Among a handful of watches that Patek Philippe introduced this year, the yellowgold version of the Ref. 5270J-001 Perpetual Calendar Chronograph ($176,240) stands out. The timepiece’s transparent sapphire-crystal case back showcases its intricate movement, which initially debuted in 2011 as the first chronograph with a perpetual calendar crafted entirely in-house. It’s just the latest leap for Patek Philippe, one of the earliest pioneers of the perpetual calendar. The brand introduced the world’s first wristwatch with such a complication in 1925. (That one-off cleverly repurposed a small movement from a circa 1898 ladies pendant watch that had gone unsold.)
Then in 1941, the brand debuted the Ref. 1518 perpetual calendar and chronograph — a dual complication that quickly became part of its regular collection. The Ref. 1526 perpetual calendar without a chronograph bowed the following year. Both models are distinguished by a dial layout, featuring double apertures for the day and month at 12 o’clock, and a subsidiary dial at 6 o’clock for the analog date and moon phases. And both have topped the wish lists of connoisseur collectors worldwide for decades.
That same bold, retro dial layout is echoed in 2017’s Ref. 5320G perpetual calendar. But the update adds even more information to the dial readout, with a round day/ night indicator, between 7 and 8 o’clock, and a round aperture showing the leap-year cycle with Arabic numerals between 4 and 5 o’clock. Measuring a decidedly up-to-date 40 mm, the contemporary 18-k white-gold watch plays up its vintage character with three-tier lugs and a creamy lacquered dial, appointed with luminous hands and retro-style Arabic numerals.
“Collectors revere Patek Philippe’s historic vintage models as well as their modern offerings,” notes Paul Boutros, who oversees watches in the Americas at Phillips auction house in New York. He says the brand’s appeal lies in “ultrathin robust designs, highly logical layouts and timeless aesthetics that characterize their perpetual calendar models, such as the Ref. 5327 or 5320 [above, $92,259].”
Perpetual calendars were watchmaking’s response to the idiosyncrasies of the Gregorian calendar, established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
Indeed, the watchmaker’s reverence for the function is evident if you visit the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. Not only will you see its midcentury marvels, you may also catch a glimpse of the first portable perpetual calendar in existence, a pocket watch created in 1762 by the complication’s inventor, English horologist Thomas Mudge.
So what prompted Mudge to devise his ingenious mechanism? Perpetual calendars were watchmaking’s response to the idiosyncrasies of the Gregorian calendar, established by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. While the system — 12 months of varying lengths, with 365 24-hour days — corrected issues with the preceding Julian calendar, there were still inherent discrepancies thanks to a slightly longer solar year (the length of time the Earth takes to complete a full revolution around the sun). An extra day was added to February — every four years — to balance things out.
A perpetual calendar watch deftly follows step, keeping track of the date year after year by automatically adjusting for months of different lengths, including leap years. (That is until March 1, 2100, when Gregory’s calendar throws another corrective curve ball by skipping the leap year.) When you consider the complexity of the mechanism, it’s easy to understand why the perpetual calendar is held in such high esteem among watch enthusiasts.
At a Geneva auction last June, Phillips sold a circa 1948 Ref. 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph in pink gold with a pink dial for $3,565,224, setting a record for that model and style. Four years earlier, a Phillips Geneva sale offered an even rarer 1943 stainless steel Ref. 1518, which topped $11 million, setting what was then a world record for the most expensive wristwatch ever sold.
Time, after all, is money.