One of the most unusual features (for watch enthusiasts) of this extremely unusual, difficult, and unpredictable year, has been an upset of the normal calendar of new releases, which is the most dramatic I’ve seen in two decades and more of writing about watches. Probably the single most notable news on this front has actually been the absence of news from two companies. These are Rolex and Patek Philippe which, in anything approaching normal conditions, are usually at the top of everyone’s list of must-sees at Baselworld. Competition, indeed, is fierce among watch journalists to be first to publish stories about new watches from both brands.
Typically at Baselworld, the first press day was a mad scramble to get information up from not only Rolex and Patek, but also Omega and other major players as well. But this year, while we have seen new releases from other Basel Day 1 brands, Rolex and Patek Philippe have gone silent. Today, however, this changes with the release of a new Calatrava, and in steel, no less. The reference 6007A-001 is debuting as a limited edition of 1,000 pieces to celebrate the company’s latest new addition to its manufacture in Plan-les-Ouates, Geneva.
Patek broke ground on the new manufacture in 2015 as part of an ongoing effort to centralize all aspects of production in a single facility. This initiative had originally been led by Philippe Stern in 1996, according to Patek, in an attempt to increase efficiencies and improve all aspects of manufacturing and design. The company says that in the period immediately prior, there had been over a dozen important manufacturing sites for Patek, which were scattered across the city and Canton of Geneva. This was an almost universal feature of watchmaking in Switzerland for centuries, where various suppliers and specialists working in different locations manufactured everything from escapements to cases, to mainsprings and other parts, essentially independently. Amusingly (and predictably) enough, not everyone was a fan of modernizing, and writing for the Financial Times in April of this year, Nick Foulkes noted that there was some dissent even within the Stern family.
“The change,” Foulkes wrote, “between the old style of working and the new was marked; I remember visiting Patek Philippe’s old HQ on the Rue du Rhône above the flagship store at the beginning of the 1990s and, if not exactly Dickensian in feel, there was a cosily historical atmosphere enhanced by the lingering aroma of the Borkum Riff pipe tobacco smoked by Henri Stern, Philippe’s father. It was from here that activities were coordinated across the town.”
“But having celebrated the firm’s 150th anniversary in 1989, and presciently predicting that interest in mechanical, especially complicated, watches was about to increase, Philippe Stern realised that this essentially 19th-century system of sub-suppliers and scattered workshops acquired by the company over the years needed to change. Not everyone welcomed the idea, chief among them the firm’s then patriarch, Philippe’s father, Henri.”
“‘He came once and never again,’ laughs Philippe. ‘It was too big for him.'”
If that’s how Henri Stern felt about the 1996 facility, I can’t help but wonder what he’d have thought of the new headquarters which opened this year. This might be a challenging year for the watch industry, but you’d never know it at Patek Philippe. The new facility, which had an estimated tab of CHF 450 million all-in when we reported the beginning of construction back in 2015, has ended up producing a final bill of CHF 600 million. The building is enormous by the standards of watch manufacturing – 10 floors (four below ground). There are facilities for just about every aspect of watch manufacturing you can imagine, including everything from basic machining, to ateliers for hand-finishing and assembling movements, to metiers d’art studios for such crafts as engraving, guillochage, and enameling. The building features what Patek calls “New York fire escape-style” stairs and has enormous, wrap-around windows to ensure plenty of the natural light so important to watchmaking.
There’s even a restaurant on the top floor with room for 880 (!) guests and space for almost 700 vehicles in the underground garage. Not bad for a year in which most brands are nervously eyeing the news and wondering when the cash flow necessary to keep business afloat is going to start coming in again – according to HODINKEE Executive Editor Joe Thompson, don’t hold your breath. But at Patek Philippe, everyone still seems to be breathing easy, even in this business-as-unusual year.
The watch released to celebrate the new facility is also very much up-to-date in its design and represents a continuation of the innovation in its basic design language which has increasingly marked its releases in recent years – and not only that, it’s being released in stainless steel.
It is perhaps the least original observation one can make about Patek Philippe, but the fact remains that aside from the various Nautilus and Aquanaut models, steel models are a rarity. Of the 28 steel or steel and gold models in the current catalogue, 21 are in those two ranges, with another six in the Twenty-4 collection. The sole current catalogue steel model not in any of those three families is the 5212A Calatrava Weekly Calendar, which is an unusual wristwatch in a number of respects as well. As a matter of fact, the Weekly Calendar to me looks as if it’s very much playing from the same basic design book as the new 6007A-001 – they have in common, of course, a round steel case, which taken just by itself makes them closer relatives to each other than to any other watches in the current catalogue, but there are a couple of other common elements.
Both, for instance, also have somewhat similar dial layouts, in that the dial composition in both cases consists essentially of two concentric circles – in the case of the Weekly Calendar for the day of the week, while in the 6007A-001, the inner hour scale is there less out of necessity in terms of information displayed, than as an element which serves to set off the pattern on the inner dial, which Patek describes as “carbon” pattern embossing. (I’m not sure why carbon specifically – it may be as simple as that it’s meant to be a sort of stylized carbon fiber design, although carbon atoms can form cubic crystals in diamonds, which may be me reading too much into the design.) This cross-hatch pattern has actually appeared once before – seven years ago in, of all things, a unique piece reference 5004T split-seconds perpetual calendar, in titanium, which was created for Only Watch.
The inner hour scale is, perhaps, a bit superfluous given the presence of the Arabics, but in having separate hours and minutes scales, Patek has given the watch a more interesting composition than if either were absent. Of course, for Patek collectors, steel is catnip – the company’s position as a bastion of traditional horology means that for most of its history, its watches went into precious metal cases, and steel Patek watches of any kind are therefore a relative rarity. They can, as every enthusiast knows (as was the case with a steel 1518, for instance), command considerable premiums at auction. The American industrialist and automotive enthusiast Briggs Cunningham was rare among mid-20th century Patek clients in actually owning three Pateks, all special orders and all in steel cases.
Also unusual for a non-sports model, the 6007A-001 has luminous material on the hands and applied Arabic numerals. Luminous material seems to be quite out of the ordinary for Calatrava-family watches in general – in fact, in the current collection of 19 other models, not a single one seems to have luminous hands and dial markers, including the steel Weekly Calendar, which makes the 6007A-001 unique in the family, at least for now.
The subject of what exactly “dress watch” means is something I’ve been wanting to dig into for some time (the archivist in me would love to find out what the first attested use of the phrase in English might be), but historically, if I can use the term without going too deeply into its history for now, there has been since the invention of luminous paints, a tendency for the industry to avoid them in watches that don’t fall into the tool watch or sports watch category. I’m not sure why this should have to be the case – after all, the role of a watch is fundamentally to tell the time, and there is scarcely a watch you can point to whose legibility in low light wouldn’t be improved by a bit of radium or tritium or LumiNova.
Perhaps it is basically a matter of character – there is an instrumentality to luminous material which seems, in a way, discordant with the character of a dress watch (whatever that is) to say nothing of the fact that until the advent of Super-LumiNova, the paint was always a temporary feature of the watch and would need to be replaced well within the typical owner’s lifetime. In this instance, though, I think Patek has found a way to make it work in a Calatrava, which has partly to do with the case material – steel, after all, doth not thumb its nose at lume, characterologically – and partly to do with the slightly instrument-watch vibe created by the double chapter rings. The blue calfskin strap, with its embossed woven pattern, also does a good deal to tone down any banker-in-a-chauffeured Rolls feel (which you can definitely get from some of the precious metal Calatravas) and ties together the use of lume, Arabic numerals, and the steel case material.
In terms of proportions, this is still very much a Calatrava, thankfully, and the unassuming size, while just slightly enough over a purist’s 37mm-38mm diameter to produce Pavlovian rage in some quarters (along with the date window – you know who you are), remains very manageable at 40mm x 9.07mm. I might wish for a slightly greater water resistance than 30 meters, but this is, after all, more than adequate for this sort of watch, whose greatest aquatic hazard is apt to consist of a spilled glass of wine or water from overenthusiastic hand-washing (and we can hardly be too enthusiastic about hand-washing nowadays). The movement is a classic as well – the self-winding Patek Philippe caliber 324 SC, which is 27mm x 3.3mm and clips along at 28,800 vph.
The only quibble I have with the watch is the writing and logo on the caseback, but after all, this is a watch intended to celebrate a specific moment in time for the company, and it is hardly a fatal flaw. Personally, I prefer to have an unobstructed view in watches with an haute horlogerie movement, but the narrowly classical Swiss high watchmaking formula of business in the front, party in the back is not quite what this watch is about anyway. At first glance, I had reservations about the dial design – the inner hour scale seemed, at best, an additional design element that could easily have been left out with at least no harm to the overall design. But it has, in a short time, come to seem if not an absolute essential in terms of legibility, at least an important contributor to the character of the overall design and, as well, it does act as a kind of visual bridge to its steel cousin, the Weekly Calendar.
Though it comes very late in the year relatively speaking, we still have a bit more than half a year left to go and, with sporadic but hopeful signs of opening up among factories and retailers, it is to be hoped that Patek will give us, in the weeks and months to come, more and more to talk about. In the meantime, this is an intriguing first act, and one which I am sure will provide lots of fodder for speculation on what else Patek may have in store for us as the year wears on. The closely related visual language between this limited edition and the Calatrava Weekly Calendar certainly has me thinking. As we know, steel regular production Pateks are very much out of the ordinary, but looked at together, the Weekly Calendar and the new 6007A-001 almost look like the seeds of a new type of watch for Patek: the steel, non-sports watch daily driver, for a new kind of client who still wants all the blue-blood appeal that Patek has to offer, but in a more contemporary and stealthy chassis.
The Patek Philippe ref. 6007A-001 Limited Edition: case, stainless steel, 30 meters water resistance, 40mm x 9.07mm; grey-blue dial with embossed carbon pattern; applied white gold Arabic numerals and white gold hands, both with luminescent coating. Movement, caliber 340 SC center seconds, self-winding with gold rotor; time and date, 45-hour maximum power reserve. Limited to 1,000 pieces worldwide; price, $28,351. See the Calatrava Collection at Patek.com.
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