Most people around the world track time using the Gregorian Calendar, brought to public use in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII, as it was (and remains today) far more accurate than previous calendars. In the Gregorian Calendar, leap years compensate for the Earth’s fractional 365.2425-day trip around the sun. Leap years effectively average out our years to a tidy 365 days, but even this system is not exact, because the actual solar year is 365.24667 days. Because of this slight inexactitude of the Gregorian Calendar, after 400 years our timekeeping ends up three days ahead of the sun’s actual rotation. So, we drop those extra three days by skipping the leap year every 100 years, meaning we only do this three times in 400 years.
You follow all that? Given the complex anomalies of our calendar, fashioning a tiny mechanical device that can track all of this information accurately is an incredible accomplishment. Timepieces that incorporate this information are called “perpetual calendars,” and it was Patek Philippe that led the development of fitting this feat of human engineering into small wristwatches.
To better understand perpetual calendar watches, consider the following diagram. You’ll see that as watches extend the time interval that they track from seconds to minutes, all the way out to leap years, the complexity of the movement advances from the simplest mechanical timekeepers like stopwatches to the perpetual calendar, with a number of increasingly complex mechanisms in between.
Mechanical watches consist of a power source (the mainspring and barrel), the transmission that controls the rate at which the hands and other indicators move (the gear train), and a power distribution and regulation device (the escapement). To appreciate what goes into a perpetual calendar watch, we’ll focus on the gear train.
The mainspring (our power source) turns the barrel cog that drives the gear train. By varying the size of the subsequent cogs in the gear train, the ratios work out to produce the movement of the various hands that subdivide time into seconds, minutes, hours, days, and so on. The video below shows the barrel cog (purple) driving the seconds hand (silver), which drives the minute hand (gold).[embedded content]
As we add longer and longer subdivisions of time, the gear train grows more and more elaborate. As you can imagine, the gear train of a perpetual calendar is one of the most complex ever devised. But far more than mere gear ratios are involved when a movement compensates for the variances in month length and leap years. To accomplish this, myriad clever sub-mechanisms allow the watch to run perpetually without adjustment for up to 100 years, at which point it needs to be adjusted by one day (see above for a more detailed explanation).
Notable Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Watches
The British watchmaker Thomas Mudge built the first working perpetual calendar pocket watch in 1762, and then watchmakers ignored (or avoided, perhaps) the grueling complication until Patek Philippe executed one for a pocket watch in 1864. In 1898 the maison built the world’s first compact perpetual calendar for a woman’s pendant watch, and in 1925 — after wristwatches had become in vogue for men — Patek used the same compact movement inside the world’s first perpetual calendar wristwatch, a one-off produced for a wealthy collector named Thomas Emery.
Below we take a look at some of the mainstays of the Patek Philippe perpetual calendar lineage. In all, there have been 27 different perpetual calendar references to date from Patek, so we have picked a few as milestones in this field of rarified timepieces.
Patek Philippe Reference 1526
It wasn’t until 1941 that Patek began to produce a series of perpetual calendar wristwatches, an unexpected product as WWII was raging across Europe. Nonetheless, the elegant 1526 came in a solid yellow gold Calatrava case measuring just 34mm. Its relatively blank dial belied the incredible complexity of the movement inside. Foregoing a year and leap year indicator on the dial but including a traditional moon phase complication, this watch set the understated tone that would persist in Patek’s perpetual calendars.
Where some brands today make a show of every possible complication of their perpetual calendars — and sometimes the movement itself via skeletonized dials — Patek continues to prioritize elegance over complexity, as is the brand’s wont. The 1526 was produced until 1952, with only 210 examples leaving the manufacture, most in yellow gold, a few in pink gold, and just one (that anyone knows of) in stainless steel.
Patek Philippe Reference 1518
In 1941 Patek also released the first serially produced annual calendar with chronograph and moon phase complications. Sometimes considered a “grand complication” — a watch that, most agree, features three or more significant complications — the 1518 is a true mechanical marvel at just 35mm.
Among the gold models were a few exceptionally rare stainless steel models, one of which held the record for the most expensive wristwatch until Paul Newman’s Daytona supplanted it. Among Patek collectors, students of horology, and even watchmakers, the 1518 is an oft-cited holy grail, especially in stainless steel.
Patek Philippe Reference 2499
In 1951, Patek Philippe brought out the venerable 2499, a perpetual calendar with full chronograph function and a moon phase complication, and the successor to the famous 1518. At 37.6mm in diameter, the 2499 was a little large for its day, but given the machine running inside it is still considered a marvel of micro-mechanical engineering. The 2499 was in production until the mid 1980s, and only 349 examples were produced. Patek updated the 2499 from time to time, changing the shape of the chronograph pushers, replacing numerals with stick markers, and so on, but the movement inside remained largely unchanged.
Patek Philippe Reference 3449
In 1961, Patek Philippe issued only three examples of the 3449. As always, its plain dial hides the mechanical prowess inside, as this is the world’s first automatic winding perpetual calendar wristwatch. Exceptionally rare, elegantly understated, and often overlooked, the auto-winding perpetual mechanism as found on the 3449 rises again in modern models.
Patek Philippe Reference 3970
As the 2499 ended its run in 1986, the 3970 took its place. Amid the downturn in interest in mechanical watches during the Quartz Crisis, as well as the upturn in popularity of larger watches, producing the 36mm reference 3970 was a curious move for Patek. But this independent brand has seldom bent to market trends, instead sticking to its core philosophies and whetting the appetites of its core collector base.
Like its predecessors (the 1518 and 2488) the 3970 houses perpetual calendar, chronograph, and moon phase complications, though for reasons that are hard to comprehend, it has never held the appeal of its siblings. Perhaps it’s the size, or the busy dial? Perhaps it’s that the 1980s just weren’t booming years for mechanical watches? It’s hard to say, but it carried the torch lit by the venerable 1518 through an era when quartz watches threatened to douse the flame.
Patek Philippe Reference 5207
We jump to 2008’s 5207 because — despite the myriad perpetual calendars that came out before it — the 5207 features a patented perpetual calendar mechanism that jumps instantaneously, as well as a minute repeater, a moon phase, and a tourbillon. This is a serious grand complication.
Building a mechanism that jumps instantly requires that each display’s gear “stores up” energy and then releases it in an instant, whereas previous mechanisms took many hours to use up that energy and rotated their discs slowly. That means more R&D, more parts to produce and assemble, and, of course, more of what some watch lovers crave most: complexity. The 5207’s understated dial continues the stylistically conservative approach Patek has always taken with its perpetual calendars.
Patek Philippe Reference 5208
Using the 5207’s platform, in 2011 Patek released the 5208, featuring a minute repeater, a monopusher chronograph, and the 5207’s instantaneous perpetual calendar. Foregoing the tourbillon, the 5208 instead features other serious tech, including a Silinvar® oscillator with a Spiromax® balance spring and a Pulsomax® escapement, all proprietary silicone-based technologies that Patek has been incorporating into their watches as of late.
We included the 5208 partly because it’s one of the most complicated watches available in serial production, and represents cutting-edge technology. Most grand complications like this are reserved for one-man haute horlogerie houses taking commissions from wealthy collectors before the work begins, and the work is often quite traditional, even done by hand. Patek may not make a lot of these watches, but they produce them right along with the rest of their catalog, thus continuing the spirit of the very first serially produced perpetual calendars from 1941.
Patek Philippe Reference 5550
The 5550 of 2011 again sees Patek hiding its high technology behind traditional dials, perhaps more so than with any other watch to date. The 5550, produced in just 300 examples, is an automatic perpetual calendar with moon phase, harkening back to the automatic 3449 of 1961. Its traditionally styled silver dial sneakily conceals a cutting-edge oscillating system with Pulsomax® escapement, Spiromax® balance spring, and the new GyromaxSi® balance in Silinvar® and gold. As part of the Patek’s Advanced Research program, the 5550 represents Patek’s ongoing commitment to using modern technology in traditional watches.
Patek Philippe Reference 5204
Pushing the complications further than ever, the 5204 of 2012 offers a split-seconds chronograph and perpetual calendar mechanism that is entirely new for Patek. Handsome, traditional-looking, and highly complicated, the 5204 sees the maison flexing its manufacturing muscles.
Current Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendars
The three watches below represent some of the best from Patek’s current catalog. These are serially produced perpetual calendars that represent the culmination of 80 years of getting it right.
Patek Philippe Reference 5327G
This self-winding perpetual calendar in white gold is surprisingly sporty despite its italicized Breguet numerals and gleaming blue dial. The compounded subdials include a leap-year indicator (numerals 1 through 4 on the 3-o’clock subdial), which feels decidedly modern. This detail also lets fellow watch enthusiasts know that you’re “rocking a perp.”
Patek Philippe Reference 5320G
Where the 5327G feels modern and bold, the 5320G looks like it’s straight out of the 1940s catalog. That’s because Patek used vintage museum pieces to derive the 5320G’s design. The cream dial with applied, lume-filled numerals in gold takes the vintage vibe way back.
Patek Philippe Reference 5270P
The salmon dial and platinum case with its fancy lugs give the 5270P a very dressy Swiss visage. The chronograph features a more traditional column wheel and horizontal clutch, while the watch is also hand-wound. This model is all about traditional mechanics executed with modern materials and know-how.