I know a lot of collectors of Patek Philippe watches who get their joy from wearing Patek Philippe watches. Amongst this seasoned group, it is rare to find a watch that gets a unanimous vote of approval. Yet, almost everyone loves the Ref. 5970.
A relatively recent edition of the Patek Philippe magazine (Volume IV, Number 3) provides a fascinating article about the Ref. 5970. The article described the Ref. 5970 as a watch with “cult status.” It goes on to say that it represents the ‘quintessence of complicated watchmaking at Patek Philippe.” When Patek Philippe hold a watch in such high esteem, it is always interesting to understand why.
The perpetual calendar chronograph is arguably the most important complication in Patek Philippe’s history.
The Ref. 2499 is often described as the most beautiful watch ever made. However, it was not the first perpetual calendar chronograph made by Patek Philippe. In 1941, Patek Philippe made the very first serially-produced perpetual calendar chronograph – the Ref. 1518. It was a ground-breaking technical innovation and one that placed Patek Philippe at the vanguard of complicated watches. It is from this rich heritage of Ref. 1518 that today’s perpetual calendar chronographs need to be viewed. And it is in this context that the 5970 needs to be seen – a modern day variant on a true vintage classic.
Ref. 1518 – the watch that started it all. The very first ever perpetual calendar chronograph
That personal touch
According to the article in the Patek Philippe magazine, Philippe Stern tasked his son, Thierry, with designing a modern day variant of the perpetual calendar chronograph to replace the Ref. 3970. According to Thierry Stern, the 5970 that he designed reflected “all the passion, respect, and knowledge that I had for Patek Philippe.” So, in this sense, the 5970 represents an important historical moment, where father passes to son a key responsibility. That is certainly one factor behind its “cult status.”
Rarity must be considered another factor in understanding this “cult” nomenclature. Of all perpetual calendar chronographs, the Ref. 5970 had the shortest production run. Produced from 2004-09, with the 5970J produced for just one year and the 5970P for just two years (G and R from 2004-7). John Reardon (Christies) is on record as stating a total production of around 2800 watches. It is truly difficult to split this into specific metals, but I think it is reasonable to assume that the white and rose metals are the most common, with 1000-1250 in each. I think the platinum version is likely to have 300-500, whilst the most rare is the yellow gold with 100-300.
Whilst the 5970 has the shortest production run, the absolute numbers produced are higher than some of its vintage predecessors. For example, Ref. 1518 saw only 281 watches made. The Ref. 2499 saw only 349 watches made. The 3970, however, has production in excess of 4000 watches in total.
Another key feature that makes the 5970 so desirable is its case dimensions. At 40mm diameter (and 13.5mm deep), the watch has a very modern approach. Compare this with the 1518 (35mm), 2499 (36.2-37.7mm) or 3970 (36mm). I think it is also important to mention the depth. The 5970 sits prominently on the wrist courtesy of its depth. It is a trait that generally distinguishes it from all the prior perpetual calendar chronographs. Obviously, taste and wrist size will vary from one collector to another, but for me, 39-40mm is a perfect sweetspot to wear.
In terms of wearability, it hits a sweetspot for me
Forgive the short rant here….. but I just don’t understand collectors who argue that a watch needs to have an in-house movement to make it great. Maybe it is me. Yet….the iconic Ref. 1518 didn’t have an in-house movement. Nor did the Ref. 2499. Both housed a Valjoux-based movement. The last time I checked, neither reference seemed to be suffering in terms of collector desirability based on this. “I would have bought that perfect NOS Ref. 2499 if only it had an in-house movement” is not a statement I have heard very often.
So, for me, one can argue that an in-house movement is more advanced, but it is hard to argue that it is “better” or “more desirable”. In the same way that the engine of a modern DB11 is significantly more advanced than the engine of a DB5, one cannot say the DB11 is “better” than the DB5 as appreciation is a multi-dimensional phenomenon. What did the Patek Philippe magazine article have to say about the issue?
“There is no doubt that the aesthetics of the Lemania chronograph ebauches add considerably to the appeal of those Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronographs that use them. The harmonious and dignified lines of the bridges and levers provide a blank canvas on which to display the decorative techniques of haut de gamme Genevan watchmaking, and the reliability and durability of their design made them the chronograph movements of choice for as long as they were available. Patek Philippe’s in-house chronograph movements are far more technically advanced and are extremely captivating aesthetically, but there is a great deal of historical importance attached to the fact that the 5970 was the last Patek Philippe chronograph to use a Lemania ebauche.”
When a watch just comes together
It was once said that a camel was an animal put together by a committee. It is so often the case that when one puts together all the parts of a watch, it just doesn’t work well. A watch can have the very best of everything but it just doesn’t come together well. Similarly, every now and then, design and expertise can come together in a synchronicity that produces something quite extraordinary. Something that becomes “Cult status.” The Ref. 5070P has it. So too does its cousin the Ref. 5970.
Justifiably a cult watch.
Are there any flaws?
Yes, of course. One can always find ways to improve aspects of a watch. For example, the moon phase disc of the Ref. 5970 is a shadow of the moon phase used on some of the more vintage pieces like the Ref. 3448. One could argue that it would have been perfect to have used the type of black enamel that is resplendent on the Ref. 5370P. One can always find flaws.
Yet, for me, the Ref. 5970 sits alongside the Ref. 5070P as one of the most iconic watches made by Patek Philippe in the last 30 years. Are Patek Philippe justified in calling this watch a “cult” watch?