P atek Philippe’s Nautilus is the rare watch that incites swooning among novices and aficionados alike. Some are even moved to tears — entrepreneur and avid watch collector Kevin O’Leary (the multi-millionaire best known as a judge on Shark Tank) brought NBC cameras along as he welled up retrieving his own Nautilus after spending eight years on a waiting list. A seasoned watch-head crying over his latest acquisition? Such is the power of the Nautilus, which — if you're looking to bypass a waiting list — is currently available in multiple models as a part of Sotheby's Watches Weekly auction.
For those unfamiliar with its history, the Nautilus’s hype can be hard to grasp. It isn’t coveted for its complex complications or a particularly impressive movement; it doesn’t boast any notable bells or whistles. More than anything, the Nautilus is prized as an icon of design. Like a Jeanneret chair or a Ferrari 250 GTO, the Nautilus is a touchstone of modern design that indelibly changed — and continues to inform — its medium. It isn’t just the watch’s good looks that make it a G.O.A.T., but the context in which it was designed. The story behind the Nautilus’s creation is one of the most legendary chapters in the annals of horology.
The Nautilus is a touchstone of modern design that indelibly changed — and continues to inform — its medium.
Back in the 1970s, a slumping economy and the rise of quartz battery-powered timepieces combined to create a perfect storm for traditional, mechanical watchmakers. Up until then, “serious” timepieces began and ended with fine gold dress watches. Suddenly, steel and quartz came on the scene offering a more affordable, accessible alternative to the old guard. The market was polarized and heritage brands like Patek Philippe, whose collection exclusively consisted of exquisitely-rendered mechanical dress watches, were in danger of becoming obsolete.
Audemars Piguet was facing a similar fate when, in 1972, it commissioned Gérald Genta to design a watch that married the brand’s mechanical finesse with economical steel. Genta answered with the Royal Oak, a model that buoyed Audemar Piguet’s business and made Genta a star within the watch world. The Royal Oak introduced an entirely new category of timepieces: the luxury sport watch. Bridging the gap between traditional dress watches and utilitarian tool watches, it offered all the elements of old-world luxury (hand finishing, a mechanical movement, elegant proportions) in a material better suited to everyday life. While no one blinks an eye at someone pairing a Savile Row suit with a Royal Oak or Rolex Daytona today, positioning a sport watch as a luxury good was revolutionary at the time.
Positioning a sport watch as a luxury good was revolutionary at the time.
While Audemars Piguet enjoyed the Royal Oak’s success, Patek Philippe was still searching for a big hit of their own. Ironically, it came to them unprompted. Legend has it that during the Basel watch fair in 1974, Genta was enjoying a solo lunch when he saw some Patek executives seated across the restaurant. As he recalled in a 2009 interview: “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.” Genta, who clearly didn’t shy away from bold moves, presented his design to Patek’s team and was met with enthusiastic approval.
Despite its spontaneity, the Nautilus’s design was artfully considered. Inspired by the portholes on transatlantic ocean liners, the watch is distinguished by a graphic cushion-shaped bezel flanked by “ears” mimicking the hinges on a cruise ship’s windows. Its dial is embossed with crisp horizontal stripes and its integrated bracelet is comprised of undulating, tapered links alternating between matte and polished finishes. Where the Royal Oak was all hard angles and straight lines, the Nautilus was softer, more sensual. It was a design that made steel sexy—a perfect watch for the 1970s.
It was a design that made steel sexy—a perfect watch for the 1970s.
The nautical inspiration wasn’t just a marketing flourish, it had a practical application. Those “ears” actually function like a porthole’s hinges; they attach the bezel to the case so that, other than the crown, the watch only has one opening. This detail was key in achieving the Nautlius’s superior water-resistance of 120 meters, a feat for the time. Adding to the watch’s durability, early models were made of nickel-chrome-molybdenum — an especially tough steel alloy used for the majority of tanks in World War II.
After two years in development, the Nautilus reference 3700 debuted in 1976. It was powered by the caliber 28-255C, incorporating the same ultra-thin automatic Jaeger LeCoultre movement used in the Royal Oak. At 42mm diameter, the Nautilus was larger than the Royal Oak and even more expensive. While the steeper price tag could have been a roadblock to the Nautlius’s success, Patek flaunted it as a selling point. Initial ads for the watch daringly read: “One of the World’s Costliest Watches is Made of Steel.” Another ad from the time depicted the Nautilus worn on two wrists: one in a wet suit, the other in a tux. It underscored the Nautilus’s allure; a watch that can go from the beach to the boardroom, all the while carrying the prestige of the Patek Philippe name.
A watch that can go from the beach to the boardroom, all the while carrying the prestige of the Patek Philippe name.
In 1980, a women’s model was introduced — marked by gently waving lines on the dial rather than the men’s tailored stripes — as well as a smaller, 37mm men’s model (reference 3800). The original 42mm models, referred to as “Jumbos” by collectors, are some of the most sought-after iterations of this perennially in-demand model. The stakes are even higher if it is accompanied by the original cork box, a rare example of watch packaging coveted in its own right.
To mark the model’s 30th anniversary in 2006, the brand introduced a collection of updated variations incorporating exhibition backs and a more subtly rounded case shape. One of these, the reference 5711, with a vibrant blue dial is routinely cited as the brand’s most popular model. Other iterations have upped the ante with perpetual calendar, travel time or chronograph complications, in solid gold or studded with diamonds. But it is still the frills-free steel Nautilus that remains the purest expression of this landmark design — a draw that is worth much more than its weight in karats.
For live watch updates, follow Sotheby's Watches on Instagram.