Feature: The Best vs The Best vs The Best
There are good watches, there are great watches and then there are the best watches. These are three of them. Let’s see which one comes out on top.
Patek Philippe Calatrava 5296R
It wouldn’t be a showdown between the best watches in the world without a Patek Philippe. It’s thanks to Patek Philippe and the Calatrava model line that dress watches look like what they do today. The first wristwatches were built out of a practical need, to aid military officers and pilots and such, the traditional pocket watch worn by gentlemen a far more ornate affair.
It was the Calatrava that changed all that. Like Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, the Calatrava was a desperate bid to recover from an ailing business decimated by the Great Depression. The pocket watch, a symbol of the old money aristocracy, was falling out of fashion, and so aging, traditional brands like Patek Philippe were facing extinction.
After a last-minute bailout by the Stern family, it was to designer David Penney Patek Philippe turned to revitalise the brand—and the Calatrava was the result. Reserved, refined and—importantly—restrained, it set a new tone for luxury that wasn’t quite as ostentatious—read: in-your-face—as the watches that came before it.
Ironically, this 5296R comes equipped with what’s known as a ‘sector dial’ which borrows more from the military designs of the period, what with the style being much easier to read. Think of it as an amalgamation of the two avenues with which wristwatches sought to take the baton from the pocket watch.
Out of the three watches, this is the one you’d be most likely to wear every day. A brown strap is nicely casual, the sector dial eminently readable, the date function surprising useful as the brain gets older and the memory starts to fade. There’s even an automatic winding rotor to keep it ticking. A manual wind is nice, but perhaps not for a daily wear.
But those are all things that could apply to any watch; this is potentially the best watch. You may think it more appropriate to look to a more complex watch to find the best, but this is a different kind of best. This is the kind where there’s nothing to hide behind, where every detail is vulnerable to scrutiny.
And scrutinise this watch you should, because it’s nothing short of perfection. The blue of the hands, heat-treated of course, is deep and rich and sumptuous. The subtle bands of shifting grey beneath them make reading the time a pleasure. Every single second marker, despite being a fraction of a millimetre thick, is as crisp and uniform as the last.
The same can be said of the calibre 324 S C. It’s not a complicated powerhouse; like the watch, it asks for very little and does a huge amount with it. It’s the kind of movement where if anyone were to ask you why you waste your time with mechanical watches, you could show it to them and answer their question without saying a word. You don’t need to know specification, technical detail, anything like that—you simply look at it, drink on the detail and wonder why anyone would need anything else in their life.
Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle 82172/000R
You know what though—there are other things in life, and this is one of them, the Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle. Think Patek Philippe has a decent backstory? Vacheron Constantin was already starting to think about its centennial birthday party when Patek Philippe was just being founded. Its list of clientele includes Queen Elizabeth II, Napoléon Bonaparte and the Pope.
That’s all very nice, but is it better than the Patek Philippe? Well, if the Patek Philippe is your daily—lucky you—then this will be one for weekends. On a black strap with no date and a manually wound movement—with only a tiny crown available to wind it with—this is something you’ll save for special occasions.
Nowhere more apparent is this than on the dial. Yes, there are some swish little details like the applied logo, dual finish hands and centre cap on the cannon pinion that add a touch more attention to detail than the Patek Philippe, but all that fades into obscurity when presented with the guilloché dial. This concentric pattern is a staple of the most traditional watchmakers, applied without a volt of electricity to be seen.
In an industry of multi-axis CNC lathe machines churning out blanks like they’re printing money, the traditionally guillochéd dial is a thing of exquisite beauty. Applied with a rose engine, an ancient machine with wheels and pullies that draws power from its human operator, it’s a very mechanical technique used on a very mechanical watch. Slowly, painstakingly, each ring of the guilloché is etched into the dial through an offset rotating barrel that bobs back and forth with the pattern chosen. One mistake and the whole thing is in the bin.
It’s the kind of application favoured by the sort of people who enjoy the hallowed combination of extreme concentration and repetitive tedium. We call them watchmakers. The application of the guilloche is an experience to behold, and I can only imagine what it’s like to attempt yourself. Pay attention and it would seem like you’re watching the same thing over and over again; reduce attentiveness for even a split second and you’d soon learn just how fine the tolerances really are when it all goes wrong. I suppose that’s why it’s done by master watchmakers and not you or me. Whatever, it’s stunning.
On the rear, the manually wound calibre 4400 AS opens up the opportunity for a much more classical architecture, and as nice as the Patek Philippe’s solid gold rotor is, doing without it makes for a far more visually pleasing case back. Refinement is on par with the 5296R, but the freedom afforded by the lack of rotor weight means there’s more of the movement to actually enjoy, particularly the large centre wheel and swooping bridges. Patek Philippe does of course make manually wound movements, too—but they’re now all hidden behind solid case backs.
A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia 380.033
What if there was the option to have something a bit special, a bit different, that also offered a bit of usable practicality as well? That’s where the A. Lange & Söhne Saxonia comes in. It’s the SUV of the bunch, combining the best of both with little compromise. And being a German-made watch, where the other two are Swiss, there’s already a sense of uniqueness about it that stands out in the trio.
A traditional Swiss watch is all about grace and elegance, and so too is the Saxonia—but there’s an added hint of stark gothic angularity that gives it an edge over the other two. The hands, sharp like swords, the markers, so thin they’re almost not there at all, yet are still finished to catch the light from every direction. Even the way the lugs join the case is at odds with the seamlessness of the Swiss pair, exhibiting a pointed discordance that gives the design more character.
Of the three, it’s by far the simplest, yet somehow it manages to say a lot more with a lot less. That isn’t to say the other two are boring, or badly designed; think of the Patek Philippe as a sweet but simple Victoria sponge, the Vacheron Constantin as a rich, indulgent chocolate cake and the A. Lange & Söhne as a bitter lemon tart, served cold straight from the fridge. Sometimes cosy and sweet is nice—sometimes it’s better to have something that bites back.
The calibre L086.1 gets the same dose of flair thanks to the abundant use of the more yellowy German silver, and despite the large rotor weight, can still be viewed clearly through a large cut out in the middle. If you’re worried about the efficiency of the rotor with the removed mass—and you’re right to raise the concern, thank you for coming to me with it—don’t be, because there’s a nice thick bar of platinum tucked up snugly around the edge to compensate. Even if you did need to top up the power by hand, you’d soon realise how smooth and sweet it is to wind.
Like the front, it’s the little touches on the back that make the Saxonia feel a bit more unique, a bit more special. The hand engraved balance cock with swan neck regulator, the textured relief for the branding on the rotor weight, the three-dimensionality of the graining, both straight and round. These are small details, but the shift in personality is surprisingly profound. Within the realms of simple, expertly finished dress watches, the Saxonia is in a class of its own.
Let’s be clear, there’s no marked difference between any of these watches. It’s all degrees of separation—but when you’re spending some £20,000 for what is essentially a very basic watch, it’s the little differences that count. Whether you want something that harks back to the post-depression years and Patek Philippe’s reinvention, or something that celebrates the full spectrum of fine watch decoration and mechanical application, or perhaps something a bit more left field that stands out from the crowd, these three watches are all the best. Which one does it most for you—well, that’s down to you.
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