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Review: Patek Philippe Calatrava Travel Time

If you’ve got your sights set on a classic Daytona 116520, the pre-ceramic model, then there’s probably not much else out there that might turn your fancy. You’re unlikely to be swayed by an Omega, or a Breitling, probably not even a Jaeger-LeCoultre—but what about a Patek Philippe? And not just any old Patek Philippe, but a complicated one in white gold, no less. How does the Daytona look now?

It doesn’t take much to realise why a Patek Philippe might be more desirable than a Rolex. Well on its way to 200 years old, over a half-century older than Rolex, Patek Philippe is the watchmaker that gave us the keyless winding crown, the perpetual calendar and, most surprisingly, the first electronic clock, which started development way back in the 1940s. Patek Philippe may carry an air of old-fashioned traditionalism, but in its heyday, the brand was to be found right on the bleeding edge, accumulating patent after patent for its ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, though, Patek Philippe is a very traditional brand, especially post-quartz crisis when the balance flipped from the trusty mechanical timepiece to its battery-powered cousin, and perhaps a staple of that traditionalism is the Calatrava. Think of a watch, a simple yet classic watch, and guaranteed you’re thinking of the Calatrava. Designed by David Penney and debuted in 1932, it marked a turning point in the firm’s luck as, despite its reputation as an industry leader, it faced financial destruction in the wake of the Great Depression.

The company was, in its darkest hour, purchased by brothers Jean and Charles Henri Stern. As admirers of the great Patek Philippe, they not only knew that they had to keep the name on top—they also knew they’d have to do something pretty drastic to keep it alive at all. This, remember, was the time of the pocket watch, the wristwatch still a dainty trinket by comparison, worn only by women and, by necessity, soldiers. Not exactly the arena a colossus like Patek Philippe was expected to dabble in.

But create a wristwatch was exactly what the Sterns did, which wasn’t a first in itself, but as a flagship product it was previously unheard of. Rather ironically, it was this unlikely move that went on to become the face of what is considered Patek Philippe’s ardent traditionalism. Even more ironically, while many believe the Calatrava to fit the mould for traditional Swiss styling, its simple lines were actually inspired by the contemporary Bauhaus movement that dictated form to follow function. It’s no coincidence that the Calatrava looks like the classic interpretation of a watch; it is the classic interpretation of a watch, without flair or flourish.

It stands to reason that the Calatrava is the most respected—if perhaps not quite fully understood—of the Patek Philippe lines, and its roots have spread and diversified greatly over the last 80-odd years. But, of the price—a new entry-level Calatrava 5119J starts at a shade over £15,000, so how is it possible to procure a complicated variant for less than a Daytona?

Rewind the clock a decade and a half, to the early 2000s. Available in white or yellow gold—and for a limited time in platinum—Patek Philippe gave its classic Calatrava a travel time complication, and called it the 5134. Executed on top of a calibre 215 base, a hand-wound movement very much of the old-school, it is a refreshingly simple take on the traveller’s watch that’s as easy to use as it is to look at.

Never mind learning how to operate a bezel, or remembering which way to turn what crown—with the Calatrava Travel Time, the black oxidised gold hour hand is advanced forward one hour merely by pressing one of the two satisfyingly damped case-mounted pushers, and then back again with the other. Behind it is revealed a white gold hand that remains in place for home time, with a helpful twenty-four hour display at the top of the dial to remind you not to phone home at three in the morning.

But there must be a catch; a complicated Patek Philippe should be asking for way more money than the albeit-good-but-not-a-Patek-Philippe Daytona. And there is, sort of. This watch is showing its age by its dimensions, spanning the wrist at an undersized 37mm, including pushers. But before you disappointedly slip your credit card back into your wallet, there’s a saving grace: small is back in. If 2018’s Baselworld is anything to go by, small is becoming desirable again. And this is from Rolex, not exactly the trailblazers of trendsetting.

There’s one last sweetener in the Patek Philippe’s favour—as if you’d need anything more—and that’s its residuals. Although we’d all prefer to avoid buying a watch based solely on future worth, it can’t be helped taking it into consideration; the Daytona is, after all, a shining example in that respect. Well, so is the 5134. It may not have had the recent growth spurt the Daytona has enjoyed, but right now it’s still a serious rival for money in the bank.

On the one hand, it may be disappointing to have to spend so much on a Rolex Daytona these days, no thanks to incredible appreciation, but committing the same amount to a complicated Patek Philippe could be so much sweeter. Just close your eyes and imagine—which would you rather see on your bedside table when you wake up in the morning?

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