The Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot is perhaps the most outlandish standard production watch this Genevan giant produces. Despite a tepid reception in 2015, let’s take a look at this evolving and unlikely triumph.
In the field of watchmaking (as it is in the automotive world), it’s hardly uncommon to witness press beratement when presented with a new and seemingly misplaced product. Such was the reception of the 2015 Patek Philippe 5524. Taking on the complication of Travel Time with an unusual triple-crown arrangement, this watch was — for the first time for a Patek Philippe — a pilot’s watch.
Since this release, the pilot’s watch from Geneva’s most celebrated watchmaker has taken on forms ranging from a simple, three-hand arrangement to a complex and unexpected alarm. Despite this obvious good will from Patek Philippe, the pilot’s watch has never really overcome the initial stigma it faced 5 years ago yet I believe that this simply doesn’t tell the whole story. Join me today to find out how this watch means far more that it at first appears. Perhaps it could even be categorised as truly ground-breaking from the Stern family’s brand.
So, why did Patek Philippe choose to release an overtly vintage-inspired pilot’s watch in 2015? It certainly wasn’t because of much of an aviation history. Patek Philippe, founded in 1839, was never a brand for professionals. Professional businessmen or industrialists, without a doubt. But professional sportsmen, explorers or pioneers, certainly not. Therefore, the question clearly stands: why did Patek Philippe go down this route?
Before dismissing their endeavours completely, they did have a few dalliances with pilot’s watches in the 1920s and 1930s but none lasted beyond the 2nd World War despite a rather delightful 1936 Hour Angle Watch. Even so, the connection between this Genevan company and the aeronautical world is tenuous at best.
Perhaps this lack of focus on such a market in period was unsurprising. After all, in 1932, Patek Philippe changed hands and took direction from the Stern family which continues to run the company to this day. During that time of change, ensuring command of a known market was crucial and so, with the Calatrava ref. 96, Patek cemented themselves as the reference in dress watch making.
So, what is the answer to the question posed earlier? Well, you can look at this in one of two ways. The first is that Patek Philippe, being an undeniably astute company, recognised that sports watches and all-things-vintage were extremely popular and decided to wade in with their own offering. The other is that Patek Philippe took the opportunity to add imagination to their range. Of the two, the second is by far the more interesting to ponder.
Consider Patek Philippe’s position. This is a brand known for high horology dress watches and displays of superlative watchmaking. Such watches rarely provide the opportunity to experiment and, even when they do in, for instance, the case of the Calatrava 6007A, the formula is clearly rooted in market interests (stainless steel, blue dial, etc.). With the pilot’s collection, on the other hand, Patek applied their knowhow to something new and genuinely exciting.
With that initial release in 2015, Patek Philippe showed a watch in which there was real extremity. This was a watch which was firstly a legible tool for travelling and secondly a Patek Philippe. Its 42mm size gave it a well-spaced layout whilst the dark dial and luminous markers afforded it legibility on and off the wrist. Even so, you may be wondering why the Nautilus and Aquanaut don’t fall into the same category of sporting Patek Philippe?
Of course, they do but not in the same way as the Pilot. The Nautilus was famously designed in minutes and released in 1976 to cater to a new market: the market for a luxury, steel watch. Its sporting characteristics were contemporaneously secondary and, judging by its more frail competitor, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, usually unnecessary. The Aquanaut, on the other hand, was launched to appeal to a different market of young millionaires in the midst of the Dot.com Bubble. At 35.6mm to the 37.5 of the Nautilus and not designed by Gerald Genta, it wasn’t conceived to replace the Nautilus but instead was designed to appeal to a new, younger market. The Pilot, though, is a comprehensively different animal.
The Patek Philippe Pilot
In 2015, the Pilot launched not in a simple, three-hand configuration but as the 42mm ref. 5524 with a complex travel time system. Built on the base of Patek’s cal. 324 automatic movement, this added two locking pushers to the left-hand side to advance and reverse the travel time hand, itself able to be hidden under the hour hand. Two day-night indicators allow 24 hours to be displayed on both hands. Consider this a GMT-plus. Today, this is available in white or rose gold as well as in the smaller 37.5mm ref. 7234 which was launched in unlimited form earlier this year.
In 2017, the next chapter was launched but, as if teasing its clientele, in a limited edition of 600 pieces exclusively for the US market. No indication of a repeat has been given. This was the ref. 5522A: a slimmer, time-only, steel version of the 5524. Obviously, this was an appeal to the desire for steel luxury watches at the height of this market’s buying power. Even so, the ref. 5522A presented final proof that Patek’s formula for a pilot’s watch was a successful one. It also reminded me of the very artifice which was Patek’s pilot’s watch. Here was the most distilled version of their vision of what would have been a pilot’s watch on the wrists of aviation pioneers in the midnight skies of the North Africa or the Andes.
The most recent and complicated version of this watch is the ref. 5520P – a model only available in platinum and with a truly superlative level of complication at its heart. Derided by many for its arachnoid appendages in the form of 8 protrusions (if you include the lugs), this is probably the most accomplished pilot’s watch available. With that being said, for a couple of hundred thousand euros, this should come as no surprise.
At 42.2mm, this watch retains much of the same dial layout as the 5524 but now in pure black. Above the date sub-dial, a digital time display is visible alongside what looks like another day-night indicator. In fact, these display the alarm function of this watch in a thoroughly unusual way but surely not as unusual as the way the alarm itself functions. At the heart of the 5520P is the hardly-memorable cal. AT 30-660 S C FUS – a movement which uses a minute repeating mechanism to sound the alarm. This, I hasten to remind you, is a complication generally regarded as being far more complex than a tourbillon and a rung above even a perpetual calendar. In it is the quintessential inertial governor which controls the chiming by allowing weights to move outwards when spun whilst the actual sound of the alarm is no crude buzzing but an elegant chime from a hammer striking a gong. As a consequence of this remarkable movement, the Patek Philippe Pilot ref. 5520P is hardly regular.
A Unique Proposition
This is, if you will, deciding to use handmade katana passed down through generations and kept in the finest condition in the place of a machete to hack through the jungle. Whilst undoubtedly profligate, you can’t deny that using a minute repeater mechanism instead of a buzzing alarm both sounds better and shows a truly elevated level of watchmaking. Let’s at least call it a charming idiosyncrasy as a profoundly subtle way to elevate the watch which goes far deeper than adding diamonds or rose gold ever could. If you look at this watch in relation to the collection it shows Patek’s confidence in the pilot given the elevated status of such a movement.
So, does the Patek Philippe Calatrava Pilot truly deserve the celebration which I give it here? Well, it isn’t as detailed or as historically important as other Patek Philippe models yet it has shown a crucial aspect to this brand: when they want to do something new, they show no lack of ability. In this regard, the Patek Philippe Pilot is a triumph, but what do you think?