In an age with myriad complications flooding the market, it is easy to forget that there was a period when watches were simple; a period when watches served the core purpose they were designed for – that which to tell the passing of time. As tastes evolve over generations, so does watch design, but some things never truly die – a quiet 3-hander ‘time-only’ loses no relevance for centuries and centuries to come, and its best embodiment exists in the Patek Philippe Calatrava, oft claimed to be the best dress watch ever made.
Drawing upon Bauhaus design philosophies of clean lines and harmony, the Patek Philippe Calatrava dial is a perfectly balanced work of art, enclosed within a true circle 3-part case featuring a thin bezel, flat crown, and the hallmark lugs, which protrude as a natural extension integrated into the case.
That being said, a simple design should be a simple thing to design, and Calatrava-styled watches were also produced by other Swiss houses, notably Longines and IWC. However, the Patek Philippe Calatrava remains as the only one in active production some 80 years later, which begs the curious question: why did a timeless design prevail for Patek Phillipe and not its competitors?
Patek Philippe introduced the first Calatrava (ref. 96) in 1932 – a remarkably thin 31 mm model – during the art-deco period where large numerals, gondolo cases and impractical ornamentation were pillars in watch design. It was both a bold deviation, and a return to the utilitarian roots of watches: to tell time with clarity. Interest was ignited, and as the dreamy era of art-deco phased away, similarly-styled watches started appearing in the late 30s – 40s.
Products live on based on its brand essence. While Longines and IWC, having also been founded in the 1800s, were fair contenders in the longevity game, the lack of identity for its identically designed watches were easily classified as ‘a minimalistic watch from Longines/IWC’. Case in point, such vintage pieces are still referred to as ‘Calatrava-styled Longines’ or the like to this day. The concept of grouping models under a collection only came about in 1952 for Longines with its Conquest line, and 1955 for IWC’s Ingenieur.
In contrast, Patek Philippe adopted the namesake of the Calatrava knights – an 11th century Spanish military order – from the onset for its collection. Its sigil, the Calatrava cross, will also eventually adorn the crown and clasp of future models. Being first may not always count for anything, but for Patek Philippe, it was the immortalization of an icon; the Calatrava set the standards by which all dress watches would be measured, similar to what the Submariner did to dive watches.
Patek Philippe never made tool watches. From its beginnings in 1839, there was a singular focus on exquisite timepieces. While the Nautilus was introduced in the 70s to compete in a market with increasingly discerning tastes, the synonymity of Patek Philippe with high luxury was cemented in its early days; and the dress watch was a symbol which resonated with these principles.
IWC has a long-standing association with aviation and a legacy steeped in pilot watches. Longines, too, had similar ‘man’s man’ roots, with its expedition chronometers and aeronautical instruments. During World War II, both companies made watches commissioned by the military. A diverse history adds colour to brands, which is excellent as it tells great stories, but yet, diversity equally represents non-specialization.
Longines and IWC continued to expand its offerings, from divers to chronographs, while refining its core models. Dress watches were never part of either brand’s DNA, and the Calatrava-styled watches faded out. Their timeless appeal, though, saw both companies occasionally paying tribute to its past through reintroductions under a ‘heritage collection’ branding.
Here’s not saying that Patek Philippe did go not beyond dress watches, but rather, the legend that is the Calatrava enjoys a champion status within its weight class, and has been doing so on an unbroken production spanning 8 decades. Of course, there are more than a handful of answers to the same question, from the fact that Patek Philippe remains as the only family-owned manufacture in Geneva, which means they can dodge the bureaucracy and group-level decision making – where commercial strategy triumphs over heritage preservation – that comes with being part of a conglomerate (Longines – Swatch / IWC – Richemont), to its classy marketing where no man truly owns a Patek Philippe, and everything in between.
Just know that you could do no wrong with a Patek Philippe Calatrava. After all, the mark of true luxury lies not in the grand gesture but the simple things done right.