Fashions come and go but style is for ever, and so it is that the Calatrava’s supremely understated, rounded form continues to defy the decades. Its primary function: to give the time, no more, no less. The secret of its longevity: ageless elegance. Modern yesterday, contemporary today, this icon which Patek Philippe imagined in 1932 excels in the subtle art of reinvention, without ever betraying its original character. The history of this authentically classic watch gives true meaning to the adage that “less is more”.
A design stripped of excess
How to put a paragon of simplicity into words? How to capture the contours of a seemingly ascetic design, stripped of artifice yet expressive enough to sail through the years? Such a difficult task has to be put into context. In the early 1930s, the Calatrava’s round case was more the exception than the rule. Watches were still making their transition from pocket to wrist and, with the Art Deco movement fresh in everyone’s mind, watchmakers went out of their way to imagine timepieces in every possible shape and form. All except Patek Philippe, which chose the no doubt more complex route of aesthetic simplicity. Presented to the world in 1932, just as the Stern family took its place on the company’s board of directors, the very first Calatrava Ref. 96 – which can still be admired at the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva – was rooted in the precepts of the Bauhaus school of architecture and design. The belief that “less is more”, “form follows function and “God is in the detail” would preside over the creation of its flowing lines. Its simply round case measured 31mm, a small diameter by today’s standards but seemingly larger than the watches of its day. A flat bezel surrounds a harmonious dial, circled by trapezoidal markers and swept by gold Dauphine hands. Its function is distilled to the essence of hours, minutes and small seconds. Nothing more.
Immediately, admirers of fine timepieces fell in love with the Calatrava’s gloriously simple beauty. Quietly, without fuss or flourish, it encapsulated Patek Philippe’s guiding spirit and its quest for excellence; it also bore the name of the Calatrava cross, the symbol of the brand since 1887. However, such simplicity and sobriety must be handled with care, and so the Calatrava evolved slowly through delicately distilled, sometimes almost imperceptible touches which, over the course of the decades, would add to the aesthetic vocabulary of Ref. 96, whose silhouette would be the blueprint for the years to come. Think of the “hobnail” guillochage that made its first appearance on the bezel in 1934, returning in 1985 on Ref. 3919. Think also of the larger diameter which in 1938 grew from 31mm to 35mm, and would continue to evolve alongside the standards of the day, though never beyond the bounds of reason. New features crept onto the dial, such as the minute track, a notable example being the Calatrava Officier Ref. 5022, an officer’s watch with Breguet numerals and Breguet “hollow apple” hands. Changes could be mechanical too, such as the incorporation, in 1950, of Patek Philippe’s first automatic movement.
While the Calatrava was never intended as a showcase for technical sleight of hand, the collection has successively expanded to include models of greater mechanical complexity, and this as early as 1936 with a combination of date and moon-phase display. In 1958, Ref. 2597 switched between time zones thanks to an independently adjustable hand making one-hour jumps. Following it, much later, was a perpetual calendar version with moon-phase display, retrograde date, and indications of day, month and leap year. Among the Calatrava’s many faces, whether in terms of movement or design, extra-thin became part of the quest. Ref. 5000, introduced in 1992, is a remarkable example with its white gold case, a harmonious black dial with an inboard minute track, applied Arabic hour numerals and subsidiary seconds between 4 and 5 o’clock. Inside, time is measured by the extra-thin Calibre 240PS with automatic winding.
For women too
Originally made with men in mind, as the decades have passed, so the Calatrava has lent itself to versions for women. Ref. 4896 is cased in white gold, with a midnight blue engine-turned and lacquered dial surrounded by a diamond-set bezel. It was also Patek Philippe’s first extra-thin mechanical watch for women. Released in 2006, Ref. 4959 boasts 66 diamonds on its bezel and is also the first ladies’ Calatrava with small seconds. A sapphire display back reveals the admirable finishing of the manual-wind movement. As for the 31mm diameter, it takes us back to Ref. 96 – a reminder that in 1932, the Calatrava’s designers had already got it right.