Reading about watches can often feel like cracking open a textbook. Browsing—and even buying—means being barraged with inscrutable words and phrases like ”tourbillons,” “perpetual calendars,” “minute repeaters,” and so on. So here, we’ll be breaking down the meaning, history, and importance of different watch terms. Welcome to GQ’s Watch Glossary.
On the surface, the universe of Patek Philippe appears to be simple: everything the brand does is dictated by the most mechanically complicated and precious watches in existence. But one of the Swiss brand’s most important pieces is the sporty stainless steel Nautilus, and that’s where things get weird. For reasons that will soon become clear, the Nautilus is a watch best understood through a little numerology.
Gérald Genta, a legendary watch designer, claims it took him five minutes—in comparison to the night’s worth of work it took him to design the Audemar Piguet’s now-iconic Royal Oak—to fully sketch out what is now one of Patek Philippe’s most important and recognizable watches. In 2009, Genta told Veryimportantwatches.com (an excellent name for a website) that while at a restaurant at the Basel watch fair in the early ’70s, seated in a corner opposite Patek Philippe’s executives, he beckoned a waiter to bring him a pen and paper. Inspired by the shape of portholes on luxury cruise liners, he drew the Nautilus in less time than it takes to eat an appetizer.
By the time Genta designed the Nautilus and brought it to Patek, he already had one transformational watch design on his resume, the aforementioned Royal Oak. The Royal Oak and the Nautilus share an octagonal shape, but the curves on the Nautilus are softer and rounder. The latter also has two “ears” on either side, like the hinges on those water-tight portholes.
The year was 1976: a guy named Steve Jobs launched a company called Apple, Bruce Jenner won the gold medal for the decathlon at the Olympics, more accurate and affordable quartz-powered timepieces were decimating the Swiss watch industry, and the Patek Philippe Nautilus was born.
During the height of quartz watches’ popularity, the Nautilus was designed to be the revolutionary piece that would put mechanical Patek Philippe watches back on the map. Patek, at that point, was known for making delicate watches out of precious metals. This was the company’s first “luxury sports watch,” following in the footsteps of AP’s Royal Oak. The watch was proudly, brazenly made out of stainless steel.
The Nautilus may have been a different breed of watch for Patek, but that doesn’t mean the company priced it with that gap in mind. The Nautilus originally retailed for $3,100–compared to the 18-carat gold Pateks from the same period that would’ve run you just under $4,000, according to Christie’s auction house. Patek made quick use of the price in advertising with the tagline: “One of the World’s Costliest Watches Is Made Out of Steel.” Talking about how expensive something is doesn’t usually equal advertising success, but Patek Philippe’s message was clear: while other brands were retreating in the face of cheaply made quartz timepieces, it was doubling down on luxury. The tagline declared that even a sports watch from Patek was worth more than a luxury watch from another brand.
In the same advertisement that touted the cost of the watch, Patek compared the stainless steel watch to a sword made out of the same material. “Like the great swords of another age, Nautilus took shape between the skilled hands of master craftsmen,” the copy reads. It goes on to list the watch’s many uses: diving, formal or “festive” occasions, and “when you set out to slay dragons in the boardroom.” You can see why the watch went on to become a classic.
The ultra-short design of the watch stands in contrast to the extremely long wait required to actually buy one. The New York Times reports that collectors will wait up to 840,960 times as long to get the watch as it took to design: if interested buyers can even get on the waitlist in the first place, they face a waiting period of up to eight years.
Not even the president of Patek Philippe, Thierry Stern, can explain why the watch is so beloved. “We make about 140 different models at Patek Philippe, and the basic Ref. 5711 [the number attached to the Nautilus] in steel is just one of them,” he told the New York Times. “We have many other models that are more complicated and arguably more beautiful.” It’s a quote that seems to translates roughly to, The waiting list is so long—have you considered another piece? Of course, that no one can get their hands on the Nautilus and everyone wants one are two closely intertwined facts.