Strictly defined, a complication in a wristwatch is any feature that goes beyond the display of hours and minutes. Typical complications might include a day/date display, an alarm, a chronograph, or stopwatch feature. The combination of complications in Patek Philippe’s Perpetual Calendar Chronographs constitute one of the great achievements in horology—the pairing of a perpetual calendar with a chronograph.
At a time when complicated watches were almost exclusively produced on direct commission, Patek Philippe began serial production of perpetual chronograph watches in 1941. So difficult was the pairing of a perpetual calendar with a chronograph that no other manufacturer even attempted to produce one until the 1990s.
Patek Philippe Reference 2499
The first reference of this important line of watches we’ll consider is the 2499, but the overall look of this watch comes directly from its predecessor, the reference 1518. Twin apertures at 12 o’clock reveal the month and day of the week, with two chronograph registers at 3 and 9 o’clock, and a circular date display with moonphase indicator at 6 o’clock. This basic configuration set the design standard for Patek Philippe’s signature watches for over 70 years.
The Patek Philippe reference 2499 is thought to be among the most desirable of all the Patek Philippe watches—for many it is one of the greatest watches ever made, the ultimate watch from the ultimate manufacturer. The proportions of the case, the dial design, and the perfectly executed complications are housed in a 37.5mm case, making it a full 2.5 mm larger than the 1518. The 2499 embodies the perfect combination of exquisite precision design and craftsmanship with a vintage feel and modern wearability.
The 2499 was first produced in 1951 as a replacement for the 1518, but production of the two watches actually overlapped for three years. In the first of what would eventually be four unique series of the 2499, the dial, hands, and square chronograph pushers of the 2499 are nearly identical to the 1518. The 2499 also featured the same kind of applied Arabic numerals, hard enameled tachymetric scale, enamel date disks, and a moon phase disk with inlaid blue enamel and gold stars and moon.
The 2499 was produced until 1986, but in its 35 years of production, only 349 of them were made, or about 10 per year. That fact alone makes these watches incredibly valuable, but there are some that are of such exceptional rarity that they fetch the highest prices.
The vast majority of 2499s were produced in yellow gold, and a good example of a first series 2499 in yellow gold sold for over $400,000 in 2012. There were a few first series 2499s manufactured in pink gold, but only four have ever been offered at auction. One exquisite example that featured a special case sold at Christie’s in 2012 for an unbelievable $2.75 million.
The design of the 2499 changed considerably after the first series. The second series began production in the mid 1950s, and featured either Arabic numerals or applied batons with a tachymeter scale, but the biggest difference was the pushers. On the second series 2499s, the square pushers were replaced with round pump pushers.
Like the first series 2499, the second series was produced almost exclusively in yellow gold—though there were few in pink gold that are exceptionally valuable due to their rarity. In 2013 a pink gold 2499 second series with pink applied gold baton numerals and pink gold dauphine hands sold for $2.16 million.
The third series of the 2499 is the most common, and was produced from 1960 through 1978, or about half the years all 2499s were made. The third series looks mostly like the second series watches, though the tachymeter scale is no longer on the dial, and Arabic numerals are completely replaced by applied baton markers.
The difference between third and fourth series 2499s is minimal, though the fourth series is thought to be a ‘transitional’ watch, bridging the vintage and modern looks. Made from 1978 through 1985 when the 2499 ceased production, the biggest difference in the fourth series is the use of a sapphire crystal.
No account of the 2499 would be complete without mentioning the two examples that were directly commissioned by Philippe Stern, president of Patek Philippe. Using the last two remaining 2499 movements, Mr. Stern had them put into special platinum cases in 1987, a year after the last gold 2499 was cased. One remains at the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva, but the other was offered at auction in 1989 and sold for what was at the time an astounding $253,300.
The original purchaser was a large private collector, but eventually the watch found its way to one of the most famous vintage watch collectors on the planet: noted rock musician Eric Clapton. His ownership only added to the provenance of what was already a most important watch. When Mr. Clapton offered the watch at auction in 2012 it sold for $3.63 million.
Patek Philippe Reference 3970
The reference 3970 was introduced in 1986 as a ‘modern’ follow up to the 2499, and indeed, it is very much like the second series 2499 with its leaf hands and baton markers. On the inside, however, the 3970 was the first Patek Philippe to replace the Valjoux chronograph movement with one derived from the Lemania 2310—famous as the basis for Omega’s caliber 321 in their celebrated “moon watch.”
This new perpetual calendar chronograph inside the 3970 (and later the 5020 and the 5970) was called the Caliber CH 27-70 Q, and is now known as one of the finest movements in the world.
The 3970 was, much like the 2499, produced in different series. And even though this watch in rose gold is more valuable than yellow, it was produced in considerable numbers in all four metals: yellow and rose gold, platinum, and for the first time for a perpetual calendar chronograph, in white gold. Produced until 2004, somewhere between 2,400 and 3,600 examples were made, more than ten times the number of 2499s. As a result, the 3970 is the most modestly priced of these watches.
The first series 3970 was all in yellow gold, and there were about 100 produced. At 36 mm, the new watch featured a smaller case than the 37.5 mm 2499, with a solid snap caseback and sub-registers that are a slightly different color from the rest of the dial. First series 3970s snapback watches are very collectable, and carry a large premium over the later 3970s.
Second series 3970s were produced from 1986 through 1991, and are nearly identical to the first series. They feature the same leaf hands and baton markers on the dial, but the registers on the second series are the same color as the rest of the dial. The biggest difference is in the case: second series 3970s feature a solid screwback instead of a snapback. Occasionally a 3970 second series was produced with a sapphire display caseback, but they are fairly rare.
The third series of the 3970 accounts for the majority of all the 3970s ever produced. The official reference for this watch is 3970E, (“E” for “etanche” or “”waterproof”), as the watch was offered with both a sapphire display back and a solid screw back. The hour markers on third series 3970s have slightly pointed tips, the hands are baton instead of leaf style, and the printing on the dial is dark against a bright, clear silver.
Patek Philippe Reference 5004
The reference 5004 was introduced in 1996, and embodied a totally new look. Still featuring a 36 mm case, what sets the 5004 apart mechanically is a split-seconds chronograph. Adding the rattrapante mechanism to the Lemania caliber resulted in a watch of greater depth, and with black dials and Arabic numerals, the overall look is stunning, making this iconic watch highly coveted by collectors.
The 5004 was made in all metals, but only about 12 of these watches were made per year until 2012. The black dial 5004 was offered first, and later they switched to silver dials, making the black dial versions all the more valuable. The most sought after examples are the early black dial versions cased in platinum.
The last fifty 5004s were cased in stainless steel, and were sold directly to owners with their names engraved on the caseback. Originally offered at $300,000, these steel examples occasionally appear at auction. One unique 5004 that needs to be mentioned is the single example cased in titanium. This one of a kind timepiece sold at auction in 2013 for $3.98 million dollars.
Patek Philippe Reference 5970
Some consider the reference 5970 to be the best watch ever made by Patek Philippe. It was made between 2004 and 2011, making its seven year production run the shortest of any of the Patek Philippe perpetual chronographs. The 5970 features the same Lemania-based movement as the 3970, but with a substantially larger, modern looking 40mm case, the balance and proportion of the watch is completely different from the smaller 3970.
The 5970 was offered in four different metals, with platinum being the most desirable, even though some believe the yellow gold version more rare. One yellow gold 5970 with a champagne dial sold for over $350,000—a full $200,000 higher than normal simply because of the rarity of the dial.
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