In-Depth: Why You Should Care About The Patek Philippe Reference 3970
It has the DNA of a thoroughbred, but never seemed to get out of the gate on time. Should that change?
Originally published by Cara Barrett on HODINKEE, May 3rd 2018
I don’t remember the first time that I saw a Patek Philippe reference 3970, but I do remember one of the first, and it left quite an impression. It was 2014, and I had just been promoted from Cataloger to Associate Specialist at Sotheby’s. There was a client that I had worked with in the past who had consigned some smaller pieces. He was always friendly and warm, and he reached out to me one day to say he was ready to consign his 3970E in yellow gold. I nervously searched for comps and came up with an estimate: $60,000-$80,000 with the reserve at the low estimate. The auction soon approached and, much to my dismay, there was little interest in the watch. I frantically called the consignor the night before the auction and lowered the reserve to ensure more bidding activity – needless to say he wasn’t happy, and I got an earful (such is life at an auction house, mind you). The watch ended up selling for $68,000 all-in, and to say that the consignor – and myself – were disappointed would be an understatement. To this day, I think about this story whenever I hear of a 3970. It hasn’t curbed my love of the watch, but I have always wondered: What’s up with the 3970, and why does nobody seem to care about it?
For me, the attraction has always been there. It’s considered one of the last great designs from Patek Philippe and is a fairly complicated piece. The aesthetics are there, the size is there, the movement is there – it has all the makings of a collector’s watch, but for some reason the results are always a little soft, a little lackluster. So I set out to really break down this watch and to see what it’s all about. Let’s dig in.
What Is The Reference 3970?
The reference 3970 was born in 1986 (a good birth year, if I may say so myself). One must remember the 1980s were a weird time for mechanical watches. Quartz movements were shaking things up and people just didn’t care about complicated watches. In fact, even chronographs weren’t popular. Like, at all. So when the 3970 perpetual calendar chronograph dropped in 1986, it was not easy for retailers to move. According to John Reardon, Head of Watches at Christie’s and an authority on all things Patek Philippe (he literally wrote the books, plural), retailers didn’t even want to take them from Patek because they were too hard to sell. But before we get into the popularity and cost of these watches, you need to know what the 3970 actually is, in all its various incarnations.
The 3970 is a perpetual calendar chronograph, and the successor to the iconic 2499, which was in production from 1951 until 1986. Prior that that, the reference 1518 occupied the heralded “perpetual calendar chrono” title for Patek. In fact, the 1518 was the first serially produced perpetual calendar chronograph overall (you can read more about it here) and it’s a true icon of 20th-century watchmaking.
The 3970 was produced in white, yellow, and rose gold, as well as platinum. The case itself measures 36mm, which is 1.5mm smaller than that of the 2499. Downsizing was an interesting move on Patek’s part. It features a traditional dial display with three subsidiary dials: leap year indication and chronograph 30 minute totalizer (at three o’clock), moonphase and date (six o’clock), and chronograph 12 hour totalizer and running seconds (nine o’clock). There are twin apertures for the day of the week and the month at 12 o’clock, and traditional round chronograph pushers flanking the crown. Overall, it’s very Patek Philippe, and represents a transitional time for the brand as a modern piece released after post-vintage era greats such as the 1518 and the 2499, both of which have reached grail status. It’s worth noting that the 2499/100 was still in production well into the 1980s, so the 3970 was a nice, close follow up to that reference.
At the center of the 3970 is its movement – the caliber CH 27-70 Q. This caliber was the first non-Valjoux-based movement Patek ever used in a chronograph. Instead, it was based on the Lemania 2310, which was also the base of the beloved caliber 321 movement used in early Omega Speedmasters. This manual-winding movement has a 60-hour power reserve, and was also used in the later 5970 and 5004 (with added rattrapante function). It’s a beautiful and reliable movement that remained in use for the entire lineage of the 3970 and is still used today in some very special pieces like Vacheron’s Cornes de Vache. The finishing on this caliber is excellent – all hand-done, of course. The CH 27-70 Q was among the finest movements in the world at the time of production, and represents a very Genevan way of doing things.
One, Two, Three, Four Series
As I mentioned earlier, the 3970 was born in 1986 and was in production all the way up to 2004, which is not an insignificant amount of time for any Patek reference in the modern age. The reference is broken down into four series and each varies slightly, some rarer than others. The details that change are all aesthetic and can be found in the hands, indexes, and casebacks.
Only 100 first series pieces were made, so it is the rarest of the series (with the exception of the 3971). The first series was defined by the silvered dial, feuille (or leaf) hands, stick indexes, and slightly off-color sub-dials. In addition, it has a solid snap-on caseback and all were produced exclusively in yellow gold – and all in 1986. Additionally, there are a couple that can be found with a bracelet (#swoon), and for those the reference number is followed with a -1. This applies to both the 3970 and the 3971.
There was another reference born alongside the 3970 in 1986 – the 3971. This reference was exactly the same as the first series 3970 with feuille hands, stick indexes, and differently colored sub-dials, however this reference features a snap-on sapphire crystal back. This watch was produced alongside the first and second series, but was discontinued after. There are less than 300 reference 3971s ever made, making this a super-rare reference to find. And with that snap-on sapphire crystal caseback, can you really blame anyone for wanting this one?
The second series was produced from 1986 to 1991 and was produced in yellow, rose, and white gold, with a few made in platinum too. Technically, it’s known as the 3970E (E = étanche, aka waterproof) due to the solid screw-down caseback. Approximately 650 (3970 and 3971) were made in total, with white gold being the rarest (there only six examples known today). The watch itself is differentiated from the first series by two things: the sub-dials are the same color as the dial, and the caseback is a solid screw-down version. There was the option for clients to order an additional sapphire screw-down caseback, but this is rare. The feuille hands and the stick indexes remain the same, and it should be noted that the cases were hand-finished up until 1990, making the first and second series more desirable to collect, and by a lot.
The third series 3970 is when things started to transition to slightly more numerous production. It was made from 1989 to around 1995 in all four metals, with about 1,350 total pieces produced. The major differences here are that the watch came with both solid and sapphire crystal screw-back cases, pointed baton indexes, and baton hands instead of the leaf hands. Additionally, the dial is bright silver and the printing is heavier, making it a more vibrant piece. Since this is the most common 3970, it is often the least expensive, with the fourth series running alongside it.
The fourth and final series was produced from around 1994 to 2004 and was exactly the same as the third series but with a new serial number range, and came with a deployant clasp. About 2,000 pieces were made and in all four metals. It was the last run and is the least collectible.
The 3970 was in production for over 20 years and remained one of the more sought after complicated references by the end of its life cycle. The reference was interrupted by the 5020, which introduced the QP chronograph complication in a cushion-form case (not my fave, nor was it anyone else’s). The 3970 was ultimately followed up by the 5970 in 2004 and then the 5270 in 2011. The 5970, of course, uses the exact same caliber as the 3970, but its updated case size and clean dial, coupled with limited production, make it a far more desirable watch for most collectors.
But Is The 3970 Collectible?
Okay, so when I set out to write this article, I was convinced that I would stumble across some insane finding that this watch is the next watch to collect. However, after spending a lot of time with it, I realized the beauty of this watch is not that it has any kind of superstar status. Quite the opposite, actually. While the prices for the your average 3970 range from around $70,000-$200,000 depending on metal and series, the unique pieces are still the most collectible. Here are some of the highlights.
The thing to remember about vintage watches is that any time you have a special dial or configuration, it’s going to be more valuable (yes, obvious statement, but it needed to be said). This is no different for the 3970, which can be found in many different variations. One of the more recent ones to come up at auction is this platinum 3970 with black dial and Breguet numerals (say what?). This watch is “possibly unique” (aren’t they all) and also boasts a tachymeter scale <insert Eric Wind scream emoji here>. This watch is estimated to sell for CHF 200,000-400,000 and is coming up for auction at Phillips later this month, so stay tuned for an update on that.
Similar to the above watch is Eric Clapton’s 3970 in white gold with a salmon dial, Breguet numerals, and a tachymeter scale. Obviously, this watch is significant for a few reasons: it’s Clapton’s; and it has a unique salmon dial with Breguet numerals. The most interesting thing about this watch is that it out-performed Clapton’s 5004 that sold in the same exact sale by $50,000, with the 3970 selling for $459,000 and the 5004 selling for $405,000. You can read more about this watch here.
Also sold publicly was the very first Patek Philippe 3970 ever produced, which brought in over CHF 200,000 at Antiquorum in 2015. Obviously, this was a fairly good price for such a novelty, but since it is a yellow gold first series, the price is weaker than, say, the special dial 3970 in platinum coming up at Phillips. It’s clear that unusual dials trump something like the first serial number, but it’s still not that strong. I will say that while special dials are always the most desirable, there is a certain inherent coolness and desirability in rare production 3970s. Special dials were commissioned by big shots for the sake of being special. An early 3970 with snap back is an incredibly rare and special watch, and only 100 were made. It also feels truly vintage and is not that expensive for what it is, relatively speaking. Then you have a white metal second series watch – try to find one. Seriously.
This watch above is a second series platinum 3970 – one of the fewer than 10 known. And it was made in 1990, with a white moon, white hands, and the calendar in Italian. That’s a cool watch, and it’s about as close to a platinum 2499 as you’re going to find south of many millions of dollars. There are several other variations of the 3970 that are more collectible than others: Those with Arabic numeral dials, a la the 5004, and those pairing white metal cases with black, stick dials (instead of diamond markers, which was the norm for black dial watches), will always draw demand. As for your run-of-the-mill, silver dial 3970 from a later series? I’m not sure how bright that future is, financially speaking.
So is the 3970 collectible? For me, I think it is, but in a different way than how you might expect. It’s not a 1518, where you spend over $350,000 for yellow gold example (the least rare), and it’s not a 5004 that goes for over $325,00 that you can put away for special occasions. Rather, it’s an elegant complicated Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronograph that still gives you the feeling that you are wearing something really special (because you are) without having to spend well over six figures (still a very rare thing for the 1% to do, let alone the rest of humanity). The 3970 is a good watch, maybe even a great one. And if Patek had limited its production a bit more, it might even be a grail. But that’s not what happened, and prices for most yellow or rose gold watches still sit below $100,000.
And that’s okay! The 3970 still manages to hit all the right notes: It’s an old school Swiss-made watch with an ébauche movement at half the price of its modern counterpart, the 5270. It has also held its value over the years. According to Wempe New York, they sold a 3970R in 2002 for $76,200 and a 3970P for $87,900 – to put things in perspective, a 3970P now sells for just over $110,000, so they have gone up slightly in price. The 3970R still sells for about what it did at retail. And this is a fourth series; the first and second series go for slightly more, a 3970P from 1991 sold for just over $125,000 at Phillips during the Paul Newman Daytona sale.
All in all, the 3970 is a fantastic piece of machinery that both looks good on the wrist and wears well at 36mm. It represents a transitional period in which the Patek Philippe of the 1980s became the Patek Philippe we know today. The value has remained about the same, which is really quite rare for any watch, though people love to tell stories of how much they’ve made in watch collecting. I think one thing to note is that watches produced in the ’90s are now 30 years old (terrifying, I know), and if you examine what is happening with other ’90s watches, and other collectibles from this period (automobiles, art, furniture), one wouldn’t be crazy to expect an upswing.
I’m not saying you should run out and buy all the watches from the 1990s, but it is something to think about in regards to the 3970. If a complicated Patek is your quest, and you’re looking for a smaller size than what’s found in the 5970 or 5270, it might be time to take a closer look. No matter what, the 3970 will always have its fans and its detractors, and that’s okay. But I wouldn’t be so quick to overlook a great 3970 if you’re in the market for your first (or last) big watch. Put on a 3970P next to a 6239 Paul Newman and see which hits you harder. My guess is you’ll be surprised by the answer.