One of the best things that has transpired over the last two years is my close friendship with a gentleman who has asked to remain semi-anonymous for the purpose of this story because of his profile as a collector.
We met thanks to a recommendation made by Auro Montanari for dinner in Singapore, and immediately hit it off. My friend is tall, suave and has a penchant for relaxed Italian tailoring worn in that irrepressible way of truly stylish men. He is not only one of the most significant watch collectors in the world, but his divestment of two of the world’s most iconic watches — the Rolex ref. 6062 “Bao Dai”, which sold for over USD5 million, as well as a steel Patek Philippe ref. 1518 which achieved CHF11 million in 2016 — has helped establish Aurel Bacs and Phillips as the pre-eminent auctioneer and fine vintage watch auction house of the new millennium. To say that this gentleman sets a high horological watermark when he’s around, is perhaps one of the greatest understatements of all time.
For the purpose of this story, we shall call him H. From time to time, H dispenses horological and sartorial advice to me, which I am always pleased to receive. So it was with some amount of curiosity that I awaited his arrival at Patek Philippe’s Watch Art Grand Exhibition held in Singapore last year. Never one to disappoint, H showed up with a fantastic white-gold Patek Philippe ref. 5970 on a “brick” bracelet with Breguet numerals. It’s interesting, of course, because there are no regular-production versions of the iconic Lemania 2310-based, CH27-70-driven perpetual-calendar chronograph made by Patek. In fact, H’s watch formerly belonged to the man most associated with bringing Breguet numerals to Patek’s perpetual-calendar chronographs: Eric Clapton.
The fact that these indices became the signature leitmotif of Clapton’s special-order watches, speaks volumes for his taste and understanding of Patek Philippe’s history. Because ever since Patek first introduced the perpetual-calendar chronograph in the ref. 1518 in 1941, there has been no perpetual-calendar chronographs with Breguet numeral dials. The Breguet numerals only staged a reappearance on the dial of the ref. 5170 chronograph, and later, the ref. 5370 split-seconds chronograph. Such dials are found in the most coveted examples of the vintage chronographs ref. 130 and ref. 1463, as well as their split-seconds versions, the ref. 1436 and ref. 1563. A Breguet-numerals dial, which is universally viewed by collectors as the most beautiful variant of these models, adds a very considerable premium to the value of the watch.
So it makes absolute sense that the ever-astute Clapton would ask for these numerals on his pièce-unique watches. We’ve seen that the Breguet numeral is normally limited to the 12 o’clock index in his ref. 3970 and ref. 5004 watches, but why is that?
Well, these watches have a relatively small case size of 36.7mm, so the space on the dial is already limited. Now add to this the fact that Clapton always ordered his watches with the inclusion of a tachymeter, which regular-production ref. 3970 and ref. 5004 watches don’t have, and the available space on the dial is considerably reduced. Incidentally, the tachymeter is a great inclusion, as it references both the ref. 1518 and ref. 2499 first- and second-generation watches, which are the most collectible Patek perpetual calendar chronographs of all time. But once you add the Breguet 12 and the tachymeter, the available space is only adequate for baton markers or, in the case of Clapton through a stroke of genius, applied dot markers.
Why do I consider this a stroke of genius? Because if you look at Patek vintage chronographs such as the ref. 130 and the ref. 1463, you will see that in general, these dots are combined with Roman markers, especially a Roman 12 o’clock index. But this unusual combination of a Breguet 12, dot markers and tachymeter made for what I consider the most handsome dial combination of all time.
Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz was clearly inspired by Clapton when it came to his own special-order watches. He basically got the same watches, but with Roman 12 o’clock indices, and he added luminous hands and markers, which, because of space limitations, fell into the minute track.
Patek, too, must have also loved these dials because they used the Eric Clapton configuration on the ref. 3970 watch created in a rumored five pieces for the London Watch Art Grand Exhibition in 2015. Although the configuration they selected — rose gold with a black dial with a Breguet 12, applied dot markers and tachymeter in white print — was not used in any previous Clapton ref. 3970, it was used in the aforementioned ref. 5004, which was sold in 2016 and today resides in Singapore’s The Hour Glass’s permanent collection.
When the Patek Philippe ref. 5970 was introduced in 2004, Clapton was suddenly offered an exciting new possibility, and that came down to one big difference between the 40mm ref. 5970 versus the 36.7mm ref. 3970/5004: available dial space. The ref. 5970 offered significantly more dial real estate than its predecessor, which meant that even though the watch already came standard with a handsome bold tachymeter, Clapton could commission a watch with a full set of applied Breguet numeral indices. (When I say “full”, I mean 1, 2, 4, 8, 10, 11 and 12, as the watch’s sub-dials encroach on the space normally occupied by the 3,5,6,7 and 9 indices.
And that’s exactly what he did — but this time, he didn’t order just one watch, but a set of four ref. 5970s, all with Breguet numeral dials and fitted with brick bracelets in matching metal, one of the most coveted special-order upgrades around. It is important to understand that in the context of the history of the perpetual calendar chronograph, “brick” bracelets were never sold separately by Patek Philippe and could only be part of a special order for very important customers. Indeed, it is only with the ref. 5270 in 2018 and the ref. 5204 in 2016 that these bracelets made their way into the regular production lineup. But the point is, back in the context of 2006, you had to be The Man to order a watch with a brick bracelet; you had to be a legend to order a watch with a special dial; and you had to be… well, basically Eric Clapton to order four ref. 5970 watches, all with Breguet numerals and all with “brick” bracelets.
These watches were configured as follows: a white-gold watch with a silver dial and black rhodium indices and hands; a pink-gold watch with a white dial. The note that the configurations of the remaining two are unknown publicly as it is only the aforementioned two, that have publicly appeared in auction
If you think about this, Clapton must have put in his order for these watches shortly after they were introduced in 2004, meaning that he very quickly saw the design potential to execute his dream dial. He must have also been so excited that he ordered four of them at a time. Note that the bracelets are detachable, and the watches were also worn on straps by Clapton, as seen in this image here.
At some point, Clapton started to divest of some of his watches, though there is no clear understanding of exactly which other watches he might have still kept. You can see the listing for the pink-gold ref. 5970 watch from this set of four which was sold at Sotheby’s, here.
The pink-gold watch sold for CHF405,000, while the white-gold watch was sold at Sotheby’s in 2018 and achieved HKD4.92 million (about USD635,000). So imagine my utter delight when my buddy H came strolling into the hall of Patek Philippe’s Watch Art Grand Exhibition with this exact white-gold watch on his wrist.
Since I had the opportunity to examine and photograph this amazing ref. 5970 up close, I decided to craft this story around it. I was struck by how stunning it was and also by the fact that it seemed to have actually been lovingly worn by Clapton. If you look at the condition of the ref. 3970s and ref. 5004 sold at Phillips, those look comparatively unworn. The other interesting thing was that the Breguet numerals used on Clapton’s ref. 5970s are totally different from those used on his ref. 3970 and ref. 5004 watches.
As you can clearly see, the Breguet numerals on the ref. 5970 are taller and thinner, while the font used for the smaller watches is more compact, thicker and a little more squarish. I cannot think of a cooler and more appropriate guy to own this masterpiece than my buddy H, and it makes me happy to know it ended up with him.