Of the venerable named watch collections, the Patek Philippe Calatrava stands out as one of the most iconic and established. For good reason – introduced in 1932 with the Reference 96, it claims in fact to be the very first named watch collection.
The Calatrava was also a powerful statement from the new caretakers of Patek Philippe. In 1932, and in the fallout of the Great Depression, the maison’s financial issues were solved with its acquisition by the Stern brothers, Jean and Charles Henri. They were at the time the exclusive dial suppliers for Patek Philippe. Today, the Stern family remains in command of the brand, principally through CEO Thierry Stern who is the fourth generation to be involved. Patek Philippe is hence, one of the oldest family-owned independent watchmakers still in the business.
The Calatrava also ushered the maison into a new era in watchmaking, one that changed the expectations that consumers had of a manufacture, and one that persists to today. At the time of the Calatrava’s launch, outsourcing the production of key components to specialist contractors was the industry norm – to movement specialists, for example, or to the Sterns for dials. The Sterns instead invested heavily in in-house capabilities, and the Calatrava soon became a symbol of Patek Philippe’s dedication to serial production with consistency and quality. In fact, the Reference 96 was the first Patek Philippe offering to have a model number at all, as opposed to being loosely identified by case number and description.
The Reference 96 would also come to define the aesthetic of the men’s dress watch. Its timeless design codes remain the archetype of elegance today; these include the small seconds indicator, plain light-coloured dial and simple baton markers. The designer of the Reference 96, David Penney, was highly influenced by the Bauhaus school’s philosophy on design and its efficient, minimalist but functional approach. The only part of the Reference 96 that would look out of place today is the small size of just 31 mm in diameter.
The subsequent decades would see the Calatrava grow into an all-encompassing flagship collection, with a tremendous variety of models from sporty to classical. In 1953, the Calatrava Reference 2526 debuted the 12-600AT, Patek Philippe’s first-ever automatic movement and considered by some to one of the greatest ever – it boasted of a one second variation per day, an exceptional statistic even today. It also debuted the adjustable Gyromax balance, which has ever since been a key technology for the maison.
The Calatrava still blossoms today as a pillar for Patek Philippe and remains a vehicle for introductions and innovations. As recently as last year, for example, the quirky 5212A Weekly Calendar (RM131,500) was introduced as a Calatrava. Across the collection, there are about 20 models to choose from – amongst both men’s and ladies’ offerings – but the purist will want to take a look at the Reference 5196, available in yellow (RM82,000), white (RM89,200) and rose gold (RM89,200). Introduced in 2004, it is one of the closest in spirit to the original Reference 96 – a manually wound, time-only dress watch with small seconds indicator, plain dial, and simple baton markers. The size has been updated to a modern but still demure 37mm, while the seconds subdial has been made even cleaner. It is a formula that has stood for nearly 90 years and is doubtless good for many more.