YEARS IN THE MAKING
We look back at the history and development of Patek Philippe’s most famous complications—the perpetual calendar
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.