How to Collect Patek Philippe Watches

How to Collect Patek Philippe Watches

The vaunted watch brand can easily keep a collector busy for a lifetime – but with just a little history and guidance, getting started doesn’t have to be hard.
The vaunted watch brand can easily keep a collector busy for a lifetime – but with just a little history and guidance, getting started doesn’t have to be hard.

T here is very little that watch collectors agree on, but Patek Philippe’s place among the world’s most important watchmakers, past and present, is a rare exception. For nearly 200 years, the company has made some of the world’s finest watches – not to mention among the world’s most expensive watches – right in the heart of Geneva, Switzerland, navigating the transition from pocket watches to wristwatches, pioneering new complications and playing a part in nearly every market trend, from the post-war dress watch craze to the madness for steel sport watches and beyond. Today, alongside Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe Geneve is considered part of the watchmaking Holy Trinity.

With so many hits in its archive – and new ones coming out every year – collecting Patek Philippe timepieces can feel intimidating, and not just because of their cost. The community around these watches is dedicated and the scholarship is dense, so a bit of guidance and some expert tips from Sotheby’s specialists can go a long way toward making these incredible watches feel a bit more approachable.

The History of Patek Philippe’s Rise to the Top

Patek Philippe sometimes has a reputation for being conservative, for being the old guard. However, if you look at the broader history of the company, the executives and the designers who have shaped it and the incredible watches it has created, it immediately becomes clear that despite its buttoned-up appearance, the brand has always sat at the avant-garde of the watch industry and has continuously pushed things forward, generation after generation. It truly embodies that often so-often-overused phrase: haute horlogerie.

The story starts in 1839, with watchmakers Antoine Norbert de Patek and François Czapek teaming up to form Patek, Czapek, & Cie, a partnership that would last just seven years but lay the foundation for the brand to come. The two parted ways in 1845 and Patek worked on his own for a bit before Jean Adrien Philippe joined him in 1851 – and the rest, as they say, is history.

Antoni Patek and Jean Adrien Philippe, watchmakers and cofounders of Patek Philippe. Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The company would spend the better part of the next century setting new high watermarks for complicated watchmaking, with both pocket watches and some of the earliest complicated wristwatches, including the first split-seconds chronograph and first perpetual calendar wristwatches in the early 1900s.

During the interwar period financial troubles set in, and an investment from brothers Jean and Charles Henri Stern not only kept the firm afloat but also propelled it into a new era of innovation that is nearly unmatched in the history of watchmaking. The company is still in the family today, with Charles Henri’s great grandson Thierry Stern at the helm as president, as his father Philippe and grandfather Henri were before him.

Families of Patek Philippe Watches

The Calatrava. The Nautilus. The Aquanaut. Patek Philippe produces some of the most recognizable – and most coveted – watches in history.

Patek Philippe’s ref. 5196 Calatrava is a modern platinum interpretation of one of the world’s most timeless wristwatches.

Patek Philippe Calatrava

The same year that the Stern family took control of Patek Philippe, the brand released a simple watch that would go on to become the foundation of much of the brand’s design language and watchmaking lineage for the century to come: the reference 96. Though the name wasn’t used at the time, this is considered today to be the first Calatrava, which typically refers to Patek Philippe’s simple, round wristwatches with just two or three hands showing the time. (The Calatrava shares a spirit with the Patek Philippe Ellipse, a rounded, typically time-only watch with classic proportions.) The Patek Philippe Calatrava is the archetypal dress watch, and it is hard to overstate its impact on the watch landscape at large.

The Classics: The reference 96 is the watch that started it all, and because of the smaller 30.9mm case size, they can often present incredible value-for-money. Later references, such as the reference 570, reference 565 and reference 2508 are mid-century classics and can fetch high prices at auction, especially for rarer configurations and more desirable models.

Modern Hits: Today’s standard Calatrava models draw heavy influence from the past, as seen in watches like the reference 5196 and reference 6119, which is known as one of the cheapest Patek Philippe wristwatches but is certainly no slouch sporting an iconic hobnail Clous de Paris bezel. Some of the sportier Calatrava models over recent years also have their fans, with the reference 5522 Pilot Calatrava and its complicated cousin the reference 5524 Calatrava Pilot Travel Time in particular attracting a lot of attention.

Holy Grails: Introduced in 1953, the reference 2526 Calatrava is about as desirable as a vintage watch can get. It is the first automatic watch ever made by Patek Philippe, as well as the first with a screw-down case back for water resistance, and design details like the pierced or drilled lugs and enamel dial make this a stunner from top to bottom. It is the undisputed king of Calatravas.

The Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711 was the modern analogue to Gérald Genta’s original ref. 3700 until 2022.

Patek Philippe Nautilus

No Patek Philippe watch has received more attention over the last few years than the Nautilus. Released in 1976 and created by iconic watch designer Gérald Genta, the Nautilus reference 3700 was Patek Philippe’s answer to Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and a clear sign that the luxury steel sport watch era had arrived. While popularity has been up and down over the years – and it took time for the watch to catch on in the first place – it is firmly situated as one of the defining watches of the last decade.

The Classics: The reference 3700 is the original Nautilus, and it is still the model most widely sought-after by collectors. The stainless steel version with the blue dial is the most standard model, but versions in precious metal and even with diamonds on the dial exist and are highly collectible.

Modern Hits: The Nautilus reference 5711 was the modern analogue to the reference 3700, but it was discontinued in 2022, with the white-gold reference 5811 being the only time-and-date Jumbo Nautilus in the current catalogue. More complicated models, like the reference 5740 perpetual calendar and 5990 travel-time chronograph, remain in the collection but are extremely difficult to get at retail.

Holy Grails: Limited-edition Nautilus models continue to set auction records when they appear for sale, as quantities tend to be small and allocations to customers tightly controlled. The reference 5711 with Tiffany blue dial (and Tiffany & Co. dial signature) is the most extreme example, with one of the 170 watches fetching over HK$20.4 million at Sotheby’s in April 2023.

Aquanaut Travel Time ‘Advanced Research’ with Error Dial. Estimate in excess of 500,000 CHF

Patek Philippe Aquanaut

Introduced in 1997, the Patek Philippe Aquanaut sits somewhere between the Calatrava and the Nautilus. It has a similar case and bezel profile to the Nautilus, but is most often paired with a strap instead of a bracelet, much like the Calatrava. The typical black-dialed version might not always feel that adventurous, but brightly colored straps and dials make many models very collectible, as they express a more playful side of the Geneva-based brand – and the addition of complications have been a hit over recent years too.

The Classics: The first Aquanaut is the reference 5060, which stands apart from its more contemporary siblings with a smaller case size and a thinner, unstructured rubber strap that makes it wear less like a bracelet. Its successor, the reference 5065, upsized the case to 38mm while retaining the key design traits, making it a nice middle ground too.

Modern Hits: An extremely functional travel-time complication that shows a second time zone has made the reference 5164 Aquanaut one of Patek Philippe’s biggest hits of the last decade. Now available in a few different metal and dial configurations, the classic black-and-steel version is still the one collectors seek out the most.

Holy Grails: For purists, the khaki-green reference 5168 is a stealth way to flex, given the watch’s casual look and white-gold case. But for those who want something a bit more experimental, the reference 5650 Advanced Research is effectively a high-tech concept watch housed in the familiar Aquanaut form.

Patek Philippe Complications

When it comes to Patek Philippe watches that do more than just tell the time, there are two basic categories: Complications and Grand Complications. While these terms are used elsewhere in the watch world, they have very particular meanings for Patek Philippe.

Patek Philippe’s ref. 1463 chronograph is one of the most beloved and desirable wristwatches of all time.

Patek Philippe Complications

In Patek’s parlance, Complications refers to watches with what they consider to be small complications, such as chronographs, second time-zone displays, world-time functions and the more basic calendar mechanisms, including annual calendars. This is a very broad category, but many of the most collectible models in today’s Patek Philippe catalogue can be found here.

The Classics: With its 100+ year history of making complicated wristwatches, there are countless models to choose from. Chronographs like the reference 130 and world-time watches like the reference 1415 represent the golden age of Patek Philippe complications, marked by the combination of clean design and innovative watchmaking. These set the course for the rest of the 20th century.

Modern Hits: Contemporary iterations of these watches are every bit as popular with collectors as their predecessors. Chronographs such as the reference 5170 and the even newer reference 5172 add in-house movements to the mix, while world-time models like the reference 5131 and reference 5110 represent some of the best value in all of watch collecting.

Holy Grails: One of the most beloved Patek Philippe wristwatches of all time is the reference 1463 chronograph. Despite its dressy appearance, this watch had a water-resistant case and was the 1940s idea of a Patek Philippe sports watch. It was produced for about 25 years but in relatively small quantities, and it has all the elan and aesthetic flourishes of the best mid-century horology.

Shop Patek Philippe Complication Watches

A pink Patek Philippe ref. 1518A chronograph watch from 1948, once belonging to the Prince of Egypt, sold at Sotheby’s for $9.6 million in 2021, igniting a crazy for salmon-dial watches that continues today.

Patek Philippe Grand Complications

The pinnacle of Patek Philippe’s watchmaking achievements are the Grand Complications. These watches feature things like minute repeaters, split-seconds chronographs, perpetual calendars, star charts, tourbillons and even various combinations of these complications. Despite all of the hype over watches like the Nautilus in recent years, these are still the thing that defines Patek Philippe in a crowded field. Very few manufactures have the know-how to produce these watches today, and even fewer have a history of doing so in the past.

The Classics: Because it was one of the earliest manufactures making complicated wristwatches, many of Patek Philippe’s Grand Complications have become category-defining designs. No watch exemplifies this better than the reference 3940 perpetual calendar, which was one-time company president Philippe Stern’s daily wear for decadence.

Modern Hits: Certain combinations of complications are particularly associated with Patek Philippe, and none more so than the perpetual calendar chronograph – the current iteration, the reference 5270, is a contemporary classic. The Celestial reference 6102, with its star-chart dial, is another instantly recognizable Patek Philippe design that draws on the brand’s rich history of pushing horological boundaries.

Holy Grails: The Grandmaster Chime reference 6300 is the most complicated wristwatch Patek Philippe has ever made, but it is the vintage Grand Complications that stand in a class of collecting almost all their own. In particular, it is vintage perpetual calendar chronographs such as the reference 1518 and reference 2499, alongside iconic perpetual calendars like the reference 3448, that keep collectors up at night. In point of fact, when a salmon-dial reference 1518 owned by the prince of Egypt (above) was auctioned for $9.6 million in 2021, it sparked a craze for pink Pateks that continues today.

This is far from an exhaustive list of every watch Patek Philippe has made over its nearly two centuries of production. Watches like the Golden Ellipse and Gondolo express other facets of the brand’s personality, and the Twenty-4 collection was one of the first from a major watchmaker dedicated entirely to women. This nearly bottomless rabbit hole is exactly why Patek Philippe watches remain so desirable and enticing to collectors – there is always more to learn and something new to discover. The good news for collectors of Patek Philippe, both new and established, who are on the hunt is that a Sotheby’s specialist is standing by to help.


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