Diary of a Patek Philippe collector – Rolex…. still the king of sports watches? (5th September 2020)

This week, I read a blog that made me smile a lot. TheWatchJourney.com is a blog that focuses primarily on Patek Philippe but with the occasional twist into other brands. This week, the collector who writes that particular blog declared, almost apologetically, that he was having tremendous difficulty wearing his modern Rolex when he could instead wear his Aquanaut.

Several months ago, I wrote a blog arguing that with the Aquanaut, Patek Philippe were posing a serious challenge to a domain that Rolex have always dominated – the steel sports watch. For all the reasons stated back then along with the points made by TheWatchJourney.com, I think this will become a growing trend. Borrowing a bit from some previous thoughts….

The Aquanaut is, for me, the Patek Philippe sports watch. Highly reliable. The finishing and movement on this watch is a big step up from any other “sports watch” in a similar arena. Also, when I look down at my wrist, I see a watch that I like the look of. It interests me a great deal. It is extremely comfortable and light and can be worn casually without being too “overt.” It was a watch that was originally designed for the military so has a great DNA. Also, as a big bonus, I don’t look like a used car salesman wearing one. Having said this, I will note this about the Aquanaut, and that is that it gets a lot of criticism from collectors who have never worn it or who are unable to buy it.

The star is rising on the Aquanaut. It is becoming “the” steel sports watch to wear. Whereas the Nautilus occupies the “sporty chic” segment, the Aquanaut – with its unique composite strap – is overtly rugged and sporty.

Another observation that I have is that amongst a lot of sophisticated Patek Philippe collectors, and by this I mean collectors who own a lot of Patek Philippe watches and have experienced a great deal of different Patek Philippe watches on their wrist, there is a theme with the Aquanaut. These collectors all seem to “love” their Aquanauts. Yes, from owners of Aquanauts, there is an almost unanimous affection for it. And, as is usually the case, the animosity comes from those that actually just lack understanding.

Animosity usually comes from ignorance. Once a watch like the Ref. 5650G is understood, the affection for it grows.

To me, the Aquanaut is a very cool watch that would work very well as a daily beater. And it is a threat to the modern Rolex. The modern Rolex has become something of a parody. At 41mm, and with lugs that look like they have been on a course of anabolic steroids, the Rolex is losing its charm. Of course, it is still a Rolex and that will always have an attraction. And when Omega was the biggest threat to the Rolex crown, being a Rolex was a big factor. Now, however, Rolex are needing to compete with a more prestigious sports watch because Patek Philippe are now very much competing in the sports watch domain.

For me, the modern Rolex has just become a little bit too “pumped up.”

Compared with the Rolex Submariner, the Aquanaut is lithe and flexible. It is the decathlete to the Submariner’s shot-putter.

When I floated this idea before, a few collectors made the obvious point. Namely, the retail price of the Ref. 5167A is around $20k. That is a little over double the price of the new Rolex Submariner. How can I compare watches that have such different retail prices?

To be honest, I accept that there is a difference in price. However, there is also a fairly decent difference in price between the Rolex Submariner and the Omega Seamaster. The former is comfortably 50% or so higher than the latter. Yet, when Rolex was hailed as the king of sports watches, was this relative difference in price mentioned? The Omega Seamaster is comfortably double the price of the comparable Sinn watch. Oh the dilemma of what is the best “value for money.” Who is the King?

For the best part of 80 years, the Rolex Submariner has dominated the steel sports watch domain. It has consistently outscored Omega and all other manufacturers as the most prestigious steel sports watch. It personified success.

To be the King, however, you must not act like the King. You need to BE the King. And in this respect one can start to pose some questions. It is one thing to outcompete Omega. But when Patek Philippe throw down the gauntlet to Rolex, that is an entirely different proposal.

For the best part of 80 years or so, people have bought Rolex Submariners because they represented something. It wasn’t that they were way more reliable than the Omega (or Sinn), but they were more expensive and they were more associated with being successful. The higher price was almost a right of passage to the promised land for the aspirant buyer. The higher price was part of the reason that Rolex was seen as the icon of success.

The owner of the Rolex was, hypothetically, not getting the best “value for money” sports watch. He was getting the best steel sports watch and he was paying for that. The Submariner was instantly recognisable as being owned by a successful guy. It was a steel sports watch that cost more than most other precious metal watches. Almost inevitably worn casually, it represented a symbol. It had absolutely nothing to do with “value for money.”

However, for the vast majority of this last 80 years, Patek Philippe have not manufactured a competing steel sports watch. Complications and elegant dress watches have traditionally been the Patek Philippe way. In 1997, however, Patek Philippe released the first Aquanaut. Is it the best “value for money” sports watch? Well, my view here is subjective. I would argue strongly that there are plenty of better “value for money” steel sports watches. But I am not interested in “value for money.” What I want on my wrist is what I consider to be the best steel sports watch. For me, that is no longer the Rolex Submariner.

It is the Aquanaut.