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Deconstructed: Patek Philippe Calatrava Reference 2526, circa 1954

This mid-century, yellow gold, double-signed Calatrava represents a unique opportunity for a fortunate collector

The case on this yellow-gold, double-signed Calatrava exemplifies Patek Philippe’s Bauhaus-inspired philosophy of form following function. What’s more, this reference is the first automatic watch ever introduced by Patek. From the outset it was designed to be extraordinary — new movement, exemplary finishing and traditionally fitted with enamel dials of the highest quality.

Patek’s first automatic

Calatravas have come in all variety of dials, metals, sizes, and styles since the line was introduced in 1932, but the reference 2526 was a company milestone. Unveiled in 1953, it was Patek’s introductory automatic movement — the 30-jewel, caliber 12’’’-600 AT. Featuring a large, engine-turned, solid 18k yellow gold rotor and the adjustable inertia Gyromax® balance wheel (newly patented by Patek in 1951), both the 12’”600 and the reference 2526 were in production until 1960. Fewer than 600 examples of the watch were produced across all precious metals.

A brief history

As important as the 12’’’-600 was to Patek, it wasn’t the world’s first automatic movement: nearly 30 years earlier the Swiss Confederation granted English inventor John Harwood a patent for the first automatically wound wristwatch. His, however, had earlier roots to Abram-Louis Perrelet’s ‘jerk-winding’ pocket watch movement of 1777. Breguet, too, made serious efforts to develop self-winding technology, but a practical solution wouldn’t really arrive until the Rolex ‘perpetual rotor’ mechanism of 1931.This is amazing considering that perpetual calendars, minute repeaters, tourbillons, split-seconds chronographs, and keyless winding systems had been available in pocket watches by the end of the 19th century.

The dial

The reference 2526 is more than a mechanical darling. Aesthetically it’s almost perfect in its simplicity. Its twice-baked enamel dial adds an extra touch of cool, crisp elegance to the Calatrava line’s already sleek tradition. A period brochure explains Patek’s decision to use this special and expensive method: ‘The dial, of baked enamel, is impervious to the action of outside agents, such as tarnishing produced by sunlight.’

The dial of this example is a first-series dial. First-series dials are of note because the hour markers are set into the enamel dial with pins. First-series dials are desirable because the practice of setting the hour markers into the dial proved to be problematic. The method was discontinued for most of the 2526’s production. A way to tell if a 2526 has a first-series dial is to view the hour markers at an angle. There are dimples visible on the dial where the hour markers are connected. This is a small nuance within the reference 2526 and one that is appreciated by discerning collectors.

The retailer

The overall uniqueness of this dial is enhanced further still by a double signature — Patek Philippe and Gubelin. Gubelin began as a watchmaker’s shop in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1854. Today, it is a global luxury brand retailing both jewelry and watches. Throughout the years, Gubelin and Patek Philippe forged a strong relationship that still stands today. The retailer signature on this watch is a small but important subtlety.

Versatile luxury

This watch is distinctive literally from top to bottom  — the case-back is a ten-sided screw-down design (borrowed from the 1935 reference 438), meaning this reference 2526 is waterproof, as fitting its predecessors in the Calatrava line. This is noteworthy. During this era men wore a single wristwatch to do everything, and this reference 2526 was designed to handle the daily rigours of town and country while being an ultra-luxurious and very expensive watch.

Unfortunately, throughout the years many of the 2526s have suffered cracking of the dials, which negatively affects their value. Surviving examples in very good condition — such as this one — are pursued by the world’s most discerning collectors.