What are the 10 most desirable Patek Philippe references?
Christie’s watch specialists outline the models to look out for, illustrated by 10 watches with noteworthy references previously sold at auction
Asking a Patek Philippe collector to name their top 10 references is like asking a parent which of their children is their favourite. It’s fundamentally an unfair question since every Patek has qualities that can be admired and loved. However, when pushed, everyone has their favourites.
Warning — ask us tomorrow and the list might change! Taste and trends constantly evolve, and that is why the breadth of Patek’s historical production is so exciting to explore. The incredible thing is that it’s possible to buy an example from this list starting at $10,000, but also go up to $1 million-plus for special examples of these references.
All this proves that there are top-quality Patek references across all price points. So here are our top 10 vintage Patek watches and watches no longer in production — we’ll save current production top picks for another day!
Original 1938 retail price: $250
If you have never worn an older watch on your wrist, this is the vintage Patek starter piece for you. At 35 mm, it is a comfortable size and the style choices of this iconic design are endless. Made in approximately 2,000 examples from 1938 to 1972 in yellow, rose and white gold as well as platinum and two-tone, this manually wound three-hand watch makes it to the top of the list for relative affordability and wearability. Prices start at around $10,000 and can easily get to $500,000 for rare variants in exceptional condition.
Original 1940 retail price: $400
Made in approximately 800 examples from 1940 to circa 1969 in yellow and pink gold as well as steel, the reference 1463 was the first water-resistant chronograph to go into regular production. With a screwback case and dust cover, this 35 mm sports watch is a comfortable and practical vintage watch to wear.
Original 1941 retail price: $1,500
Made in 281 examples from 1941 to 1954, this is a grail piece for those attempting to put together a vertical collection of Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronographs. It is the first perpetual calendar chronograph made in series by any watch company, and remained so for almost 40 years. The design of the 1518 set the template for Patek Philippe’s perpetual calendar design lineage which continued with the 2499, the 3970, the 5970, and presently the 5270.
Trying to find a 1518 in great condition can involve a global treasure hunt — most major collectors already have an example in their collections, and continue to look for even better-preserved examples. About half of those ever made have already surfaced on the market so when a new one comes to light, there is always great excitement. Buy one now if you can!
Original 1953 retail price: $875
No mid-century watch better combines artistic beauty and technical prowess in such an understated way. Launched in 1953, Patek Philippe’s first regular production automatic watch dominated the luxury time-only market in mid 1950s. Approximately 3,000 examples were produced in a choice of four different case metals, with the great majority of this reference made with porcelain enamel dials and applied gold batons.
The calibre 12-600 AT is considered by many to be one of the most aesthetically beautiful wristwatch movements ever made, and it was utilised within a 35.5 mm water-resistant case. Buyer beware: finding a 2526 with a dial in perfect condition is not easy since the porcelain enamel glass dials can be easily damaged. Expect to pay $50,000 for a yellow gold example in pristine condition, and the price only goes up from there.
Original 1959 retail price: $500
Approximately 500 examples of the steel anti-magnetic reference 3417 were made between 1959 and 1968. This 35 mm watch was a tool watch, made specifically for scientists and engineers working around strong magnetic fields that can destroy a watch’s ability to keep time. It blended cutting-edge technology with a simple style that made it is as cool to wear then as it is now.
If you can imagine the word ‘oersted’ — a unit of magnetic field strength, in case you didn’t know — cropping up at your next dinner party, then this watch is definitely the one for you.
Original 1962 retail price: $2,650
When the 3448 was launched, it was the only self-winding perpetual calendar made by any manufacturer. Notable for its clean modern dial and prominent moon-phase indication, it would remain the gentleman’s timepiece of choice for the next 20 years.
Between 1962 and 1985, only 586 examples were made, most in yellow or white gold, two in platinum, a few in rose gold. Of the original 586, seven were subsequently modified to remove the moon-phase disk. Of those seven, only one was converted to show the leap year.
In 1975 a watch featuring this intricate operation was commissioned at the behest of Patek Philippe’s owners, Henri and Philippe Stern (illustrated above). The ‘AB’ on the case back indicates why; it was a gift for Alan Banbery — the influential director of sales for English-speaking territories and keeper of the private collection that would became the Patek Philippe Museum — on the occasion of his 10th work anniversary at the company.
Original 1971 retail price: $10,000
A wise man once told me that every Patek Philippe collection needs at least one Ellipse. He couldn’t have been more right. From 1971 through the early 1980s, the automatic oversized Ellipse (38 mm x 33 mm) was made in fewer than 1,200 examples.
Using the exact same calibre as the Nautilus ref. 3700, these Ellipse watches also feature the calibre 28-255 C automatic calendar. They were available in yellow and white gold, with arguably some of the most well-made bracelets ever produced. Buy one now at current price levels under $20,000 — it’s almost certain that they will go up in value over time.
Original 1976 retail price: $3,750
Amid the current Patek Philippe Nautilus watch mania, it is always good to consider the first of a series — why wear what everyone else has when you can own one of the first and the best? When the Gerald Genta-designed 3700 first came out in the late 1970s, it experienced limited commercial success. It was too expensive, too big, and too avant-garde for the time.
Now, however, it is the ultimately desirable watch for many collectors. Produced from 1976 though the 1980s, the steel examples were made in approximately 5,000 examples (both the 3700/1A and later 3700/11A). A quality example of this reference can set you back $150,000-200,000 these days, so yes, you should have bought one in 1976 for under $4,000, or even five years ago when you could have bought one for less than $40,000. Even the cork boxes for the original 3700s are selling for £10,000 on their own.
Original 1985 retail price: $25,000
Launched in 1985, the 3940 replaced the 3450 and 3448 before it became the flagship automatic perpetual calendar for Patek. At 36 mm, this watch, in my opinion, is the ultimate complicated sleeper reference — an ultra-slim masterpiece of watchmaking that stormed onto the watch scene at the tail end of the quartz crisis and firmly established Patek Philippe at the pinnacle of complicated watchmaking.
It was made in all four case colours, with numerous dial variations. For the price, you can buy no better quality watch — modern or vintage. The 3940 is currently selling in yellow gold for under $40,000.
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Original 2004 retail price: $105,000
There are so many watches that that deserve to be included on this list from the first decade of the 2000s but when pressed, it would be the ref. 5970. After replacing the popular 3970 in 2004, this 40 mm perpetual calendar chronograph is true to its lineage, which stretches back to the 1518.
Made from 2004 until being discontinued in 2010, the 5970 quickly developed a cult following among collectors who desperately needed to own all four case metals. Made in fewer than 3,000 examples in total, these watches have been trading at stable prices in recent years.