We look back at the his­tory and de­vel­op­ment of Patek Philippe’s most fa­mous com­pli­ca­tions—the per­pet­ual cal­en­dar

Singapore Tatler Jewels & Time - - Contents - Text Ni­co­lette Wong

Patek Philippe's key high­light this year is the per­pet­ual cal­en­dar

The in­ter­nal work­ings of me­chan­i­cal watches never cease to amaze. Some­how, without the use of elec­tric­ity, the in­ter­net, or in­stru­ments to mea­sure the pre­cise os­cil­la­tion fre­quency of cae­sium, each me­chan­i­cal watch is able to pre­cisely track the pas­sage of time. And in this as­pect, there are few com­pli­ca­tions more im­pres­sive and com­plex than the per­pet­ual cal­en­dar and the one brand that can be said to be the premier author­ity—patek Philippe.

Its ex­per­tise in mak­ing per­pet­ual cal­en­dar watches (de­fined as time­pieces that can ac­cu­rately com­pute the ex­act time and date across cen­turies, without any ex­ter­nal in­for­ma­tion be­ing in­put be­yond its ini­tial ref­er­ence time) is one that has been built over nearly 150 years. The brand first started build­ing per­pet­ual cal­en­dar watches in 1864, nearly a cen­tury after English­man Thomas Mudge in­vented the com­pli­ca­tion in 1762. It is un­clear why it took al­most 100 years for Swiss watch­mak­ers to catch on to the per­pet­ual cal­en­dar, but we sur­mise it has some­thing to do with the difficulty of trans­fer­ring in­for­ma­tion across long dis­tances back in the 18th cen­tury. Not only do the watch­mak­ers have to ac­count for the dif­fer­ence in the num­ber of days per month (par­tic­u­larly when it comes to the both­er­some 28-day cy­cle), per­pet­ual cal­en­dars must also know when leap years oc­cur—and no, it is not al­ways once ev­ery four years. Ev­ery cen­turial year (that is, years end­ing in 00) will not

be a leap year if they can­not be di­vided per­fectly by 400 without any re­main­der. (The year 1700, for ex­am­ple, is not a leap year be­cause it leaves a re­main­der of 100, but the year 1600 is a leap year be­cause it can be per­fectly di­vided by 400.) This par­tic­u­lar quirk of our cal­en­dar means that per­pet­ual cal­en­dar watches must be ad­justed on av­er­age once ev­ery 100 years, when­ever there is a Fe­bru­ary with no leap day, with an ex­cep­tion once ev­ery 400 years.

De­spite the de­lay in adopt­ing the per­pet­ual cal­en­dar, Patek Philippe was still con­sid­ered a pioneer of the com­pli­ca­tion, and was granted a patent for its per­pet­ual cal­en­dar mech­a­nism in 1889. The com­pli­ca­tion soon found its way into a num­ber of pocket watches, but it wasn’t un­til 1925 that the brand cre­ated the world’s first per­pet­ual cal­en­dar wrist­watch. Sur­pris­ingly, the watch (with a ref­er­ence num­ber of 97’975) did not be­gin life as a wrist­watch. It was orig­i­nally in­tended to be a ladies’ pen­dant watch, and was made in 1898, but then re­pur­posed for a his­tory-mak­ing time­piece. It was sold to an Amer­i­can man in 1927, but has since found its way home to Patek Philippe, and is now on dis­play in the Patek Philippe mu­seum in Geneva.

De­spite the ex­is­tence of the Cal­iber 12’’’, Patek Philippe didn’t start pro­duc­ing per­pet­ual cal­en­dar wrist­watches as part of its reg­u­lar col­lec­tions un­til 1941, when the brand cre­ated the Ref 1526. It re­mained in pro­duc­tion un­til 1952 and had a yel­low gold case with aper­tures for the day, month and moon phases. The date was dis­played on a sub­dial.

In 1962 came yet another land­mark ref­er­ence, the Ref 3448, which was the first ever self-wind­ing per­pet­ual cal­en­dar wrist­watch. It housed the cal­iber 27460 with a per­pet­ual cal­en­dar mod­ule, mak­ing it the 27-460Q. The move­ment used a yel­low gold mi­cro-ro­tor and was known to be in­cred­i­bly ef­fi­cient. It had a sub­dial with a date in­di­ca­tion. It was only in 1993 that Patek Philippe cre­ated its first se­ri­ally-pro­duced per­pet­ual cal­en­dar wrist­watch with a ret­ro­grade date hand, that moved along the date arc be­tween 8 o’clock and 4 o’clock.

In be­tween th­ese two ref­er­ences, how­ever, was another im­por­tant per­pet­ual cal­en­dar watch, the Ref 3940. It was cre­ated in 1985, in the midst of the quartz cri­sis that was dev­as­tat­ing the Swiss watch in­dus­try. Philippe Stern, the then-head hon­cho, wanted to cre­ate a watch that had the pre­ci­sion and thin­ness that would outdo its quartz ri­vals. The Ref 3940 was thus cre­ated, us­ing the ul­tra-thin base cal­iber 240 from 1977. With the per­pet­ual

cal­en­dar mod­ule, it mea­sured a mere 3.88mm thick. Patek Philippe also used the cal­iber 240 in its first ladies’ per­pet­ual cal­en­dar wrist­watch, the Ref. 7140 launched in 2012.

This year, Patek Philippe has taken a leaf out of its own book and cre­ated an all-new time­piece based on its pre­vi­ous per­pet­ual cal­en­dar watches. The Ref 5320G most closely re­sem­bles the vin­tage watches of the 1940s and 1950s, with the sy­ringe hands of the Ref 1591 ( circa 1944) and the lay­out of the Ref 2497 (from 1951), which it­self ref­er­enced the lay­out of the Ref 1526. A moon­phase and date sub­dial ticks on at 6 o’clock and day and date aper­tures are laid out on ei­ther side of 12 o’clock. The creamy yel­low colour of the dial also mim­ics that of aged vin­tage watches. The vin­tage look of this watch is very much part of an over­ar­ch­ing trend to­wards re­vis­it­ing the vin­tage watches of yes­ter­year, but as self-ref­er­en­tial as it is, the Ref 5320G still man­ages to look like a quintessen­tially Patek Philippe per­pet­ual cal­en­dar. And that is some­thing that all watch con­nois­seurs can ap­pre­ci­ate.

The new Patek Philippe Ref 5320G takes vis­ual ref­er­ences from sev­eral past mod­els but its Cal­i­bre 324 SQ is the re­fined ver­sion of the leg­endary Cal­i­bre 324 that boasts a large 21K gold wind­ing ro­tor.

Fac­ing page: Singer John Mayer, a big watch en­thu­si­asts, sported a vin­tage Patek Philippe per­pet­ual cal­en­dar. While Patek Philippe is a mas­ter at cre­at­ing com­pli­ca­tions like per­pet­ual cal­en­dars, it spends a lot of time re­fin­ing the watch aes­thet­ics.

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