ICON: The Patek Philippe Nautilus

Welcome back to ‘ICONS’ — a recurring series where we examine some of the most important wristwatches in history. Today, we discuss Gerald Genta’s second most famous design: The famed Patek Philippe Nautilus.
By Kevin Cureau

It’s hard to talk about the Patek Philippe Nautilus without mentioning the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Designed by Gerald Genta, the Patek Philippe Nautilus was released in 1976 and constitutes his second most famous design after the Royal Oak of course that would become one of the real icons of the watchmaking industry.

The two models arrived on the scene just as the Quartz Revolution was beginning: an event that was putting traditional watchmakers and brands out of business. They were released in steel (usually a material reserved for more affordable timepieces) and priced higher than many gold models being produced at the time. As time-only watches, they were also a far cry from the sports models of the time, which were mainly purpose-driven (e.g. for diving and racing), with complications built to meet a certain challenge. 

Indubitably, the Royal Oak and the Nautilus' most significant achievement was the formation of an entirely new segment within the market: the luxury sports watch.


1976, The First Nautilus: Ref. 3700

Because it arrived on the market four years after the Royal Oak, many called the Nautilus out for copying what Audemars Piguet did a few years prior. You could argue that there are similarities, but the Nautilus in fact had its own design language: a case inspired by a ship’s porthole and “ears” on the sides that served to attach the bezel to the case, thus creating only one opening. As a result, both the movement and dial of the Nautilus were raised from the front of the case.

Speaking of the movement, the Ref. 3700 was powered by the self-winding calibre 28-255. This was derived from the famous Caliber 920: developed in 1967 by Jaeger-LeCoultre, and subsequently co-opted by Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet.

Part of the Nautilus’s appeal and now, an iconic element of the watch  was the ribbed dial, characterised by the presence of thick horizontal grooves. 

Due to its large 42mm case size — rather big for the 1970s — interest for the Nautilus didn’t accelerate until the introduction of a smaller case size.


1981, The Mid-Sized Nautilus: Ref. 3800

Nautilus Ref. 3800 in steel
Nautilus Ref. 3800 in yellow gold

At 37.5mm, the mid-sized 3800 was more in line with the times, and the smaller luxury timepieces Patek Philippe was making. Between the 3700 and 3800, the changes weren’t huge: the downscaled model retained the design of the original watch, while the look of the dial remained unchanged. 

The main visual difference was the addition of a central seconds hand to accompany the hours and minutes. This also meant that Patek had changed the movement inside the watch. At its heart was the in-house Patek Philippe Caliber 335 — finished to the highest standards of the Maison

Just like the original 3700, the 3800 was also produced in a variety of different metals: including steel, gold, and two-tone (both). Even the 3800 got a revamped dial in 1996, with Patek introducing a plain, matte-black dial with Roman numerals, breaking free from the signature ribbed dial design that had been present since the Nautilus’ release in 1976.


1998, Complications & Back To Basics: Ref. 3710

Nautilus Ref. 3710

As years went by and the market became more accepting of larger watches — with AP launching the Royal Oak Offshore in 1993 — Patek Philippe decided to reintroduce the Nautilus’ original 42mm size. However, simply adjusting the case size would have been too simple, so the Maison decided to introduce, for the first time, complications to the lineup. 

The original 3700 was discontinued in 1990, so for about 8 years, the largest Nautilus available was the 37.5mm 3800. The reintroduction of the 42mm Nautilus was a welcome addition to the collection. The model brought with it a power reserve indicator at 12 o’clock, which meant that the ‘Patek Philippe’ signature had to be moved to the lower 6 o’clock position, a first in the Nautilus collection. Surprisingly, the 3710 was produced in only one version: steel with a black dial.

Here would be a good time to make a small detour by bringing up the Ref. 3712. Introduced in 2005 and produced for only one short year before being replaced by the 5712, the 3712 introduced other complications to the Nautilus for the first time. Notable features included a power reserve at 10:30; a moonphase & date at 7; and a small second at 4.


2006, The Modern Nautilus: Ref. 5711

Front of Nautilus Ref. 5711
Back of Nautilus Ref. 5711

The year 2006 (i.e. the 30th anniversary of the Nautilus) saw the introduction of what has since become one of the hottest watches on Earth: the Nautilus 5711.

The 5711 was introduced as part of a new collection of four Nautilus models featuring a slightly re-designed case with curved hinges on its sides. It heralded the return of the time-only ‘Jumbo’, which hadn’t been offered since the 1990s. It brought with it a display caseback that showed off Patek Philippe’s calibre 324, and a new tripartite case design.

Nautilus Ref. 5712

Among the 2006 collection, we saw updates to the 3712; the 5712; a continuation of the mid-sized 3800 with the 5800; and the arrival of the first Nautilus to incorporate a chronograph complication, the 5980. All of these were launched in steel a decision that, in and of itself, made a lot of collectors happy.

Since the reintroduction of the ‘Jumbo’ Nautilus, the eponymous collection has expanded to include models with an annual calendar complication (Ref. 5726), a travel-time chronograph (Ref. 5990), and a perpetual calendar (Ref. 5740). On top of that, a myriad of materials have been used to produce the model, extending to a version covered in diamonds (Ref. 5719).

Needless to say, the Patek Philippe Nautilus has left its (port-hole shaped) mark on the watch industry, and without doubt deserves the title of an ‘icon’. 

Nautilus Ref. 5980


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