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Secrets of the Patek Philippe Nautilus

In a world in which large steel sports watches have become commonplace, it’s hard to comprehend how groundbreaking the iconic Nautilus 3700/1 was when it launched in 1976

Forty — certainly not old, but not exactly young, either. The Patek Philippe Nautilus was born in 1976 and helped to re-energise the world of high-end Swiss watches, which was in the midst of ‘the quartz crisis’ at the time. As the watch industry reeled from the arrival of the battery-powered watch and its far-reaching consequences, Patek Philippe boldly released a watch designed by Gérald Genta.

Now considered iconic and an integral part of Patek Philippe’s identity, at the time it was a huge risk for the company to produce a watch so different from anything it had done before. An oversized and expensive steel mechanical automatic in a world in which ultra-thin gold-bracelet quartz watches were the envy of the disco generation, the Nautilus made a statement that was heard around the world.

That statement continues to resonate today, as the Nautilus evolves in new and unexpected ways. But for all the twists and turns over the course of its 40-year history, the Nautilus has stayed true to its DNA. Here International Head of Watches John Reardon shares six ‘secrets’ about this iconic watch.

  • 1
  • It was designed in a restaurant

Patek Philippe. An early stainless steel automatic wristwatch with date and bracelet. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, Nautilus Model, Ref. 37001, Movement No. 1303939, Case No. 533891, Manufactured in 1977. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $68,750

Patek Philippe. An early stainless steel automatic wristwatch with date and bracelet. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, Nautilus Model, Ref. 3700/1, Movement No. 1'303'939, Case No. 533'891, Manufactured in 1977. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $68,750

In an interview in 2009, Gérald Genta discussed the moment in which he was inspired to design the watch now known as the Nautilus. It was the mid-1970s and he was sitting in a restaurant during the Basel Fair. ‘Some people from Patek were sitting in one corner of the dining hall, while I was sitting alone in the other corner,’ he recalled. ‘I told the head waiter, “Bring me a piece of paper and a pencil, I want to design something,” and I designed the Nautilus while observing the people from Patek eating! It was a sketch that I completed in five minutes... It very quickly met with success. I made the prototype in my studio and its success was accelerated.’

Patek Philippe. An 18k pink and white gold automatic wristwatch with moon phases, date, and power reserve. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, retailed by Tiffany & Co., Nautilus Model, Ref. 5712GR, Movement No. 5570879, Case No. 4530649, Manufactured in 2006. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for

Patek Philippe. An 18k pink and white gold automatic wristwatch with moon phases, date, and power reserve. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, retailed by Tiffany & Co., Nautilus Model, Ref. 5712GR, Movement No. 5'570'879, Case No. 4'530'649, Manufactured in 2006. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $37,500

The design was based on the shape of the porthole of a transatlantic liner, with wide bezel and ‘ears’ at each side evoking the large hinges of those watertight windows.

  • 2
  • Its price point was a calculated risk

Patek Philippe. A stainless-steel automatic wristwatch with annual calendar, moon phases and daynight indication. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, Retailed by Tiffany & Co., Nautilus Model, Ref. 5726A, Movement No. 5607769, Case No. 4752047, Circa 2012. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for

Patek Philippe. A stainless-steel automatic wristwatch with annual calendar, moon phases and day/night indication. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, Retailed by Tiffany & Co., Nautilus Model, Ref. 5726A, Movement No. 5'607'769, Case No. 4'752'047, Circa 2012. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $35,000

When the Nautilus was first released in 1976, the original retail price for this time-only watch was $3,100. It was a bold price and a bold design for the time — by comparison, a Patek Philippe mechanical wristwatch in 18k-gold with an 18k-gold mesh bracelet retailed for just under $4,000, and a steel Rolex Daytona chronograph retailed for just under $1,000.

  • 3
  • It shares a movement with another Gérald Genta masterpiece

The movement from a Patek Philippe Nautilus. Photo by John Goldberger
The movement from a Patek Philippe Nautilus. Photo by John Goldberger

The first Nautilus reference 3700 watch contained the calibre 28-255C, made with the Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre 920 and finished in-house by Patek Philippe. In fact, this is the same movement that was used in early examples of one of Gérald Genta’s other masterpieces of design — the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. This movement was considered one of the best ultra-thin automatic calibres of the time.

  • 4
  • Some steel models ‘promoted’ gold 

From 1971 until 1995, all watches made in Switzerland with gold applied markers or gold dial plates were required to have the ‘APRIOR’ (often called ‘sigma’, after the Greek letter) logo marked on the dial. With Nautilus watches from this period, the APRIOR mark can be seen on each side of the ‘SWISS’ under the 6 o’clock baton. This was due to the fact that the hour-marker batons of the watches were made from white gold rather than steel. APRIOR stands for Association pour la Promotion Industrielle de l’Or. From today’s perspective, it’s rather ironic that this association is ‘promoted’ on the dial of such an iconic steel reference.

  • 5
  • It’s made from the same steel alloy used to protect World War II tanks

Patek Philippe. A rare stainless-steel automatic wristwatch with date, centre seconds, bracelet and unusual dial. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, Ref. 38001A, Movement No. 1429653, Case No. 2893097, Manufactured in 1992. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $40,000

Patek Philippe. A rare stainless-steel automatic wristwatch with date, centre seconds, bracelet and unusual dial. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, Ref. 3800/1A, Movement No. 1'429'653, Case No. 2'893'097, Manufactured in 1992. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $40,000

On the subject of steel, early Nautilus watches were made from nickel-chrome-molybdenum steel, an alloy that was considered the highest standard at the time. It was made to withstand extreme temperatures and pressure, and known for its resistance to corrosion. Used extensively in the construction of tanks during World War II, this type of alloy was not only protective but relatively light compared to ‘regular’ steel.

  • 6
  • Reinvention keeps the Nautilus forever young 

When the 5711/1A was released in 2006 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Nautilus, it was an instant success at a retail price of $17,000. The new version featured a case size 1mm larger than its predecessor, and a three-part rather than a two-part case. 

Patek Philippe. A stainless-steel automatic wristwatch with date, centre seconds, and bracelet. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, retailed by Tiffany & Co., Nautilus Model, Ref. 57111A, Movement No. 5578831, Case No. 4931366, Circa 2011. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $47,500

Patek Philippe. A stainless-steel automatic wristwatch with date, centre seconds, and bracelet. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, retailed by Tiffany & Co., Nautilus Model, Ref. 5711/1A, Movement No. 5'578'831, Case No. 4'931'366, Circa 2011. This lot was offered in Rare Watches including NAUTILUS 40 part IV on 6 December 2016 at Christie’s in New York and sold for $47,500

This ‘new’ version also had a sapphire display back featuring the in-house calibre 324C. Now considered one of the most coveted steel watches in modern production, the popularity of the 5711/1A — and all watches in the current Nautilus line-up — show that this 40-year-old is still young at heart, and continues to capture the attention of watch collectors worldwide.