Patek Philippe was founded in Geneva in 1839. It is by no means the world’s oldest watchmaker, but in the past 180 years it has certainly become the most prestigious.
The brand has created some of the costliest and most complicated timepieces on the planet, and while its overall design ethos can be described as staunchly traditional, with the basic outlines of its most popular pieces having changed little over the last several decades, one of its most atypical, and originally unloved, designs has suddenly become its most popular.
The Nautilus, designed by horological legend Gérald Genta, creator of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak among others, and introduced in 1976, was made to resemble a ship’s porthole with its rounded octagonal bezel, and was Patek’s attempt at a contemporary high-end sports watch in lowly stainless steel at a time when gold watches were all the rage.
Sized at a generous 42mm it sported a grooved deep blue dial. As WatchTime reports, the conservative company was not without reservations about it. Demand for the watch was slow at first, the magazine notes, and its popularity has waxed and waned over the years along with changing tastes, with gold versions introduced to up the luxe factor.
In the past few years however stainless steel Nautilus models, in particular the reference 5711, have skyrocketed in popularity. Where collectors have long seen the appeal of the Nautilus, it took sightings of the watch on the wrists of celebs like Jay-Z, Jason Statham and Brad Pitt to really push it into the stratosphere.
Most recently, cult Off-White and Louis Vuitton menswear designer Virgil Abloh was spotted sporting a custom blacked-out version, giving it instant street cred. Earlier this year the New York Times reported that the waiting list for the most popular model, the black-blue dial Ref. 5711 in stainless steel, is now said to be eight years long.
It has become even harder to come by than the iconic Rolex Daytona. And Patek, being Patek, has no plans to increase production. “We don’t discuss production quantities, but clearly we don’t make enough Ref. 5711s,” Patek President Thierry Stern told the paper.
“Today we are meeting maybe ten per cent of the demand, and it is going to stay that way. For us, this is not a race to make more money. It is a race for beauty, for the long term.”
British GQ adds that those who want to buy one are “carefully vetted and must have a longstanding relationship with the company. They also have to somehow prove that they will actually wear the watch, rather than resell it at a vast profit.”
Patek now makes many different versions of the Nautilus, which was given a relaunch of sorts for its 40th anniversary, in rose gold, white gold, and stainless steel, some equipped with annual calendar and other complications. But the simplest references harking back to the rather minimal original are the most coveted.
Paul Altieri, founder of Bob’s Watches and one of the world’s top watch collectors, acquired his vintage stainless steel Nautilus Ref. 3700 in 2017. Made in 1979, shortly after the model’s debut, and now worth about $100,000, it’s the most coveted version of the iconic timepiece.
“The value of this watch has exploded in the past few years, and I’ve come to love its unique design,” Altieri tells Maxim. “It’s pretty risqué for a Patek. It wouldn’t have looked out of place on Roger Moore’s wrist in one of the ‘70s Bond movies.”
“The Nautilus simply didn’t sell that well when it was first released in 1976,” notes David Lee, General Manager of Watches at StockX, the live bid/ask luxury marketplace backed by the likes of Mark Wahlberg where collectors can build portfolios of iconic timepieces, tells Maxim.
“For one thing, at 42mm the original Nautilus was simply considered too big. Over the course of the next three decades, Patek Philippe released a number of different references and sizes, but the Nautilus was still simply Patek Philippe’s entry level timepiece, a way to enter the Patek universe for a fairly affordable price.”
Flash forward to 2006, Lee says, and the introduction of the 5711. “Limited supply of new watches and a growing desire for high-end luxury sport models started pushing prices in the pre-owned market to trade 20-25% over retail. Secondary market prices continued to trickle upwards. But even up to 2015, you could still find examples for under $40,000 in the pre-owned market.”
In the beginning of 2018 however, “Patek seemed to address the rising prices of the Nautilus and raised the retail price from $17,000 to $29,800. However, instead of dampening demand, the reverse happened, with secondary market prices doubling from around $40,000 in late 2017 to the current $80,000 range.”
Quite a jump.
“While it now costs five digits more to buy a steel, time-only Nautilus than a gold annual calendar, the market shows little signs of slowing down,” Lee notes.
“With continued limited supply and popularity amongst collectors and celebrities growing steadily, the market marches higher and higher.”
In other words, if you can get your hands on one—and it’s a big ‘if ’—you’d be well advised to hold onto it. Lee himself owns a white-dial steel Nautilus Ref. 5711/1A that took him over two and a half years to track down.
“I promised my Patek dealer that I wouldn’t flip the watch, and despite the fact that I could now get two or three time what I paid, after wearing it for just over a year the thought of ever selling it has forever left my mind.”
Ask him to tell you exactly what he loves about it though and it’s difficult to put into words. The appeal of the Nautilus remains somewhat esoteric, which in itself is a large part of the draw. “Why is the Nautilus so popular?” Thierry Stern mused to the Times.
“Of course I am happy about it, but honestly [even] I don’t know the answer.”