Backstory: The Deep Impact Of The Patek Philippe Nautilus

Close to 50 years after its debut, the Patek Philippe Nautilus has cemented its status as a titan. Here's how it got there.
Close to 50 years after its debut, the Patek Philippe Nautilus has cemented its status as a titan
Patek Philippe Nautilus 7010/013

Who doesn’t know about—or want to wear—the Nautilus? A linchpin of Patek Philippe, the Nautilus has, in less than five decades, attained the rarefied position of an icon in the watch world: infinitely versatile, immediately distinguishable, and immensely covetable. The brand’s timepieces are consistently the most prominent lots at auctions, with eye-watering winning bids, frequently in the six-figure range, and limited-edition Nautilus watches have gone under the hammer for as much as 120 times their retail price.

The Nautilus, with its modern silhouette, is a relative newcomer to Patek Philippe. The manufacture incorporated in 1839 as Patek, Czapek & Cie (and renamed Patek, Philippe & Cie in 1851) first made a name for itself with elaborate, romantic pendant watches with keyless winding and hand-setting system, that were widely admired at exhibitions of the day by illustrious clients including Queen Victoria of England. The company’s first wristwatch, made in 1868 for Countess Koscowicz of Hungary, was an ornate piece with a yellow gold rectangular case and bracelet and decorated with diamonds and enamel. In the following century, a more subdued aesthetic emerged—stick indices instead of stylised Breguet numerals, and sleek Dauphine and baton hands instead of decorative spade hands, for instance— exemplified by the Calatrava reference 96, which made its debut in 1932, and later the Golden Ellipse reference 3548, unveiled in 1968.

But it was in 1976 that Patek Philippe took a massive leap and ventured into the realm of sports watches with the debut of the Nautilus, the manufacture’s first sports watch. Designed by the late Gerald Genta, who was responsible for other horological feats of the decade such as Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and IWC Schaffhausen’s Ingenieur, the Nautilus took inspiration from an ocean liner’s portholes, seen through its softly rounded octagonal bezel, and ridges or “ears” at 3- and 9 o’clock that were reminiscent of a porthole’s hinges. And fittingly so: the Nautilus shares its name with the submarine that features prominently in Jules Verne’s 19th century science-fiction adventure novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The first model, the time-only reference 3700/1A in steel (an unexpected material choice for the era) that measured 42mm from ear to ear, featured a textured dial and was powered by the calibre 28-255C self-winding mechanical movement. Its robust construction, pleasing proportions and streamlined silhouette altogether made for a ticker that was simultaneously sophisticated and relaxed.

Since then, the Nautilus collection has been augmented by models such as the modern classic (reference 5711) launched in 2006 but retired in 2021, with more roundedness in the bezel and later with coloured dials that ranged from mellow blue and brown to striking hues such as olive green and Tiffany Blue, as well as the limited-edition 40th anniversary iterations— the chronograph reference 5976/1G in white gold and the three-hand reference 5711/1P in platinum. Complications appearing in the collection over the years included the perpetual calendar (reference 5740), moonphase (reference 5712), and flyback chronograph with a dual time-zone function (reference 5990). The reference 5060/S introduced in 1996 contained hints of the Aquanaut to come—lugs instead of an integrated link bracelet, and an absence of crown guards at 3 o’clock—and precipitated the 1997 launch of the Aquanaut collection, which took inspiration from the Nautilus’ sporty energy but expressed it with a more dynamic, casual air.

In terms of style, the Nautilus has seen interpretations from understated stainless steel, white gold or rose gold references to two-tone combinations and even fully gem-set iterations, in a range of case sizes. Recent novelties for women presented last November have gone all out to demonstrate just how far the Nautilus design can be pushed: the 35.2mm white gold Haute Joaillerie reference 7118/1451G, reference 7118/1452G and 7118/1453G are set with sapphires, rubies and emeralds, respectively, along with 1,500 diamonds pave-set on the dial in a wave pattern and mounted on the case, bezel and bracelet with the extraordinary snow-setting technique—a bold departure from the image of subtle elegance that the Nautilus tends to evoke. The calibre 26-330S self-winding mechanical movement drives this time-only trio.

Close to 50 years after its debut, the Patek Philippe Nautilus has cemented its status as a titan
Patek Philippe Nautilus 7010/1R-013

And continuing the collection’s experiment with vibrant colours, the new Nautilus reference 7010R-013 and reference 7010/1R-013 both feature bright purple lacquered dials with a wave pattern housed within their 32mm rose gold cases, which are held in place with a composite material strap of the same hue or a rose gold bracelet. If these latest novelties are anything to go by, the Patek Philippe Nautilus is nowhere near done demonstrating what it can become.