The Patek Philippe Calatrava: a series so often regarded as the peak of luxury, it has become the modern-day “Grail watch” for so many collectors, of both vintage and contemporary watches. Famed initially for its simplicity, originality, and timelessness of design, the Calatrava series set out from the start to follow the German Bauhaus school of design, which championed the tenets of minimalism and functionality.
Released in 1932 shortly after Patek Philippe’s acquisition by the Stern family, the Calatrava series was named after the Calatrava cross, derived from medieval Christian heritage, which Patek uses as its corporate logo. The Reference 96 (pictured above), the very first in the series, was groundbreaking for its time — starkly contrasting the more intricate dial and case designs of the preceding years (think Art Deco and early pilot watches).
Today, as much as yesteryear, the Calatrava series maintains an esteemed standing in the world of horology. Though we now know it through many different references, we will be focusing our “Vintage Eye” upon the Ref. 5196 (examples below), a contemporary re-interpretation of the original design.
Available in platinum or white, yellow or rose gold, this 37-mm, manually wound watch strongly resembles the 31-mm piece from the early 1930s. With its sleek case, understated signed crown, and flat bezel, the watch is relatively thin and meant to slip easily beneath a shirt cuff. On the dial is a somewhat textured, silvered background for the applied gold, tick hour markers, an outline of an applied gold outer minute ring, and a minimalist, small seconds sub-dial toward the 6 o’clock position. The dauphine hands, a personal favorite style choice of mine (see my coverage of the Grand Seiko), are powered by Patek’s Caliber 215 PS, a movement with a power reserve of about 44 hours, and the watch has an overall thinness of 8 mm. Prices at most dealers for this piece begin around $18,000.
In comparison to the original Reference 96, the modern 5196 pays what I find to be an honorable homage to its vintage heritage. With its applied, understated hour markers, dauphine hands, subdial, and slim case — the modern piece would have no problem potentially passing itself off as a vintage timepiece. Also, one of the features that draws much praise here is the 5196’s solid, polished caseback. Most makers of modern, luxury watches today, choose to show off the watch’s intricately decorated movement through a clear caseback, but with the 5196, Patek opted instead opted to follow its Bauhaus heritage and truly allow form to follow function, as many are apt to state.
The 5196, being a re-interpretation and not a re-creation, also has a few noteworthy changes from its predecessor. The most obvious one is the 6-mm increase in the case size, but you might also notice the overall better finishing as well as more sleekness in the modern watch: the crown is slimmer and tighter to the case, and there is a more intricate use of both brushed and polished metal finishes as compared to the original, which was mostly polished. Some other changes include the more textured dial, the more minimalist subdial, and the applied outer minute ring — all features not present on the first examples of Reference 96.
Since approximately the early 1980s, vintage watches have continued to draw more, and more passionate, interest from a wider range of consumers. The Patek Philippe brand new watch , and specifically the Calatrava series, has been at the center of much of this attention. As a result, almost all Pateks are regarded as highly collectible pieces, and even relatively basic time-only watches, such as this modern Calatrava Ref. 5196, command relatively high prices, with many believing they have the potential to actually increase in value over time.
Whether this proves true or not in the long run for modern Patek Philippes I could not say, but I would argue if a consumer has the means and the will to acquire a Patek Philippe watch, the 5196 is one of the best options available. Very few other watches today can boast such a strong history, timeless style, and minimalist but still fascinating design — to me, the three best characteristics of a watch that you plan to hide beneath a tailored tuxedo jacket.