How Patek Philippe’s Nautilus became the Birkin bag of watches

How Patek Philippe’s Nautilus became the Birkin bag of watches

The best description of the Patek Philippe Nautilus was vouchsafed me by the editor of these pages when she stopped my inchoate ramblings with the words: “So, it is the male horological equivalent of the Birkin?”

Yes it is. Just as the Birkin used to be a bag made by one of France’s leading luxury houses and is now an internationally traded financial instrument, auction house star and grail quest object; so the Nautilus, once a steel sports watch made by a leading luxury Swiss watch brand, is now a phenomenon. Propelled beyond the realm of mortal watches, today it frolics in the Elysian fields of luxury with other consumer goods turned cultural objects: the Hermès Birkin (obvs), the Riva Aquarama yacht and the Ferrari 250 GTO.

At its official list price of £23,440, the Nautilus is in the foothills of Patek pricing. Just try finding one at that price . . . Either you will wind up (excuse the pun) on a waiting list (rumours of up to seven years); or, if you want it for this summer (or just while you are still alive), you will have to go on the secondary market and pay up to three times list price, which means about as much as a new Maserati and a fortnight on the Côte d’Azur.

The Nautilus is like a year-round summer holiday on the arm. It garnishes the social-media-friendly wrists of Virgil Abloh, Ellen DeGeneres, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Brad Pitt . . . A vintage watch dealer recently said to me that he has to check prices almost daily. Last week I was told of a 50-year-old man who had already placed his order with an official retailer so that his Nautilus would arrive for his 55th birthday.

The story begins in the mid-1970s. Philippe Stern had just become the third generation of his family to run Patek Philippe and was looking for a watch that reflected the times. Hitherto Patek Philippe customers had been magnates who favoured wafer-like gold dress watches or complicated timepieces with moonphase indicators, perpetual calendar mechanisms and other mechanical refinements; but the world was changing. Nineteen-seventy-six was the year Concorde began commercial supersonic flights; the year the Sex Pistols recorded “Anarchy in the UK”; and the year that a 137-year-old Geneva watchmaker released a revolutionary watch.

Packaged in a deliberately funky cork box, this was no discreet disk of gold but a watch in a shape that defied traditional geometric definition and is best described as looking like a porthole, with earlike flanges on either side that screw together to make a watertight case. The case and bracelet were designed as one, with the interaction of brushed, satinated and polished steel surfaces inviting the light to caress and play over its sleek lines to seduce the eye of the wearer. It did not look so much like a wristwatch as a prop from a futuristic film by Stanley Kubrick.

Its creator was the greatest wristwatch designer of the second half of the 20th century: Gerald Genta. Born in Geneva in 1931, Genta had started selling designs to Piaget in the 1950s and during a long career he would design for Bulgari, Omega, Audemars Piguet and IWC, as well as founding his own brand. The Nautilus is arguably his masterpiece, a work of genius created by an artist at the height of his powers. Its design is daring and deceptively simple, and its legacy has entered the creative mainstream of horology with both Piaget and Burberry bringing out watches in recent years that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Nautilus.

The Nautilus did not look so much like a wristwatch as a prop from a futuristic film by Stanley Kubrick

The Nautilus was shy about neither appearance nor price (“one of the world’s costliest watches is made of steel” trumpeted early ads) but by the turn of the century it was looking a little tired and sentimental. A more commercial company might have discontinued it. Instead, Patek Philippe gave the design a light refresh for its 30th birthday. It’s only since its 40th, however, that it has really become an axiom of contemporary plutocracy. The anniversary models in platinum with baguette diamond indices nudged Nautilus pricing into six figures and the mania began.

The greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts double act of Genta and Patek renders it sublime: think of it like Picasso designing for Ferrari. Just because I wrote the official history of Patek Philippe it does not mean that I am wrong.

At the time of its launch the wider world beyond the close-knit Geneva watch industry did not know about Genta (brands seldom mentioned designers). But by the time the Nautilus turned 40 in 2016, watch awareness was such that the name Genta and the extent of his work was as well, if not better known than the oeuvre of the Italian car designer Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Moreover interest in vintage watches had risen so that by then seven-figure prices for rare Patek Philippes were not uncommon. The difference is that…

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