Patek Philippe Aquanaut Review: A Comprehensive Guide to the Luxury Sport Watch

Patek Philippe Aquanaut Review: A Comprehensive Guide to the Luxury Sport Watch

The Patek Philippe Aquanaut is one of the younger members in Patek Philippe’s historic family of timepieces but it has already gained an avid following and represents to many collectors the most accessible entrée into the Swiss watchmaker’s luxurious universe. Here is everything you need to know about the Aquanaut, from its origins to its current status as a versatile and wide-ranging collection.

A History of Watchmaking Milestones

Patek Philippe Calatrava vintage

Since its founding in 1839 in Geneva, Patek Philippe has been a leader in high watchmaking, pioneering many complications and design elements that are now ubiquitous throughout the watch industry. Polish watchmakers Antoine Norbert de Patek and Francois Czapek partnered to form the original company, Patek, Czapek, & Cie.; French horologist Jean Adrien Philippe, who invented the keyless winding and setting system still standard on watches today, joined in 1845, and the Genevan manufacture has been known as Patek Philippe ever since. Among its many horological milestones are the first annual calendar watch and the first wristwatches with perpetual calendars and split-seconds chronographs. In 1932, brothers Jean and Henri Stern acquired Patek Philippe and the same year launched the watch that would become its signature, the Calatrava (above), inspired by the ancient Calatrava cross that had served as the maison’s logo since 1887. The following year, Patek Philippe made timekeeping history when it commissioned a record-setting complicated pocket watch for American banker Henry Graves. The so-called “Graves Supercomplication” was for decades the world’s most complicated watch, eventually selling at auction for $24 million in 2014.

Patek Philippe Nautilus

It wasn’t until the 1970s, however, that Patek Philippe would plant the stylistic seeds for today’s Aquanaut collection, and unleash a phenomenon on the watch world in the process. Before the Aquanaut came the Nautilus, a watch that would exert its influence not only on Patek Philippe’s modern identity but on the watch industry as a whole. Designed by Gérald Genta, the same visionary who had developed the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak several years earlier, the Nautilus debuted in 1976 and was defined by its smooth octagonal bezel, integrated bracelet, and horizontal-grooved sunburst dial. Along with the Royal Oak that preceded it, the model helped usher in the category we now recognize as “sport-luxury” and would eventually become one of the most coveted timepieces in the world — even more so since Patek’s recent decision to discontinue its core reference, the 5711, in 2022.

1997: The First Aquanaut (Ref. 5060A)

Patek Philippe Aquanaut 5060A

The original Patek Philippe Aquanaut was launched in 1997. Imagineered by the company’s then-president Philippe Stern as a more “accessible” version of the Nautilus, it was aimed from the beginning at a younger audience, a demographic that was still affluent — remember, this was at the peak of the decade’s dot-com boom and its newly minted tech millionaires — but presumably a bit less “establishment” than the target Nautilus customer. The first model, Ref. 5060A (above, photo via Sotheby's), had a simpler, three-part case construction than the elaborate two-piece “porthole” design of the Nautilus, and it was mounted on a durable composite rubber strap rather than the Nautilus’s hallmark integrated bracelet, which was more costly and more difficult to manufacture (though several Aquanaut models are available on metal bracelets today). The Aquanaut’s slightly rounded octagonal bezel, with vertically satin-finished flat surfaces and chamfered, polished edges, was similar to that of the Nautilus, but not paired with the latter’s signature “ears” on each side of the case. Replacing the parent model’s horizontal wave textured dial with baton hour markers was a dial with a distinctive, embossed checkerboard pattern and bold, applied Arabic numerals that helped forge for the Aquanaut a sporty identity of its own. The textured pattern is repeated on the rubber strap for a sporty yet harmonious aesthetic. The case of the first Aquanaut measured a modest 35.6mm in diameter; beating inside was the automatic Caliber 330 SC. 

Patek Philippe Aquanaut Ref. 5604

Patek followed up starting in 1998 with a “midsize” version of the Aquanaut (Ref. 5064, above, photo via Sotheby's), whose case was even smaller, at 33mm; and eventually the smallest version, Ref. 4060, at a decidedly feminine 29.5mm. Both featured steel cases (the 29.5mm version also offered yellow gold) and both were powered by the same quartz movement, Caliber E 23 SC. With larger watches coming into vogue shortly after the dawn of the new millennium, both smaller Aquanaut models were discontinued by 2005. The second generation of the Aquanaut, Ref. 5065, increased the case size to 38mm (making it closer in dimensions to its big brother, the Nautilus) and added a sapphire exhibition caseback, another aesthetic trend in the watch industry that would prove to have staying power. 

2007: 10th Anniversary Redesign (Ref. 5167A-001)

Patek Philippe Aquanaut Ref. 5167

For its 10th birthday in 2007, Patek Philippe revamped the Aquanaut with a new case diameter, a curvier octagonal bezel, a subtly refined dial texture more reminiscent of a military hand grenade, and a new in-house movement. The original Ref. 5167 model, which contained the automatic Caliber 324 SC, has since been superseded by the next evolution, Ref. 5617A-001. Today the closest equivalent to the original “base” Aquanaut, the three-hand-date reference is also, by virtue of its price, the most entry-level Patek Philippe watch. Its 40.8mm steel case comes on the hallmark integrated textured rubber strap and contains the in-house, self-winding Caliber 26-330 S.C., holding a minimum 35-hour power reserve and bearing (like all the maison’s movements these days) Patek’s in-house quality seal ensuring both technical excellence and an elite level of decoration.

2011: Aquanaut Travel Time (Ref. 5164)

Patek Philippe Aquanaut Travel Time

Patek Philippe unveiled its ingenious and user-friendly “Travel Time” complication in a Nautilus model and shortly thereafter installed its movement, the self-winding Caliber 324 S C FUS, in an Aquanaut in 2011. The Aquanaut Travel Time (photo above via Analog/Shift) has a 40.8mm stainless steel case and a dial displaying the local time and date as well as a second time zone (the latter via an additional skeletonized hour hand) and small apertures on each side of the dial to indicate day and night in each time zone. The wearer can use the two pushers in the left-hand case flank to adjust the local-time hour hand forward or backward in one-hour steps, which will also simultaneously change the day/night indicators and, if necessary, the analog date on the 6 o’clock subdial. If you’re traveling east, you set the local time is set with the pusher at 8 o’clock; if you’re westbound, it’s the pusher at 10 o’clock. Thanks to the movement’s clever design — in which an isolator uncouples the time-zone mechanism from the going train, preserving  the balance’s amplitude and allowing it to continue beating at a consistent rate, the watch will run with the usual accuracy while you’re adjusting the settings. The manufacture movement, with its heavy 21K gold rotor, adorned with Patek’s Calatrava cross emblem, is on display behind a sapphire caseback.

2017: “Jumbo” Anniversary Edition, Advanced Research Edition

Patek Philippe Aquanaut Advanced Research

To celebrate 20 years of the Aquanaut, Patek Philippe released two significant new models — one, the technically ambitious Ref. 5650 “Advanced Research” edition of the Aquanaut Travel Time, a limited edition that showcased two in-house tech innovations developed by the Patek Philippe Advanced Research laboratory. The first is the Spiromax balance spring made of Silinvar, equipped with two terminal curves and optimized with an inner boss, which improves the isochronism of the balance for a rate accuracy within a range of  -1 and +2 seconds per day. The second is a re-engineered time-zone setting device —  with a newly developed “compliant” mechanism, composed of just 12 flexible steel parts with intersecting leaf springs, replacing the 37 mechanical parts used in the more traditional mechanism. Speaking to the timepiece’s rarity, its dial features a very un-Patek-like openworked aperture to show off these mechanisms. 

Patek Philippe Aquanaut Ref. 5618 JumboThe other was the first Aquanaut in a white-gold case, the Ref. 5168G (above), which also represented the largest model in the family, at 42 mm in diameter — the same size as the original 1976 Nautilus “Jumbo,” thus acknowledging the two sport-luxury timepieces’ shared DNA. The 18k white gold case, however, is more slender than “jumbo” in its profile: just 8. 25 mm thick, to house an accordingly thin in-house movement, Patek’s self-winding Caliber 324 S C. Visible through the sapphire caseback, the elaborately decorated movement measures a mere 3.3 mm thick. The familiar embossed checkerboard-motif dial is executed in a graduated, azure-to-black tone that Patek calls “night blue.” Like the case, the applied hour numerals and baton hands are made of white gold, while the seconds hand stands out in white lacquered bronze.

2018: The First Aquanaut Chronograph (Ref. 5968A-001)

Patek Philippe Aquanaut Chronograph

In 2018, one year after the two-decade milestone, came the first Aquanaut models equipped with chronograph movements. The first generation (Ref. 5968A-001) featured a steel case, a gradient black textured dial, and a choice of either a black or orange rubber strap with the emblematic checkerboard texture. Patek elevated the luxury factor of the Aquanaut Chronograph in 2021 with the release of additional models in white gold and new, colorful dials in midnight blue and khaki green (above); in 2023, the maison added another iteration in a rose-gold case and a cocoa-brown dial. The Aquanaut Chronograph is 42.2 mm in diameter and 11.9 mm thick and features a screw-down crown and alternating satin and polished finishing on its surfaces and flanks.The crown protector is bordered on each side by two elongated chronograph pushers. The gradient sunburst dial sports the familiar embossed pattern, with applied white-gold numerals and indexes, a large, 60-minute chronograph-counter subdial at 6 o’clock whose shape resembles that of the case. Patek Philippe equips the Aquanaut Chronograph with the automatic manufacture Caliber CH 28-520 C, with a built-in flyback chronograph mechanism that combines a classic column-wheel architecture with a modern vertical disk clutch that is almost entirely free of friction: in practice, this means that the chronograph hands won’t jump or shake when the stopwatch is started. At the same time, the central chronograph hand can be used to track the running seconds, which allows the user to synchronize the watch with a time signal, like a watch with a separate “hacking” seconds function, while the chronograph is switched off.

2023: Aquanaut Luce Annual Calendar

Patek Philippe Aquanaut Luce Annual Calendar

The Aquanaut Luce is the “ladies'' version of the Aquanaut, sized at 39.9mm and launched in 2004. Like the core collection, the Aquanaut Luce has been steadily increasing its options in various areas, including complications, like a Travel Time version in 2021 and an automatic chronograph in 2022. The latest is an Aquanaut Luce equipped with the manufacture’s patented annual calendar complication, one of Patek’s highlight pieces from 2023. The watch — whose dimensions and design fall firmly in the “unisex” camp for many enthusiasts these days — is available in two distinct executions: one in a rose gold case with a taupe-colored dial and a 48-diamond-set bezel; the other, in rose gold with a blue-gray dial and strap. Both watches contain the self-winding 26-330 S QA LU caliber, with a 21K gold central rotor and an Annual Calendar module with moon phases. Because of the unusual architecture of the movement, which is based on the one Patek Philippe developed for its Weekly Calendar model in 2019, the calendar indications are differently positioned than those on other other Patek Philippe annual calendars, with the moon-phase displayed in an aperture at 12 o'clock, the date at 6 ‘clock, and the day and month in subdials at 3 and 9 o'clock.

As just about everyone who follows watches knows, Patek Philippe made the decision to stop making new Nautilus models in 2022, which has undoubtedly focused even more interest on the model’s “little brother,” the Aquanaut, which remains in production and has expanded into the respectably sprawling product family detailed above. What Patek Philippe has in store for the Aquanaut as we enter 2024 has yet to be discovered, but it's assured that the watch collecting community will be paying attention.  

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