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Feature: How The Calatrava Saved Patek Philippe

It’s ironic that Patek Philippe’s Calatrava model arrived slap-bang in the middle of the Great Depression. The brand’s signature model is now the barometer for classic dress watches, a perfect amalgam of elegance and refinement that’s never more at home than when peeking out of the cuff of a tuxedo jacket.

But on its release in 1932 the world was just about scraping through one of the worst economic downturns in history after the stock market crash of 1929.

The value of Swiss watch exports inevitably shrank and by the 1930s, Patek Philippe, having so far led a fairly charmed existence, found itself on unsteady ground.

It needed a hit badly, and that almost came in the form of a watch that couldn’t have looked more different to the Calatrava.

Wait… A Patek Philippe Reverso?

In 1931 the brand purchased eight Reverso cases off LeCoultre, with whom it had close relations, and made them commercially available, selling all of them within a year.

Jaeger-LeCoultre's Reverso model was briefly adopted by Patek Philippe

Jaeger-LeCoultre's Reverso model was briefly adopted by Patek Philippe

The Reverso model, known in the Patek catalogue as reference 106, was potentially the company’s saviour. But it wasn’t to be. Maybe Jacque-David LeCoultre, captivated by this unorthodox watch, had cold feet about giving it to a rival. Or perhaps the Stern brothers, who had just taken a controlling interest in Patek Philippe, were wary of selling a watch made by an external manufacturer.

Instead they commissioned the English watchmaker David Penney to come up with something that would shake up the industry the way the Audemar Piguet Royal Oak did decades later.

The reference 96, the original Calatrava design

The reference 96, the original Calatrava design

From today’s perspective, of course, the classic Calatrava design might seem about as innovative as your average tea-cup. Place one alongside a Richard Mille and you might as well be comparing the Mona Lisa with Kim Kardashian.

But when it arrived on the scene it was a revelation.

The Calatrava Was A Game-changer

Wristwatches in the 1930s were being made in several case shapes, with none particularly dominant. Square, tonneau, rectangular and cushion cases were popular, while round cases weren’t standard by any stretch of the imagination. And then the first Calatrava arrived with its uncluttered dial, baton numerals and dauphine hands.

Taking inspiration from the German Bauhaus movement, whose mantra was ‘form follows function’, Penney’s watch, the Reference 96—it was decades before it was actually given the name ‘Calatrava’— suited the austerity of the era perfectly while not compromising on quality. Calatravas almost always came in precious metals but there were, very rarely, steel versions.

A modern Calatrava with concentric dial in a stainless steel case

A modern Calatrava with concentric dial in a stainless steel case

Since then, its look has never fallen out of favour and it’s been a mainstay in Patek’s catalogue. It’s become the most copied watch design ever, with most high-end brands able to count a watch that could be described as Calatrava-esque in their collection. And Patek itself has produced so many variations that it’s sometimes easy to forget the simple Reference 96 that started it all.

Today’s line-up includes sporty steel models like the 5212A, or a version with a pilot’s dial like the 5524R-001. But for most luxury watch lovers, the classic Calatrava look is something that never veers to far away in style from those pared-down early models.

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