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Feature: Patek Philippe's Calatrava Is Nowhere Near As Boring As You Think

The watch industry is full of Sliding Doors moments. Seemingly small decisions that, had they been taken differently – or not at all – might have steered events in another direction. What if Paul Newman’s wife, for instance, had bought him a set of golf clubs for his birthday instead of a shiny new Rolex Daytona? What if those Moon-bound Omega Speedmasters had stopped working mid-mission and been binned by NASA?

Suffice it to say Patek Philippe could have gone the way of many defunct watch brands were it not for a decision taken during the 1930s to abandon a certain unorthodox watch design that had landed on its plate from Jaeger-LeCoultre.

JLC’s Reverso and Patek Philippe’s Calatrava were launched just a year apart, in 1931 and 1932, respectively, and both watches have gone on to be the signature models of their brand. But, incredibly, there was a brief moment in time when the Reverso could have ended up being synonymous with Patek Philippe.

Reverso recap

You probably know the Reverso’s story but here’s a quick reminder.

A man called Cesar de Trey, a maker of dentures, visits India on a business trip in 1930 and meets a bunch of disgruntled British army officers whose watches are getting constantly pummelled on the polo field.

De Trey then has the idea for a case that flips over to protect the face and discusses it with Swiss-based movement manufacturer Jacques-David LeCoultre. LeCoultre teams up with fellow watchmaker Edmond Jaeger and engineer Rene-Alfred Charvot and they file a patent for said watch – a rectangular Art Deco affair that is now one of the most recognisable watches around.

Jaeger-LeCoultre's Reverso, one of the world's most recognisable watches

Jaeger-LeCoultre's Reverso, one of the world's most recognisable watches

At the time, JLC had a close relationship with Patek Philippe. Not only did they supply the company with movements, Jacques-David LeCoultre served on the board.

It wasn’t a prosperous time for Patek Philippe, however, despite having been at the vanguard of the industry for decades with various patents and industry milestones. In the previous decade alone it had created the world’s first perpetual calendar wristwatch and the first split-second chronograph wristwatch.

But then came the Wall Street Crash of 1929 which took a T-Rex-sized bite out of the value of Swiss watch exports. Suddenly Patek Philippe, which had so far led something of a charmed existence, found itself at the precipice.

JLC to the rescue?

In 1931 came a possible lifeline. Patek, perhaps orchestrated by Jacques-David LeCoultre himself, purchased eight Reverso cases off LeCoultre, four in white gold and four in a mixture of white and yellow gold, and made them commercially available, selling the whole lot between 1931 and 1932.

The Reverso model, known as reference 106 in the Patek catalogue, was potentially the company’s knight in shining armour, rescuing it from the doldrums of the early years of the Great Depression and making the company really matter again.

But it didn’t work out like that. Perhaps LeCoultre, seeing that he had a winner on his hands, wanted to keep the Reverso for himself. Or perhaps the Stern brothers, Charles and Jean, who had just taken a controlling interest in Patek Philippe, got cold feet about selling a watch that wasn’t made in-house.

Whatever the reason, the relationship between the Reverso and Patek was short-lived, and the latter remained in dire need of a eureka moment, something that would set it back on the path to greatness.

The Calatrava is born

The Stern brothers, who had every right to think this ailing company was in danger of going under, knew they had to act fast. So they commissioned David Penney, an English horologist, to save this illustrious company’s bacon – no pressure! – and come up with something remarkable.

This 1940s Calatrava (Ref 2418) sold at Bonhams, New York, in 2018. Image courtesy of Bonhams

This 1940s Calatrava (Ref 2418) sold at Bonhams, New York, in 2018. Image courtesy of Bonhams

From a contemporary viewpoint, of course, the classic Calatrava design doesn't seem very remarkable at all. Some might say it's a plain Jane of a watch and the very antithesis of an attention grabber. But when it arrived on the scene it was a revelation.

Wristwatches at the time were still finding their way aesthetically. Among the earliest models were the square-cased Santos, made by Cartier, while tonneau, cushion and rectangular cases were also de rigueur among male watch wearers. Round cases weren’t standard by any stretch of the imagination. And then came the first Calatrava (Reference 96) with its dauphine hands and baton numerals on an uncluttered dial that featured a seconds sub-dial at 6 o’clock.

Heavily influenced by the German Bauhaus movement, whose mantra was ‘form follows function’, Penney’s modest-looking watch couldn’t have been more timely. Fifteen years after the First World War and in the middle of the Great Depression, the flaunting of conspicuous jewellery was about as welcome as a bout of flatulence at a funeral.

Frankly. the last thing an unemployed labourer or destitute old soldier wanted to see was some dandified aristocrat swanning around town, dripping in bling.

A Calatrava (Reference 5227R-001) from 2018

A Calatrava (Reference 5227R-001) from 2018

Often copied, never bettered

And so the Calatrava’s pared-down perfection suited the austerity of the era, and its look has never really gone out of fashion. It’s spawned no end of imitations, becoming the most copied watch design ever, while Patek itself has produced countless variations, including a controversial pilot’s model (a handsome watch, but its resemblance to the original Calatrava was, well, miniscule).

In stark contrast, the Reverso almost dropped off the map altogether, going AWOL for decades before being resurrected in the early 1980s. As for the Calatrava, it's as eternal as time itself, never getting old, always relevant – a watch that is a yardstick by which all others are judged.

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