch was smaller and harder to read—and so, come the Second World War, the sector dial arrived to make every hour, minute and second unmistakable.

High contrast black markings were read against bright silver dials. Blueing was the simplest method to make the hands equally dark, pushed further than the usual royal blue all the way to a deep navy. Some manufacturers, Patek Philippe included, even went to the effort of graining the various sector tracks to help differentiate them by the way the light reflected. In the heat of battle, every last effort to prevent a mistake could mean the difference between winning and losing.

Today’s Patek Philippe 5296G has lost nothing of this eye-bleeding clarity, breaking seconds into beats around the outer edge and hours into minutes on the inner track. Each hand corresponds exactly with its sector so there’s no mistaking what’s what. A date window—a modern complication relative to the wartime sector dial—joins it, a convenience most watchmakers don’t dare do without.

And of course, what really shines through almost a century later is the quality of the thing, Patek Philippe demonstrating even with a simple design like this what it means to the be the most famous, most prestigious watchmaker. Steel is dropped in favour of white gold for the 38mm case. The dial print is actually a deep blue to match the hands.

But the calibre 324 S C is the real jewel of this watch, both automatically wound and on display in a most inauthentic fashion such that we can ogle at it and don’t have to wind it. It’s an oversight I’m more than willing to make allowances for. Anyone who’s seen the movement for themselves and manually wound a movement every day would tend to agree.

What all this adds up to is a $25,000 replica of a war-time watch, steeped in as much history and luxury as its white gold case can carry. It is the pinnacle of its type, unbeatable and unmatchable—but just how close can you get for a tenth of the price?

Longines Heritage Classic Sector Dial L2.828.4.53.2

At this point, you might be wondering—why are wartime watches even trendy at all? It’s not the first time—nor the last—we’ll see this phenomenon. The Humvee H2, for example, inspired by vehicles the company was making for the US armed Forces, was a big hit in its day. DPMs, disruptive pattern material clothing—that’s camo to you and me—continues to find its way into modern trends. Combat boots, aviator sunglasses, trench coats—they have all trickled down into high street fashion chains straight from the front line.

The sector dial and indeed the wristwatch is no exception. Think about it: when war comes along, the biggest contract going is a military one, and so you as a brand submit your bid to win that contract. And when you do win, you retool your factory to manufacture in the thousands. But what about your customers back home? You don’t want to neglect them, nor hamper your war effort, either. So, you market the same stuff. It’s both cutting edge and anti-establishment, bold and functional and dramatic. In short, military spec fashion makes a statement, and so people buy it.

You’ve got to admit the stark design of a sector dial has a certain purposeful appeal to it. It’s not what you’d call beautiful—but it is incredibly satisfying. This Longines, too, is inspired by a watch it made itself during the war, and you can see the similarities with the Patek Philippe. Longines makes this watch in an identical blue-and-silver combination, but here we have the silver and black, an opposing contrast that also traces its roots back to the war.

The two biggest differences here are the lack of date and the sub-seconds dial. Whilst the date would have never been found in isolation on any watch before the 1945 Rolex Datejust, the centre second complication of the Patek Philippe is a little hint at its past and present uplift over a watchmaker like Longines. The centre second requires extra parts, extra work, extra cost. So, the Longines did and does go without.

The quarters are delineated in a fashion that makes it more easily orientated in a moment, adding back what it lost out to the Patek Philippe on. The skinny hands reflect another cost-saving measure over the period-correct leaf design of the 5296G, bringing the price down both then and now. The way the 38.5mm steel case is brushed indiscriminately leaves no sense that the Patek Philippe’s mercury-like polish is the more premium of the two.

It’s a similar story for what’s inside, the calibre L893 based on a volume-production ETA A31.501. The plus side is that it gets a silicon hairspring for resistance to magnetism and a healthy 72-hour power reserve, which means it’ll slip into a rotation of watches very nicely. You don’t get to see it, not that most would be that bothered about it: it’s an industrial movement with an industrial finish that does its job perfectly well in private.

What the difference amounts to is well north of $20,000. Two watches, so similar in inspiration, executed in two entirely different ways. There couldn’t be a greater anachronism to demonstrate the steadfast appeal of a mechanical watch, and it couldn’t have been interpreted in two more disparate approaches. The question is, which one is best?

It’s going to come as no surprise to anyone that the Patek Philippe watch is better. Everything about the 5296G is executed in a way that simply can’t be touched for a difference in spend as great as we see here. If we were comparing a non-sector dial Calatrava alongside a similar Longines, it would be game over—but we aren’t. These two watches are inspired by wartime instruments that, whilst forward-thinking and utterly reliable—were still built to a cost. The Longines of today better reflects that purpose-built nature, eschewing the date and hiding the movement, and ultimately assembling a package that offers the most value. If that’s your goal, to own something accurate and true, then perhaps it will be the Longines, after all, that has the greater draw.

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