It would be fair to say that the Patek Philippe Nautilus is *the* most sought after steel sports watch of my lifetime. It has reigned supreme for the past 40 plus years since its introduction in 1976 and shows no sign of conceding its status any time soon.
Despite being positioned as mortal enemies, the Nautilus shares DNA and designer with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, The history of which can be read here – https://www.officialwatches.com/blog/audemars-piguet-royal-oak-the-watch-that-saved-the-brand/
The Nautilus, named after Captain Nemo’s vessel in Jules Verne’s famous 1870 novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, had its humble beginning in 1974 when it was sketched on a napkin while Gerald Genta, the worlds most iconic watch designer, was sitting in a restaurant enjoying his lunch and eavesdropping on a group of Patek Philippe executives chatting about the Basel Watch Fair at a table positioned close to his. The Royal Oak was on the market as the first “luxury sports watch” in steel and Patek, being AP’s absolute competitor, needed to respond. Genta took his sketch to the execs, and with his reputation already preceding him, the wheels were in motion.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak – 1972, and Patek Philippe Nautilus 3700 – 1976
There was a definite seafaring theme to both the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. The RO was designed with the octagonal shape of a divers helmet in mind while the Nautilus was altogether less angular and based on the portholes found in transatlantic cruise liners. The design with its flowing integrated bracelet was opulent and indicative of the burgeoning era of combining wealth with leisure. It was a time when sports watches no longer needed to serve a specific “tool” purpose such as the Submariner. The new wave was designed to adorn the wrists of those who could afford them and survive any activities that their wearers chose. Essentially, they were lifestyle watches for those who shunned delicate precious metal watches from haute horology manufacturers. They had youth appeal.
Having fully approved of Gentas napkin drawing and needing to create a model to fight both the quartz crisis and the boom of the Royal Oak, Patek Philippe threw caution to the wind and put the Nautilus into production. This was a massive leap for two reasons.
1) Patek was utterly classical. Manufacturing a mixture of pure dress watches and “complications” such as moon phases and the occasional chronograph, they didnt *do* water resistant sports watches, and the only time they ever used steel over precious metals was either when making prototypes or by special order to preferred customers. Their steel watches from that era are so rare that they reach eye watering figures at auction.
2) At 42mm it was considered HUGE at the time, the equivalent to a 50mm watch today. Comparatively the Royal Oak was 38mm and the industry, which tended to stick around the 34-36mm mark, was only just recovering from the vapours. The Nautilus was so large that its first iteration the 3700/1A was nicknamed the “Jumbo”.
Patek marketed the watch in direct competition with Audemars, declaring it to be the “one of the worlds costliest watches” and highlighting their use of steel as a sporting material. They were also working on the “at home both under the sea and in the boardroom method of marketing” in order to place the Nautilus as a “one watch solution” for modern buyers. When it was launched, it retailed at $3,100. Nowadays, for a vintage example, expect to pay between $140-180,000 depending on condition and completeness.
Interestingly but not surprisingly, the Nautilus appalled the brands loyal and arguably conservative customers. They couldn’t comprehend that their favoured manufacturer of subtle dress watches and elegant complications had just released a steel behemoth with what appeared to be ears growing from the side of its tv screen style case. It was the antithesis of the brand but also a watch that was, like AP and Royal Oak, the one that would become and remain Patek Philippes most coveted model.
Reference 3700/1A “Jumbo” build and specifications
The patented case is formed of a solid monobloc module (case/caseback), with movement inserted via the dial side. On top of that sits a second module, composed of the smoothed octagonal bezel, the crystal and the hinged “ears” (continuine the porthole theme) for closing the case. These kinds of builds are affectionately known as top loaders as they are assembled from the rear up. It was rated with 120m of water resistance.
The Stern Frères manufactured dial of the 3700 is a smoky grey colour with a subtle blue tint which appeared almost black in some lights and silvery in others. With hallmark grooves running horizontally and twinned with simple tritium filled hands and baton markers the face of the Nautilus was an exercise in magnificent simplicity. The only complication present was a date. If you compare the above image which is an official photo from Patek with the picture at the beginning of this article, the light shifting dial colour can be seen quite clearly.
As was often the way in the 70’s, Patek outsourced the movement to Jaeger-LeCoultre and equipped the 3700 with their ultra-thin 920 calibre which at only 3.05mm thick is still one of the worlds slimmest automatic movements with a full sized rotor. Strap manufacture was taken care of by Gay Fréres who were la crème de la crème of intricate bracelet making. The package was finished with a presentation box made out of compacted cork and steel. Totally 70s fabulous, and an item that now reaches thousands at auction even when missing its contents.
Patek Philippe produced a prototype “Albino” Nautilus in 1978. It was a one off white dial by Stern on behalf of Patek and included a spare standard dial as part of the package. The Albino sold at Sothebys auction for a cool 250,000 CHF (approx £210,000) in 2015. http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/important-watches-ge1501/lot.116.html
At the time of the auction the winning bidder was unknown, but prominent collector Claude Sfeir revealed himself to the New York Times as part of an interview and said of the watch “This prototype is the symbol of the success of the Nautilus and proof of the genius of Gérald Genta. This watch carries the history of all the Nautilus watches in a simple design that is still very current. My Ref. 3700 is unique, and its real market value is in the millions.” … He’s not wrong.
The second notable one-off is the spectacular platinum 3700 with black dial and diamond markers. The same manufacturers were all at play when this one was built in 1981. Stern dial, GF stamped bracelet in the full Patek package. It was auctioned by Christies as part of their “Important Watches” auction in 2013 and sold for CHF 784,000. https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/patek-philippe-an-extremely-important-rare-and-5674707-details.aspx/
The Patek Philippe Nautilus 3700 was discontinued in 1990.
You can invest in a superb and complete example from Official here – https://www.officialwatches.com/product/patek-philippe-nautilus-jumbo-full-set-3700001-ow500663/