Reference Points: Understanding The Entire Lineage Of Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronographs
Perpetual calendar chronographs by Patek Philippe present arguably the most important combination of complications in 20th-century horology. We’re taking you all the way back to the beginning.
Welcome to the first in an ongoing series we’re calling “Reference Points.” In this series, we will be working backwards in a way, to tell all you lovers of horology about some important watches that we feel make up the foundation of modern wristwatches. We’ve tried to give you tidbits of historical knowledge in several of our articles over the years – in particular those from the “Historical Perspectives” category – but now we’re going even further. For our first “Reference Points” feature, we’re starting with what is arguably the most important pairing of complications there is – perpetual calendar chronographs by Patek Philippe. And we’re taking you all the way back to the beginning.
I’m not sure there is a more important family of watches than the one we’re about to discuss. Rolex dive watches, maybe? Probably not, even. Perpetual calendar chronographs from Patek Philippe make up a veritable royal legacy in wristwatch collecting that even today, in the year marking Patek Philippe’s 175th anniversary, hasn’t been matched. The combination of complications – a perpetual calendar mechanism coupled with a chronograph – is such a remarkable thing, in which the sum is so much greater than its parts. In this feature, we will examine six historical references, none of which are still in production, with a few mentions of some important outliers. These are references that, in the opinion of this publication, every watch lover should know. Let’s start at the beginning…
The very first serially produced perpetual calendar with chronograph dates to 1941 and bares the reference 1518. The 1518 is the watch that started it all, not only with perpetual calendar chronographs but with serially produced complicated watches for Patek Philippe as a mark, and for the industry in general. We are jaded now, with opulent trade shows like SIHH and Basel World showing us new mega complications from dozens of brands two times a year. Nobody was making complicated watches back in 1941, and when they did, it was on direct commission from someone like Henry Graves, Jr., or James Ward Packard. The 1518 was a true revelation, and in 1941 (while the world was at war, no less) Patek Philippe created a true masterpiece in 35 millimeters.
It would be the 1518’s twin apertures at 12 o’clock, coupled with two chronograph registers at 3 and 9, plus a circular date display and moonphase at 6 o’clock, that would literally provide the design schematics for Patek’s most important watches over the next 70 years. Each dial of the 1518 was silver in color with a hard enameled tachymeter scale, and the complete movement number of each 1518 is engraved on the rear of the dial. The two silver date discs are also enamel, as is the moon phase disc with inlaid blue enamel and gold stars and moon. The cases of the 1518 were made by by Georges Croisier, which later became Genevor SA, and the case was a three piece design with concave bezel and downturned lugs. The original price of the 1518 in 1944 was 2,800 Swiss Francs.
Inside the 1518 is an incredible movement called the caliber 13”’130, based on a Valjoux ebauche. It features straight line lever escapement, Cotes de Geneve decoration, a self-compensating Breguet overcoil, and a swan-neck regulator. The 23 jewel movement was stamped with the Geneva seal indicating the highest quality finish, and was hardly a basic Valjoux movement. Consider the fact that not a single other manufacture even attempted a perpetual calendar chronograph for another half a century after the 1518’s introduction.
Still, while the 1518 is indeed the original perpetual calendar chronograph and the absolute foundation of this incredible line, it is not necessarily the most desirable reference as a whole. The 35mm case and square pushers tend to make it more of a gentleman’s chronograph than something modern and wearable daily. But, what the 1518 does have that no other Patek perpetual chronograph has to this day is a few examples in what many believe to be the ultimate metal for a Patek Philippe, and that’s stainless steel.
Four examples of the 1518 are known in stainless steel, and they are considered some of the most valuable and rarest watches on earth. All of them were made during war-time years and all four can be seen in detail in John Goldberger’s book Stainless Steel Patek Philippe. These watches have no real market value because they have never been sold publicly, but Bloomberg detailed the tale of one such purchase by Alfredo Paramico at a price of 2.2 million euro in 2007. To me, a 1518 in steel is the holy grail.
After the 1518’s 13 year run came the 2499. Actually, the 2499 is said to have launched in 1951, meaning the earliest of the 2499s were made alongside the latest 1518s, which had a production end date of 1954. The Patek 2499 is considered by many to be the ultimate Patek Philippe, capturing old world charm with modern wearability. The 2499 is also probably the most studied and dissected of PP perpetual chronos and here we’ll go through each of the four series so that next time you come across a power player wearing his most powerful watch, you’ll know more than just the reference.
The first series Patek Philippe 2499 features a dial, hands, and pushers that really, really resemble those of the 1518, its immediate predecessor. All first series 2499s feature square chronograph pushers, applied Arabic numerals, and a tachymeter scale, as you can see in the example below:
The first series 2499 above sold for over $400,000 in December of 2012 – that sounds like a lot of money, right? It is, but again, metals can make such a huge difference in prices. Consider that six months earlier, in May of 2012, a 2499 first series in pink gold (though also with a special 37.5mm case) sold at Christie’s for a whopping $2.75 million.
After the first series, the design codes of the 2499 changed considerably. You, all of a sudden, see round pump pushers, and either applied batons or Arabic numerals, still with a tachymeter scale. Again, the vast majority of the 2499s you find will be in yellow gold, but when one does come up in rose, all bets are off. For example, this pink on pink 2499 second series sold at Christie’s this past November for $2.16 million.
You start to see second series watches show up with production dates in the middle of the 1950s, four years after the 2499 began its 35-year run. Eventually, you find yourself in the third and fourth series of the 2499, where there is no longer a tachymeter scale on the dial and Arabic numerals are never found at all. The most common, and arguably least desirable of the four series of 2499 is the third series because, well, it is most common. The third series watch was made approximately from 1960 through 1978, or about half the entire run of the 2499. The third series watch closely resembles most second series watches, but the easiest way to tell a later series watch is by looking at the dial. Does it have applied baton markers, and does it NOT have a tachymeter? Then it’s either a third or fourth series watch.
And the difference between the third and fourth series? Not much, really, except the fourth series was essentially a transitional watch between the realms of vintage and modern. It was made from around 1978 through 1985, when the last few watches would take on the reference 2499/100. The major physical difference between the fourth series and all the previous is that it actually uses a sapphire crystal.
And what about the value of 2499s? Well, as you can see, they can get really expensive, really quickly. Like, if one happens to be in rose gold you’re talking over a million dollars. If one has, for example, a Cartier signature on the dial, you’re talking over a million dollars. Of course, the most expensive of all 2499 was sold by Christie’s Geneva in November of 2012 and we told you all about it here. While the 1518 may have steel, the 2499 has platinum. Actually, there are two platinum 2499/100s in the world – both were made on direct commission from Mr. Stern himself in 1985. One would remain in the possession of the Sterns, who display it without much fanfare inside their museum in Geneva. The other would be sold to the general public at the sale that would change the course of history for Patek Philippe, the April 9th, 1989 auction entitled “The Art of Patek Philippe.” Here, along with just about every major Patek Philippe one could possibly imagine, the singular publicly sold platinum 2499 hit the auction block, bringing it a total of 418,000 Swiss Francs, or about $253,300 at the time. Adjusted for inflation, that’s about $513,688. Keep in mind, this was 1989, not 2014. Nobody was spending that much money on watches.
The platinum 2499 ultimately ended up in the hands of one of the world’s great Patek Philippe collectors, a man named Eric Clapton. Yes, THE Eric Clapton. It was known within the watch collecting world that Clapton owned the watch, and we simply never thought we’d see it come up for sale again. And then it did, in November 2012 when I wrote this story. When it sold, it did so for $3.63 million, thus cementing the 2499’s position as one of the most desirable watches on the planet. Though, it should be noted, many expected the Clapton 2499 to sell for even more – it was not even the most expensive watch in the sale, this was.
Still the Patek Philippe 2499 is considered the very peak of Patek Philippe design and with only 349 examples being made over 35 years (that’s fewer than 10 watches per year!) prices have been steadily climbing. It’s 37mm+ size, four distinct families, and incredible lineage make it as desirable as it gets, and it looks simply superb on the wrist.
Welcome to the modern era, and welcome to the 3970. The 3970 is an insanely well-balanced watch, and is as pure a Patek Philippe as one could ask for. The 3970 followed up the 2499 immediately after the final 2499/100s with a 1986 introduction at retail. The 3970, like the 2499, was made for several years, and because we are now dealing with modern production facilities, it was made in many more examples. But before we get into the nitty gritty of the 3970, we must first talk about the movement inside. The 3970 was the first Patek Philippe to use not a Valjoux-based chronograph, but instead one based on a Lemania movement called the 2310. The 2310 is now considered one of the finest movements in the world and it has stood the test of time better than just about any other singular caliber. The 2310 is the foundation of Omega’s caliber 321 – the heralded “moon watch” caliber – as well as the base caliber for a handful of Patek Philippes, Vacheron Constantins, Breguets, and others. Inside the 3970, and eventually both the 5020 and 5970, the perpetual calendar chronograph was called the Caliber CH 27-70 Q.
What’s also interesting to note about the 3970 that despite it being introduced in the middle of a decade known for highly conspicuous spending, the heir to the perpetual calendar chronograph dynasty wasn’t upsized at all. In fact, the 37.5mm case from the 2499 was cut back down to 36mm, finding a happy medium at 1mm larger than the 1518.
Ok, so let’s get into the down and dirty details of the 3970. The first thing you need to know is you can throw away any notion of million dollar price tags because of metals. Sure, you’re going to pay more for a platinum 3970 than you will for a rose, and you’ll pay more for a rose than you will a yellow, but the 3970 was made in series in all four metals – including for the first time a perpetual chronograph in white gold. Also, there are series of 3970s just like there are 2499s and I’ll do my best to break them out as clearly as possible for you.
The first series 3970 was made in 1986 with a run of about 100 watches, all in yellow gold. And to make things even more confusing, the 3970 was actually launched alongside a sister reference called the 3971. Both of these watches featured snap casebacks, instead of the more modern screw-down casebacks. The 3970 featured a solid caseback, while the 3971, as pictured above from the rear, featured a snap caseback that was sapphire.
The first series featured leaf hands and baton markers, giving it a look very similar to that of an early second series 2499. The watch pictured below is believed to be the 9th 3971 ever produced, and it belonged to Reginald “Pete” Fullerton, the grandson of great Patek collector Henry Graves, Jr. These early snapback watches are incredibly sought after and can bring a serious premium over late 3970s in yellow gold. First series 3970s feature sub-registers that are just a little bit off color from the rest of the dial. This watch here sold for $116,000 at auction, and considering just how early it is, I believe, in hindsight, it was a bargain. You can read more about it and the rest of Fullerton’s collection here.
So after the first series of 3970s, which you practically never see, you have a second series of watches. A second series 3970 is very, very similar to the first series from the front. You have the same leaf hands and the same stick markers on the dial. The big difference on the front is that the registers now match the dial – all the coloring will be uniform. But, it’s on the rear that the 3970 second series differs from the first in the most significant way. Instead of a snapback, you have a solid screwback. At least officially. Because, in the early years of the 3970, Patek Philippe was accommodating to its customers, and just like we saw that sapphire snapback on the 9th ever 3971 belonging to Mr. Fullerton, a client could request a screwback with sapphire crystal. Most second series 3970s do not feature a display caseback, but they do exist.
In fact, the watch we have here, which is a second series 3970R, has the rare sapphire screw back. The second series 3970 was produced from around 1986 through 1991, and was then immediately followed by the 3971 with sapphire screwback. Second series watches are quite collectible, and while there isn’t a huge premium for them when buying, I tend to believe that over the years, the differentiation between the first and second series watches versus the third series 3970 will become more pronounced.
So about that third series 3970. The vast majority of the 3970s that you see are third series watches. The official reference would be a 3970E – the “E” stands for “etanche” or “waterproof” because now Patek offers the 3970 with both a sapphire and solid screw back for all watches. On the front of the watch, you’ll find baton hands instead of leaf, and hour markers with pointed tips. The printing of the dial itself will be much darker than on the first or second series, and you’ll notice the dial is now a bright, clear silver. Here is an example of a very late production watch, dating to 2004, that will show you what a third series 3970 will look like.
Now the 3970, with its 36mm size and incredible refined look is really something special in my eyes. It is the watch that I think may even best define what Patek Philippe is all about, but its pricing is at once much more transparent and much murkier than what you’ll find on the true vintage pieces like the 1518 or 2499. The reason for this is there are so many 3970s in the market. The rough estimate based on its 18-year production run is somewhere between 2,400 and 3,600 watches. So, that’s more than 10 times the number of 1518s or 2499s made. Prices, as such, will be considerably less. The thing is, you can buy a 3970J for $75,000, or you can buy one for $140,000. The first will be a third series watch that has been polished extensively, and is maybe missing the original papers. The second will be a first series watch, unpolished, with all its original accessories.
With 3970s, condition makes a world of difference, and in most cases, you will not want a $75,000 3970, no matter how tempting it is. But, you can buy a nice honest 3970J at $100,000 and feel great about it. Yes, we’re still talking six figures, but you are getting tremendous bang for your buck and a watch that simply nobody can argue with. Besides the first series watches, the most expensive pieces will be 3970P (that’s platinum), in particular if born with a black stick dial – most black dials for the 3970P have diamond markers. That said, many consider the rarest 3970s to be those in white gold with a black stick dial.
There really isn’t one. At least not in the same way that you have the steel 1518s or the platinum 2499s. These watches were made in platinum in serial, and we don’t know of any steel examples (though it’s possible they exist). The only 3970s that can go crazy are with special dials, of which there are a handful. Dials in special colors or with Breguet numerals can make a big difference. The example here is actually the most expensive 3970 ever, and it sold for $339,552 last November at Christie’s Hong Kong – that’s less expensive than your average 2499.
Still, the 3970 is just pure Patek Philippe and while it may not be quite like one of the true vintage models in this family, its virtues can not be stressed enough.
This is the oddball. The 5020 takes the same Lemania-based caliber from the 3970, drops it into an oversized “TV” style case, and gives it a dial with Breguet hands and numerals. The watch was a total flop when launched in the early 1990s, and as such, production was ceased after just two years. Because of this, experts estimate fewer than 300 watches were ever made, putting it in the same league as the 1518 and 2499 in terms of rarity. For years, the 5020 languished with collectors, until one day this happened: a 5020P, only the fifth to ever come up for sale at auction, hit $338,000 at Bonhams New York.
The 5020 had been steadily climbing in value for years, but this 2011 sale opened up the eyes of collectors all over the world, and now you see 5020s in gold selling for as much as what you’ll see with a 5970P. Like the 3970, there isn’t any particular grail 5020, but considering just an estimated 20 examples of the watch were made in platinum, we can say that a 5020P with black diamond dial is as good as it gets in this category. Still, even though the 5020 is gaining a lot of momentum with serious collectors, it is often overlooked when speaking about Patek perpetual chronographs.
Ok, I bet some of you have been waiting for me to get to this one. You’re looking at the 5004, which can be described as the 3970, but with a split-seconds chronograph. The 5004 is absolutely iconic and truly loved by Patek collectors. Still at 36 mm, but now with much greater depth due to the rattrapante mechanism placed atop the Lemania caliber, the 5004 has grown into a category of collecting all on its own.
There is just something SO cool about a perpetual calendar with split-seconds chronograph and this reference is considered one of the most important of the modern era. It was launched in 1996 and the estimates say just 12 pieces were made each calendar year until the in-house 5204 was introduced in 2012. As mentioned in the video above, the 5004 was made in all metals, though now the most desirable is the early platinum with black dial.
Ok, so every 5004 is the ultimate 5004. But, we can pick a few special pieces if we have to. The first ultimate 5004 is the 5004A. Yes, for those who know Patek, they know that A stands for steel. In November 2011, word got out that Patek would make the last 50 5004s in a stainless steel case. The collecting world went nuts. Priced at over $300,000, these steel 5004s were engraved with the owner’s name on the caseback to discourage after market selling. It didn’t matter, because shortly after, we began to see them appear at auction.
This example sold at Christie’s Hong Kong for $409,000. The steel 5004 is, on paper, an exceptionally cool watch, though at the time of writing, there is some rumbling amongst the hardest of hardcore Patek collectors that, in fact, more than 50 examples were made to appease client demand. And that has pissed off a lot of people. Consider the fact that the 5004 was made for 15 years, with an average of 12 pieces per year. That’s just 180 watches. Now, all of a sudden, you have have an additional 50+ watches on the market in steel? That might actually mean there are more 5004s out there in steel than any other metal!
There are other special 5004s out there, like those with special dials and even a few with factory bracelets. But, the 5004 to end all 5004s is the 5004T – yes, that’s the unique piece in titanium that sold at Only Watch last year for $3.98 million. That’s more than the Clapton 2499, people.
Ah, the 5970. Some call it the best watch Patek Philippe ever made. Some describe it as perfectly proportioned. Others call it the last of the great Patek Philippes. The 5970 was introduced in 2004 and shuttered in 2011 with the introduction of the in-house 5270. That’s a seven year production run, making it the shortest run of any Patek perpetual chrono. That, coupled with a modern 40mm case size, a dial that is balanced perfectly with the inclusion of a tachymeter scale, and a look totally different from its forefathers make the 5970 a true stand out watch. Inside the 40mm case case you have the same Lemania-based movement you’ll find in both the 3970 and the 5020. But with the increased diameter, many will say the balance of the watch is superior to that of the earlier and smaller 3970.
With the 5970, things are pretty cut and dry. It was made in four different metals, with the platinum model standing out high above the rest as most desirable. That said, many believe the 5970J (yellow) to be the rarest. You won’t find too many dial variations on the 5970, but you will see Tiffany signatures and the occasional special order dial. The 5970 is arguably one of the safest investments in watches. Consider the fact that New York Magazine ran this story in 2005 questioning if the 5970G was worth the then $89,600 price tag. That same watch now sells for around $145,000 on the secondary market. 5970s are as good as (if not better than) gold.
This 5970J with champagne dial brought down $353,000 last December, all because of the rarity of the dial. Yes, that’s a good $200,000 premium over the normal 5970J simply because of a dial color. You’ll expect to pay around $130,00-$150,000 for rose, white, and yellow gold models, while you can expect to pay around $175,000 for a great platinum example. All 5970s are rising, and a platinum watch hit $217,000 in May of last year.
Is there an ultimate 5970? Again, I would say all 5970s are worthy of grail status, but there isn’t a steel 5970 or a titanium watch to speak of. I would say the most interesting 5970 that the collecting world knows of – and we know very, very little about it – belongs to our old friend from the 2499 section, Mr. Eric Clapton. There are photos of Clapton taken at the 2011 Italian Grand Prix wearing what appears to be a white metal 5970 with Breguet numerals.
One can barely make out the face of the watch, but it is clearly a 5970 and clearly not a production dial. You can see the watch a little better here.
Regardless, the 5970 remains the pinnacle of modern watch collecting and it will be where I conclude this journey into perpetual calendar chronographs from Patek Philippe. I will not go into the in-house 5270 and 5204 because they are still being made, thus the story has yet to really be formed on these watches. Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed our first Reference Points feature article. We’ll be back soon with round two.
We like to extend a special thanks to Michael Safdie and Madison Time for allowing us to use their watches in the filming and production of this feature story. All watches are currently available for purchase at this incredible Upper East Side store. You can see more on the shop here.