Patek Philippe 5270
It’s not often a watch that costs as much as a house ends up in your hands. For the Patek Philippe 5270, a high-complication piece from one of the oldest and most famous watchmakers on the planet, it’s an experience very few will get to enjoy. Here’s what it’s like.
To understand what makes a watch like this feel even close to justifying its cost, you first have to understand a little bit more about the brand that makes them. Patek Philippe is known the world over for making high-end watches, yes, but why it is well-known and what it’s done to become well-known are, to many, a bit of a mystery.
For a start, it’s older than most other watchmakers. It’s sixty-six years older than Rolex. When Patek Philippe turned the sign on the door from “shut” to “open” for the first time, a baby born on that same day would be collecting their pension before Rolex did the same. It was 1839 the brand made its debut, kicking things off by completely changing the way the watches of the time worked.
We think of watchmaking today as being old, stuffy, classical and out-of-date, but when Patek Philippe got started, it was all-out to disrupt and make enemies of the industry. By ditching the key used to wind pocket watches and combining it with the hand-setting mechanism, Patek Philippe gave the world the crown. Even now, it’s a design you still see used over and over. The Apple Watch would not be set in the way that it is if it wasn’t for Patek Philippe.
And the wristwatch itself—Patek Philippe not only produced one of the very first wristwatches ever, it also laid out the blueprint for how they should look. With the Great Depression of the 1930s, the glamour and luxury of a big, decorative pocket watch was losing its appeal, and so Patek Philippe turned to the then unfavourable wristwatch to continue its legacy. The Calatrava, simple, refined and elegant, was like nothing the industry had ever seen before, and ushered in a new era of restrained luxury still considered the finest to this day.
Not that Patek Philippe didn’t still love a big, decorative pocket watch. In the 1950s it created the biggest and most complicated ever made, packed to the gills with twenty-four complications, weighing in at about half a kilo and taking almost a decade to make. It sold in 2014 for $24 million, the most ever paid for a watch—that is until it was bested by another Patek Philippe.
Ever keen to be at the very sharpest edge, Patek Philippe even developed the world’s first electronic clock in the 1950s, ironically giving the very technology that would replace it in the modern world a helping hand into the industry. But despite the obsolescence of the mechanical watch, Patek Philippe survives on anyway. In fact, it does more than survive—it flourishes. That’s because not only is it a watchmaker of experience and ingenuity, but also one of the highest quality.
Here’s where watchmaking becomes high watchmaking. A basic mechanical movement can be yours for the princely sum of just a few dollars, and it will function in more or less the same way as any other mechanical time-telling device. The difference with Patek Philippe is not the what, but the how. A machine can stamp out the pieces for a movement in a matter of seconds, but a person? It can take a lifetime.
Only the very best watchmakers get to build Patek Philippe’s Grand Complication watches like this. These Master Watchmakers are skilled in the decades, people who have dedicated their lives to the art of making the very finest watches. Let’s take a closer look.
Here’s something I want you to try and get your head around: the calendar we use to keep track of the days, years and months is a complete mess. Centuries of tweaking have led it to become a jumble of irregular units that make building a watch to track them very difficult indeed. Think about it; you’ve got your months, twelve of them, alternating between thirty and thirty-one days—oh, except for December and January, and July and August, which are back-to-back with thirty-one days.
Don’t get me started on February. Thanks to the length of a year being 365 days, and the time it takes our planet to orbit the sun being 365-and-a-quarter days, it means every four years we need another day—the leap day. I told you not to get me started on February, but here we are anyway. That gets twenty-eight days for three years, then twenty-nine for one, in a four-year cycle.
Like I said, what a mess. The permutations involved make a digital solution a pain enough, let alone a mechanical one. The irregularity is against the fundamental principle of what a watch is all about, regular, consistent timekeeping. This Patek Philippe, however, can do it just fine. It’ll track every day and every month, tell you the date, even if it’s a leap year. It’ll tell you if it’s day or night, and even what the moon’s been up to as well.
But how? How can you convert that mess of information into slowly turning wheels and gears? That’s the magic of high watchmaking. It takes the best minds to do it, and Patek Philippe has plenty of those. The result is a watch that can not only tell you the time, but also keep track of the planet’s position in the solar system with nothing more than the power of a coiled spring.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s even a chronograph packed into here as well, giving an on-demand recording of minutes and seconds at the push of a button. Watching the levers at work here, you don’t have to be an expert to appreciate the complexity of it. But the detail goes deeper still—where a typical chronograph minute hand changes from one minute to the next over the course of a few seconds—thanks to the continuously running nature of a mechanical movement—the Patek Philippe’s makes the jump in an instant.
But the real skill in the manufacture of a high-end mechanical movement is yet to come. To give each component its final finish, a Master Watchmaker doesn’t use machines, they use their hands, shaping, polishing and brushing every component to a level of perfection you can only properly appreciate with a microscope. This level of decoration can be easily dismissed at a glance, yet it is the hardest part of the entire process.
To be able to finish a watch like this, it takes time, and not only in the sense of the days and weeks dedicated to executing the process by hand, but also in the time it takes to achieve those skills in the first place. A single component can take days of unending concentration to execute, working at the micron level with nothing more than hand tools. When a single slip-up can mean scrapping the part and starting again, it takes decades to master not only the dexterity and motor skills needed, but also the patience. It’s a tradition and an aesthetic as old as watchmaking itself, a mark of the finest level of quality—and only the very best can achieve it.
There aren’t many watches out there that can command such an enormous price, but in the case of the Patek Philippe 5270, understanding the work that has raised the brand to this level, that has given the watchmakers the skills to create it, goes a long way towards appreciating why such a small thing can cost so much. The irony is that for a watch like this, timekeeping is almost at the bottom of the list of its reasons for being. As a sculpture, a piece of mechanical artwork, it makes much more sense. Using it just to read the time without appreciating everything else about it is a bit like using the Mona Lisa to cover a stain on the wall.
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