Patek Philippe’s Nautilus: ‘It was love at first sight’
To mark the 40th anniversary of Patek Philippe’s iconic Nautilus, Christie’s Head of Watches John Reardon interviewed the expert and author known simply as ‘mstanga’
Forty years ago Patek Philippe launched a steel sports wristwatch that was to become pivotal to the company’s ongoing image and success. The Nautilus is today one of the most desired and sought-after of collectors’ watches, and Christie’s celebrated this important milestone by offering 40 examples of the Nautilus over four auctions in four international locations: Dubai, Geneva, Hong Kong and New York.
Believed to be based in Italy, the collector known simply as mstanga is one of the world’s leading watch scholars, and a specialist on the Patek Philippe Nautilus Reference 3700/1A and the Patek Philippe Amagnetic Reference 3417. Indeed, his booklet, A Study of the Patek Philippe Ref. 3700 Nautilus, has redefined how the watch world assesses this reference in terms of rarity, condition and originality.
John Reardon: A Study of the Patek Philippe Ref. 3700 Nautilus has quickly become the ‘bible’ for in-the-know watch collectors around the world. What inspired you to write it?
mstanga: It all started as a game driven by the purest of passions, curiosity and a desire for knowledge. The first guide I wrote, about five years ago, was dedicated to the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ref. 5402, a watch that originated from the same pencil that drew the Nautilus.
I started out by participating in internet forums, and then began to exchange opinions with collectors, both here in Italy and abroad. I also collaborated with watchmakers who allowed me to photograph and analyse various open-heart specimens, and, of course, I acquired a lot of information from the online databases of various auction houses.
I found myself with a mountain of information and several hundred photographs. The problem I faced was how to put all this material together as a guide for the collector who wants to understand the object in his possession, or who is considering buying one. It wasn’t easy because within the history of the Nautilus ref. 3700 there are mysteries to unravel in order to find the truth — or something as close as possible to the truth. I had to dig deep, using detailed analysis of thousands of photographs and organising vast amounts of data.
Eventually, the first version of my guide was ready to share online. I decided to produce 100 printed copies with the idea of offering them free to collectors and fans through a well-known Italian forum. The response was totally unexpected — the morning after posting to the forum I had orders for 110 copies!
JR: How did you first become interested in the Nautilus?
mstanga: I fell in love with the Nautilus ref. 3700 in the late 1970s and early ’80s after first seeing one on the wrist of a friend. I was captivated by its unusual form; the way it was positioned perfectly on the wrist, and by its subtlety. It really was love at first sight. I couldn’t afford to buy one — I was still very young and the money required was beyond the budget of a 20-year-old. It was, nevertheless, an unforgettable encounter, and I resolved to own one some day. Around 20 years later, my dream came true.
JR: Your expertise is much respected within the online Patek Philippe vintage watch community. I am struck by how willing you are to answer questions and also what you say about your guides being personal opinions based on your research — that the ‘absolute truth’ can only ever come from Patek Philippe. So where do you see the best scholarship on vintage watches coming from?
mstanga: It’s true, the owner of the ‘absolute truth’ is Patek Philippe. I would love to be able to walk into Plan-les-Ouates on Chemin du Pont-du-Centenaire 141 [Patek Philippe’s Geneva HQ], or Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers 7 [the Patek Philippe Museum] and talk to the makers of these wonderful objects, and ask them the questions I have been unable to answer in all my years of study. Being humble, I believe, is the foundation for any kind of study — it allows you to open your eyes and your mind, and to see and understand things for what they are. The biggest obstacle to learning is the presumption of knowledge.
In terms of scholarship, there are many famous scholars and connoisseurs of vintage watches around the world, but the place with the highest concentration, and where it can be said the culture of vintage watches was born, is Italy.
JR: What do you consider the ‘holy grail’ in the Nautilus world, and have you seen such a watch with your own eyes?
mstanga: That’s like asking which of my children is my favourite — it’s impossible to answer. The Nautilus is a wonderful watch that goes beyond space and time, and is produced by the most fantastic maison in the world. But if I had to pick, I’d have to mention the 3700 Platinum with diamond indices ref. 3700/01P, produced, we think, in only two specimens. Unfortunately I have never seen one, although I do know a man who once owned one. It's just a shame I never asked him to try it on before he sold it!
JR: Over the last few years, the cork box of the early Nautilus has assumed iconic status within the watch community. What can you tell us about the history of the box, and the importance of having an original box and papers?
mstanga: The cork box of the Nautilus is the most beautiful watch box ever produced. Every Nautilus owner would love to have one, although not everyone knows that the very first Nautilus watches came with a different box.
The prices fetched by the Nautilus cork box, however, are incredible. The dream of collectors is to have both the original box and all the accompanying documents for every watch they own, starting with the original certificate of origin. Having these accessories can drive up the price much more than one might imagine, especially compared with an unboxed watch that comes only with the extract from the archives.
JR: Do you wear a Nautilus yourself?
mstanga: In the early 2000s, 20 years after I first saw one, I finally managed to get my hands on a wonderful example, complete with the cork box and the warranty papers. I remember driving to Germany with my personal watchmaker to buy it. Even today, I go to my safety deposit box in the bank just to be able to pick it up and handle it. What I can tell you is that the emotions I feel whenever I wear it are the same as the first time I put it on.
JR: What’s the best ‘secret’ you’ve uncovered through your research on the Nautilus?
mstanga: I learned how to distinguish a supply glass from an original one, chiefly because during the mechanical overhaul of my 3700 the watchmaker accidentally broke the glass. You can imagine how I felt when he asked me whether he could replace it with a new one which had recently arrived from Patek! Fortunately the story had a happy ending, because a close friend gave me an original glass identical to the one that had been broken.
There’s also the secret of how the latter three digits of the case serial number correspond with those punched under the bezel. Perhaps the biggest mystery, however, and one that took me years to solve, was the dials dilemma. Ultimately, although there are many ‘secrets’ that I have managed to unravel, there are still as many I’d like to discover the answers to. I hope one day Patek Philippe will become aware of my research and give me a little help.
JR: Vintage watch-collecting has undergone a renaissance in recent years, thanks in part to the passionate research of the online watch community. How do you assess those changes, and where do you think it is going in the next five years?
mstanga: The world of vintage watches has changed radically, particularly in terms of what collectors choose to buy. Now, research is based on specimens in the most perfect condition possible, or with characteristics that make them unique. Collectors want something exceptional, and are willing to spend as much as they need to.
JR: In the current Patek Philippe offering, what is your favourite Nautilus — and why?
mstanga: The ref. 5711 is beautifully simple — modern and sporty yet elegant, even on a woman’s wrist. The Travel Time Chronograph ref. 5990/1A 001 represents a fine introduction into Nautilus complicated models with its indication of dual time zones together with a dual night/day indication. Patek Philippe has specifically developed a new movement, the CH 28-520 C FUS, for this reference.