Diary of a Patek Philippe collector – Rise of the Aquanaut (3rd May 2020)

I have been collecting Patek Philippe watches for 11 years now. I am a relative newcomer. Over that period, I have become more and more enamoured with the Aquanaut. Why?

To answer this question, I think it is important to understand how and why the Aquanaut became a part of the Patek Philippe family of watches. This article will look at the core Aquanaut time only variants in steel and how the genre has emerged.

The very first Aquanaut, the Reference 5060A, was released in 1997. The watch was aimed at the younger end of the Patek Philippe demographic. Indeed, I would argue that the Aquanaut was the watch that demonstrated that Patek Philippe intended to embrace not only its historical traditional past from which its reputation was made but now also a new younger cohort of buyers with different tastes and lifestyle aims.

The Nautilus had been released almost 20 years earlier, in 1976. This had been a radical departure from what Patek Philippe had traditionally done. The Nautilus is described in the official literature as an elegant sports watch. Sporty chic is how many describe it. If I was to describe the archetypical image of the Nautilus owner, I would say it was more likely to be the affluent traveller with a penchant for fine food, swimming pools and cocktails. Just my take. I would also say that the age demographic was probably in the 35-60 bracket.

Some 20 years after the release of the Nautilus, Patek Philippe needed something more radical and fresh to appeal to the new younger cohort that had emerged on the block. The manufacturer needed something that carried all the typical hallmarks of what a luxury watch from Patek Philippe should look like, but it needed to be more rugged, more youthful and with a twist. More Jason Bourne than James Bond.

A brief segue…..during the 1980s, there were two key Porsche models. The 928 and the 911. The 928 was actually at the higher end of the two. It was altogether more luxurious and also came with a V8 engine. It was produced between 1978-1995. Its production almost mimics the period between the first Nautilus and the first Aquanaut. The 928 was a beautiful car. But there was an interesting demographic that emerged about its owners. Specifically, 928 owners were, on average, materially older than 911 buyers. Porsche saw the writing on the wall too.

So, when Patek Philippe launched the Aquanaut 5060A in 1997, its aim was definitively to appeal to a new younger cohort of potential buyers. It coincided with the late 1990s dot.com boom that elevated Silicon Valley into something of a global powerhouse. A new breed of owners was being created and the Aquanaut was Patek Philippe’s interpretation of what its core sports watch should look like. At 35.6mm in diameter, a self-winding Calibre 330 SC and the patented Gyromax balance wheel, and with a depth rating of 120m, the Ref. 5060A was born.

The 5060 borrows from the Nautilus without stealing from it.

(Picture credit: A Collected Man)

Clearly, the Aquanaut borrows from the Nautilus without actually stealing from it. Unlike the Nautilus, the Aquanaut was not designed by Genta. Its case structure and dial was more rugged. And, crucially, the Aquanaut did not have an integrated bracelet but rather a composite rubber strap. Such a strap was a clear departure from the norm for Patek Philippe. It made a statement about the watch. It was no ordinary rubber strap. Rather, it was composed of over 20 different materials that made it extremely resistant to sea-water, ultraviolet light degradation and also was highly resistant to bacteria!! The rubber strap gave the Aquanaut a completely different persona to its more refined Nautilus “brother.”

The texture of the dial also gave the watch a quite unique feel. Arabic numerals, hour and minute hands were all in white gold. A high level of lume is also evident on the hands and dial giving the watch an almost military aesthetic. The block texture of the dial itself is almost one of being armoured. Whilst the Nautilus comes across as sporty chic, the Aquanaut persona is tougher. Harder. The owner of this watch is more likely to sail a yacht across the ocean than stare out of the porthole of a luxury cruiser with a pina colada in his hand.

The texture of the 5060A dial isn’t militaristic? Really? I would say that it has been deliberately militarised.

It is commonly believed that around one thousand Ref. 5060A were made. It was not, theoretically, a limited edition. But around one thousand pieces seems accurate.

In 1998, Patek Philippe introduced the 5064A. This was powered by the quartz Caliber E 23 SC. At 34mm, it was somewhat smaller than the 5060A.

Also introduced in 1998 was the Ref. 5065A. This one came with a new movement, (Calibre 315 SC) a sapphire crystal caseback and, crucially, a 38mm case. For many, this represented a distinct “growing up” of the Aquanaut.

The 5066A was, to all intents, an upgrade on the original 5060A. When I say upgrade, I mean it had a sapphire crystal caseback. That is the only difference I can see.

2007 marked the 10yr anniversary of the first Aquanaut. And Patek Philippe recognised the anniversary with the release of two new models; Ref. 5167A and 5165A.
The “anniversary” models made quite a few changes.

The “armour plated” dial was replaced by a more refined curvature. The essence of the pattern is still distinct, but it is much less pronounced. If I am honest, I preferred the original.

Another key change was with respect to the case size. The 5165A came with a 38.8mm case. The 5167A, however, weighed in at a much meatier 40mm. The 5167A still sits in the current catalog. Another key change with the dial was the removal of the “3” with the date window moving to a more logical position. This dial is now much more cohesive than its predecessors. Maybe it explains why it has remained a stalwart of the collection for the last decade.

Ref. 5165A

Finally, the other key changes were with respect to the composite rubber strap. The patterning on the strap now mirrored the pattern on the dial creating an almost flowing nature to the watch. Similarly, the strap and lugs now contour seamlessly to the case. One of the benefits of this shift in design is that it allows the watch to wear more easily on smaller wrists. Add to this the fact that the watch is just 8.1mm thick and it makes it very wearable.

With the 5167A came a more nuanced dial approach.

I always think the lug contouring knocks about 2mm off the diameter of the watch in terms of “wear-size.” It also accentuates the sportiness of the watch. Compared with the very first iteration of the Aquanaut, the 5060A, the 5167A is very much the finished product in design terms.

The lug contouring makes this watch so easy to wear

It is the Aquanaut all “grown-up.” But it is still a watch that is very distinctly different to its Nautilus brother. Still more rugged. Still more youthful. And still tougher. Modern versions of the 5167A also contain the upgraded Calibre 324 SC.

So what is it that I like about the Aquanaut? Why did I get my son a 5167A for qualifying as a doctor? Why is the Aquanaut 5650G my favourite watch? And why do I want a 5167R? Am I also looking at the 5164A?

Very possibly my favourite watch to wear – the Ref. 5650G

Yes, I truly love the Aquanaut. I prefer it to the Nautilus by a large margin. The Aquanaut is a watch that can be worn with a suit or casually with a pair of jeans. Now, many would argue that an Aquanaut just isn’t a watch to wear with a suit. My answer to this is simple. The guy who wears an Aquanaut probably doesn’t need to wear a suit to work. And, if he does wear a suit to work, he just doesn’t give a hoot whether other people like his watch or not. He likes it. That is what matters.

Very possibly the next watch that I buy – ref. 5167R

My old boss used to have a business saying. It went like this: “To many people, it is most important to be important. To me, it is most important to be rich.” The Aquanaut is not a watch that needs to be important. It just doesn’t care. If people think the Aquanaut owner has an Aquanaut because the Nautilus is too expensive, it just creates a wry smile.

For me, the Nautilus is not a sports watch. It is a sporty watch. There is more chic to it than sport. The Aquanaut, on the other hand, is very much a sports watch. I think its persona is much clearer than the Nautilus.

I would also much rather have the Aquanaut on my wrist than any modern Rolex. For me, there are a lot of guys that repeat this mantra…”Rolex for sports watches. Patek for complications.” I don’t agree.

Clearly, Patek Philippe kills Rolex at complications. And, in the Aquanaut, it has what I consider to be the superior sports watch. It is a fixed and narrow frame of mind that believes all sports watches “need” to look like a Rolex. The Aquanaut is Patek Philippe’s vision of what a Patek Philippe sports watch looks like. Compared with a Rolex, it has a nicer movement and a higher quality of finishing. To be fair, both are absolutely sturdy and reliable. But one is a Rolex. The other is a Patek Philippe. No contest.

Next week, I will take a closer look at the most recent iterations of the basic Aquanaut – the Ref. 5168.