Complicated sports watches breaking all the rules

Haute horologists are rising to the challenge of showcasing important complications in sports cases, says Nick Foulkes

Patek Philippe white-gold Nautilus perpetual calendar, from £91,150
Patek Philippe white-gold Nautilus perpetual calendar, from £91,150

It will have happened to you countless times: there you are splashing about in the ocean or doing lengths in the pool and you are suddenly seized by a desire to be reminded of the day, date, month, exact phase of the moon and whether it is a leap year or not. OK… it may not be the sort of situation to keep most of us awake at night, but then most of us do not run storied haute horlogerie watch brands with generations, if not centuries, of history. Recent months have seen launches of perpetual calendar wristwatches in sports cases from some of Switzerland’s longest-established, most revered watchmaking brands. The perpetual calendar is arguably the most magical of important complications. There is something compelling, almost philosophical, about the idea of a minute precision mechanism that informs its wearer of the day, month, date and state of the moon, accounting for the idiosyncrasies of the Gregorian calendar with its months of varying length and its cumbersome quadrennial adjustment of an extra day in February.

When it comes to fine watchmaking brands, few are shown more reverence than Patek Philippe, which took the opportunity at the Basel watch fair to launch a perpetual calendar version (from £91,150, pictured right) of its acclaimed Nautilus bracelet sports watch. At the moment the Nautilus is about as hot as a lunchtime barbecue in the middle of the Sahara, with waiting lists stretching years into a distant future. Designed for Patek by Gérald Genta and launched in 1976 as a time-and-date-only watch, the model enjoyed considerable popularity, but by the turn of the century demand had slowed. 

Vacheron Constantin pink-gold ultra‑thin Overseas, from £66,500
Vacheron Constantin pink-gold ultra‑thin Overseas, from £66,500

However, such has been its return to fashion in the past couple of years that, almost like a brand within a brand, it has grown from its original time and date execution, and expanded to include travel time, chronograph and annual calendar models. Now, with the appearance of one of the most celebrated of grand complications in the distinctive Nautilus case, some sort of horological Rubicon has been crossed. At Patek it is all the more significant because in 1925 Patek Philippe became the first watchmaker to place this precious mechanism on the wrist; now, 93 years later, it has placed it in a sports watch.

It is one of those watches that looks so right that one only wonders why it was not done sooner; and according to Patek’s head of watch development, Philip Barat, it would have been had it not been for the stubbornness of the firm’s president Thierry Stern. “The Nautilus is a very popular watch and for some years customers have been asking Thierry to offer a perpetual calendar – even inside Patek Philippe we all said we want this watch and, in the end, I think he got tired of answering no, no, no, no.”

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Stern’s fear was not that the watch would fail, but rather that he likes to challenge the customers by   offering them something they were not expecting – “and it was not really a surprise,” admits Stern. “I have been meeting a lot of people in the past two or three years who have said, ‘You’re going to launch it, we don’t know when, but you’re going to launch it.’” He adds, “The launch boosted the perpetual calendar – suddenly people are looking at it not as the complication for their father, they are looking at it as a nice complication to wear themselves; also, in terms of the thickness of the case, it is slim, it’s nice, I can wear it every day.”

The self-winding calibre 240Q was chosen for its thinness; but maintaining the purity of the original design was more problematic. The challenge was to integrate the four correctors for the display; usually between the lugs at 11, 1, 5 and 7 o’clock as the movement dictated, but which the integrated Nautilus bracelet made impossible. The problem was solved by sinking the external part of the correctors almost imperceptibly into the case wall and adding a linkage system inside the case wall: when the setting pin is applied, it activates a small rod that pushes a small hammer to make the correction. It is an elegant solution worthy of an elegant watch, which at 8.42mm is just 0.12mm thicker than the time and date version and the thinnest perpetual calendar the brand offers.

Breguet platinum Marine 5887, from £172,800
Breguet platinum Marine 5887, from £172,800

Thinness is also a preoccupation at Audemars Piguet, which with the 6.3mm Royal Oak RD2 (pictured below), still in its development stage, claims to have made “the world’s thinnest self-winding perpetual calendar”. Like the Nautilus, the Oak was designed by Gérald Genta in the 1970s, but, unlike the Nautilus, it already came in a perpetual calendar version. However, this year’s announcement demonstrates a new direction as Olivier Audemars, vice-chairman, explains. “We wanted to find a way to be able to put a perpetual calendar into a Royal Oak case that could be concealed by your shirt cuff. Traditionally, the way to make a thinner perpetual calendar has been to reduce the vertical distance between components, which of course makes the movement more susceptible to shocks. But wearers of sports watches tend to be younger and lead more active lives than the traditional wearer of complicated wristwatches. 

“Using the advanced precision manufacturing methods of today, Giulio Papi, head of our research division APRP, came up with the idea to miniaturise the components and change a three-storey movement into a single level.” As well as being “more elegant”, it is, says Audemars, “more robust than a regular perpetual calendar and something we intend to use for other complicated watches as an approach that is relevant to a generation of customers who are moving away from bulkier watches and learning to appreciate complicated timepieces, but whose tastes and lifestyles do not incline them to purchase a traditional, ‘precious’ grand complication.”

Blancpain stainless-steel Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe 5054, from £10,780
Blancpain stainless-steel Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe 5054, from £10,780

Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms was one of the world’s first modern diving watches, and in 2013 to celebrate its 60 years it brought out the archive-inspired Bathyscaphe. “It has become very popular,” says Blancpain CEO Marc Hayek. “Compared to the Fifty Fathoms, it’s more wearable, more discreet and a little bit smaller.” In particular, he is struck by the number of people between 25 and 35 buying it as an everyday watch. “We continue to work on this watch and broaden the range,” he continues. “We are introducing the Bathyscaphe 5054 complete calendar with moonphase [from £10,780, pictured bottom right] and the 5057 annual calendar [from £19,130].”

At Breguet, where Hayek is president, the brand has reached a crucial stage in sports-complication development with its new-generation Marine, rolled out in October. The most important complication in it, explains Hayek, is the perpetual calendar in the 5887 (from £172,800, pictured right). “Traditionally, with a perpetual you have many subdials, but we have chosen windows, which are easier to read at a glance, and, as the Marine is a sports watch, it should be especially resistant to shocks, so for us it is better to use guichet display to improve stability.” 

Audemars Piguet platinum extra-thin R6.3mm Royal Oak, still in development
Audemars Piguet platinum extra-thin R6.3mm Royal Oak, still in development

Even the longest continuously operational Geneva watch brand has entered the world of the grand complication sports watch. In the late 1970s Vacheron Constantin launched the 222, an integrated case and bracelet watch. Its descendant, the Overseas, was relaunched last year and appeared this year as a perpetual calendar (from £66,500, pictured on previous page). “Historically, sports watches were either time-only pieces or chronos,” says Vacheron’s artistic director Christian Selmoni. “However, watchmakers are putting classic complications into such timepieces because we like to have watches that we can use every day and while travelling; that is why this year we added dual time and perpetual calendar complications.” He believes the trend for what he prefers to term “sport-elegant” watches will see the introduction of “more and more complications. For instance, we have seen a lot of classic traditional tourbillon watches and it would be an ideal candidate for a sport-elegant watch.” 

Other brands already have tourbillon sports watches; but could it be that the oldest Geneva brand is ready to put the hallowed complication into a sports case? Selmoni answers with an enigmatic pun: “Time will tell for Vacheron Constantin.”

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