Patek Philippe Aquanaut
A few years back, Patek Philippe introduced a watch from which the world’s press collectively recoiled: the Calatrava Travel Time 5524G. At 42mm and in white gold, it’s a big, heavy brute of a watch, a far cry from the elegance and reserve we’ve come to know of Switzerland’s most prestigious watchmaker. It’s safe to say that no one really gets why Patek Philippe made it, but I can tell you that the brand itself does, and here’s just the thing to prove it: the Patek Philippe Aquanaut.
Do you remember 1997? It’s perhaps a distant memory by now, but here’s a quick refresher: we sat for 3 hours and 15 minutes just to discover Kate Winslet’s inability to share; we—children and adults alike—moved in to a little cupboard under the stairs in Privet Drive; and we discovered a new and perhaps inappropriate use for Britain’s Union Jack.
The point is that 1997, and the years running up to it, were pretty relaxed. The whole of the 90s was pretty relaxed. So relaxed, in fact, that the term ‘business casual’ was coined, encouraging brands like Ford and IBM to slacken its policies on suits and ties.
For Patek Philippe, a company built on a platform of traditionalism and formality, this was not good news. Its customers then may have been purchasing classic Patek Philippe watches in droves, but what of the customers of tomorrow? The teens listening to Nirvana and wearing double denim were unlikely to mature into a passion for the debonair.
It’s a problem Patek Philippe had run into several times before: with the world in financial crisis, following one world war and just about to enter another, Patek Philippe took the opportunity to pivot from its ornate, expansive pocket watches and into the simplistic realm of Bauhaus. The wristwatch wouldn’t be globally popular until the end of the second world war, but when it was, Patek Philippe was there, ready.
And again as the influx of cheap, quartz watches threatened to quash Swiss watchmaking altogether, Patek Philippe introduced the Nautilus, an awkward, angular, expensive steel watch that jarred with the traditional sensibility of the wristwatch. A decade on, in the height of the 80s, and the Nautilus was there, ready.
But the excess of the 80s wasn’t to last, and as the economy was rebuilt into the 90s, it emerged with a more restrained taste—and a more casual approach to living life. By this point, even the Nautilus was considered too uptight, with its slender profile and delicate appointment hallmarks of the Patek Philippe that had come before it. Patek Philippe needed to dial up the casual to eleven, and that forced a decision no one could have predicted: Patek Philippe created a watch with a rubber strap.
Seems so harmless now, and so does the Nautilus and indeed the wristwatch itself, but that’s the price you pay for being the industry’s most eminent creator. Despite Patek Philippe actually being one of the more innovative brands, its forward thinking simply comes across as a reputation for classicism—and this is one of the first ever companies to dabble with electronic watches.
And so there we were, in 1997, aghast at Patek Philippe’s new monstrosity. Never mind the rubber strap, look at that dial—great big numbers slapped up against great big markers, all squished up against the edge of a dial divided into great big squares, great big hands reaching out from the centre—where was the grace, the elegance we had come to expect?
The case, reminiscent of the Nautilus’ but with a simpler three-piece construction that did away with the famous ears and integrated bracelet, felt bulkier, its simplicity less refined. History repeated itself, the reception less than welcoming.
Fast-forward a decade, and by then it’s commonplace to see chunky, casual watches like Panerai Luminors and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshores in the boardroom—by comparison, the Aquanaut is smart, subtle and elegant, while still maintaining enough informality to never have to be paired with a shirt and tie, ever.
Another decade on and the Aquanaut, by this time twenty years old, is as much a part of Patek Philippe as the Nautilus or indeed the wristwatch itself. Seen through eyes that have adjusted and adapted to two decades’ of fashion and politics and finance, the Aquanaut’s simplicity seems more readily acceptable, fresher and more modern than the older Nautilus.
It’s hard to comprehend the evolution of our own brains, to understand why something that once seemed so wrong can now be so right. How could Patek Philippe possibly know that now, twenty years on, the Aquanaut would sit so well within the brand, leaving just enough headroom from the makers of bigger, chunkier pieces to continue carrying the torch of tradition and sensibility.
It’s like some kind of backwards progress, the reverse of the sentiment, ‘It’s not like it was in the old days.’ Instead, Patek Philippe has somehow managed to convince us that this is exactly what it was like in the old days—except it wasn’t, because back then we were all complaining about it.
Building appreciation for the Aquanaut has since confirmed its long-awaited acceptance by aficionados, but its journey from ugly duckling to waiting list swan is still tricky to swallow. After all, why else would we have such difficulty accepting the new Calatrava Travel Time? Give it ten years, twenty at the most, and it will be exactly what we think the brand should be.
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