It’s taken two decades but Patek Philippe’s waterbaby has finally shed the ‘Nautilus Lite’ reputation and emerged as a heavyweight in the men’s watch arena
By Alex Doak
It may only have been 20 years ago, but 1997 feels like a different time entirely. It was the year Tony Blair swept into Downing Street on a landslide and a D:Ream song; Steve Jobs was back at the helm of Apple and James Cameron’s logic-defying weepy Titanic (you could have got both of them on that door; it’s been proven) cleaned up at the Oscars.
There was optimism, a youthful buoyancy, a sense that the grey-suited grown-ups were being consigned to the cultural scrap heap. An attitude that obviously even made it to Switzerland, because 1997 was the year Patek Philippe launched the Aquanaut.
In many ways, it was a solution to a problem no one had with Patek. The launch of the Nautilus back in 1976 meant that there was already a sporty option for those wanting to buy into the brand but for whom a Calatrava was too staid.
However, maybe taking its cue from the release of the Royal Oak Offshore in 1993 and from the success of Hublot, Patek decided to play with the concept of what constitutes a luxury timepiece by mixing steel and rubber.
The case design of the Nautilus was the starting point, but rendered in a simple three-part design rather than the more complex two-part construction of the original. The slim indices were replaced with chunky numerals and, in a first for Patek, the strap was switched from steel to a composite rubber that was impervious to saltwater, UV deterioration and bacteria – named Tropical (possibly as a reference to the ‘tropic’ straps found on diving watches from the 1960s).
It was also the first time a watch with an exhibition caseback, which revealed the Nautilus’s 330SC movement, had been given a depth rating of 120m, something which was achieved through the tri-part case.
It was an instant success with the young-at-heart watch buyer who would think nothing of pairing Converse with a suit jacket (Paul McCartney and Ed Sheeran being the Aquanaut’s highest-profile wearers) and quickly became one of Patek’s best-selling men’s watches.
After a decade of success, Patek decided to use the Aquanaut’s 10th birthday as a chance for a revamp. The original references 506X were replaced with the 516X series, which had a more subtle checkboard pattern on the dial, a strap that was integrated into the lines of the case and no number 3 bumping up against the date window.
A bold venture into complications later (2011’s Travel Time) Patek Philippe’s jock watch started to mingle with the nerds – or Patek’s Advanced Research to be precise. A dial cutaway reminiscent of the Terminator performing motel-bathroom eye surgery reveals the brand’s first ‘compliant’ flexible mechanism – used to take the travel time elements down from 37 parts to 12. Its new silicon balance spring with patented terminal curve and inner boss giving an accuracy of –1 to +2 seconds per 24 hours almost seem nonchalent.
And remarkably, despite 20 years separating the 5650G from its 1997 forebear, it’s still good to 120m. The waterbaby is all grown up, it seems.