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The Patek Philippe Calatrava and timeless wristwatch design

There’s a reason why the classic dress watch design, and the watch that began it all, will never go out of style

Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 6119R and Ref. 6119G.
Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref. 6119R and Ref. 6119G. (Courtesy Patek Philippe)

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Winter seems to be on its way out in most parts of the country. In good old Delhi however, where I live, it’s still stubbornly clinging on, though losing its power everyday. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind the cold (or cool) weather lasting a little longer. One of the reasons is that I can continue enjoy wearing my favourite dress watches on their leather straps before it gets too hot and humid. Once summer’s here, it’s nearly impossible to use leather straps, so most of my watches go back on steel bracelets, and some on nato straps. In fact, between April and October, I don’t wear my dress watches at all.

Which is a real pity, since my favourite kind of watch is the dress watch. The thing is, the very nature of this style of wristwatches mean that, unless one comes with a purpose-built steel bracelet that compliments the look of the case, it’s very difficult to wear one without a strap. A dress watch, by its very nature, is a diminutive thing, and nine times out of ten, the only strap option that can truly compliment it is leather. Moreover, they’re ideally meant to be worn on formal occasions, and are meant to be discreet and tasteful, so a shiny bracelet is probably not the best option. Unless the dress watch in question is versatile enough to be dressed up with a strap or dressed down with a bracelet—like the peerless Seiko SARB035 I’m wearing as I write this—you need to stick to straps.

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This design choice is baked into the history of the wristwatch, and especially in the build of the Platonic ideal of all watches: the Patek Philippe Calatrava. Released exactly 90 years ago in 1932, the Calatrava Ref. 96 was born from a need to diversify away from large, conspicuous pocket watches, as well as for the watch industry to keep personal timepieces as an attractive commercial proposition in the face of the Great Depression. The round wristwatch design that we all know and love was essentially created by the Calatrava. Whether you’re talking dial layouts with a small seconds register above at the six’ o’ clock position, or with sweeping central seconds; with sector dials or with Breguet and Arabic numerals, the Calatrava led the way. Even as dial sizes increased from the 31mm Ref. 96 to the 35.5mm Ref. 570, these watches remained the epitome of dressing up: slim enough to slip under the cuff, never drawing attention to itself, and yet epitomising good taste. Since all dress watches ever made follow this blueprint, wearing them on leather straps is the most natural option.

As I said before, I love the dress watch aesthetic. And this is primarily for the minimalism that the dress watch design offers. At its most extreme, a dress watch needn’t even have a seconds hand; and one with a date window on the dial is serious flair! Over the course of the last century, as wristwatches expanded into the realm of becoming professional tools, they took on other characteristics. A dive watch with a rotating elapsed time bezel and 200m of water resistance was of actual use to a scuba diver. A watch with lumed hands and numerals paired with a high contrast dial was an actual tool for professionals like mountaineers or pilots who needed high legibility in poor conditions. A GMT hand was a necessary innovation for international travellers who’d need to keep track of time in multiple time zones. A chronograph would be of real use to race car drivers or astronauts. These days, a smart watch can, among other things, help you organize meetings and accurately measure your blood sugar levels. And so, on we go, with necessity and changing lifestyle needs driving innovation. 

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And yet, I love the dress watch design because of its representation of a time when life was a lot less unhurried. You needed a watch just to be able to tell the time, and perhaps admire its design. I guess it’s this understated simplicity that really makes dress watches so compelling in my eyes. There are some modern dress watches that I really love. The Junghans Max Bill and Nomos Glashütte’s Orion and Tangente lines immediately come to mind. Both German manufactures really lean on the principles of the Bauhaus school of design to create modern-day dress watches that are tailor-made for the urban professional. The Nomos models even reference the original Calatrava layout, albeit with a modern, minimalist interpretation, with a small seconds sub dial. For a more traditional Calatrava aesthetic, there’s the gorgeous Grand Seiko Ref. SBGW231, a time-only handwound marvel. When it comes to fantastic value, there’s the incomparable HMT Janata, with its classic Calatrava-style layout and suitably diminutive dress watch proportions. 

Finally, at the exact opposite end of the price spectrum lie the modern lines of the Patek Philippe Calatrava. Especially the new Ref. 6119 that was released last year in rose gold and white gold case variants. The size is bumped up to 39mm for modern sensibilities, with a gorgeous new handwound caliber 30-255, but the look is unmistakably the same as the Ref. 96 from 1932.Whether you opt for the HMT or the Patek Philippe, or the many, many brands in-between, one thing’s for sure: good design is timeless.

Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.

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