In 1986, a year before the release of the film Wall Street and the world is a amid a heady opiate period of affluence and wealth. Men are still attired in classic suits for work and similarly, the wristwatch is the apogee of their self-expressive style. But watches are still a full decade and a half from swelling in proportion, and the idea of elegance rules the day.

1985-2004 Patek Philippe 3970

4,200 watches

Patek Philippe Ref. 3970
Patek Philippe Ref. 3970

Accordingly tasked with designing the successor to the iconic 2499, Philippe Stern makes the decision to reduce the size of the case to 36mm, down from 37.5 mm. Says famed watch collector and author John Goldberger, “In the context of the ’80s this was the right size for the watch. Companies such as Blancpain which had re-entered the market as a specialist in mechanical complications was making the majority of its cases in 33mm. Says Nick Foulkes, “Knowing Philippe Stern, he was almost certainly motivated to assert a new level of expertise at Patek and the idea of making a complicated perpetual calendar chronograph in a smaller case size that was 36 mm was most certainly an expression of the manufacture’s savoire faire. Following the Quartz Crisis this was an important statement of ability. In addition, he felt that this was the perfect size from an aesthetic perspective and the fact that it is 1mm larger than the 1518 and 1.5mm smaller than the 2499 placed it in the perfect sweet spot for him and for the period in which the watch was born.”

Stern who would already be well on his way to becoming one of the most revered near mythological figures in the watch industry would create a watch that was Zen reductionist purity in extremitas. Says Foulkes, “That is what is so appealing about the 3970, it rejects any form of unnecessary flourish and focuses on the perfect execution of the perpetual calendar chronograph reduced to its barest essence.” Everything about the 3970 is discreet and understatedly appealing.

Ref. 3970, with 24-hour at '9', leap year at '3', triangles at each hour marker (Image: Christie's)
Ref. 3970, with 24-hour at '9', leap year at '3', triangles at each hour marker (Image: Christie's)

The Baton shaped hour markers are lean and attenuated. There is no tachymeter in existence. The perimeter of the dial features a hash marked seconds track, with tiny arrows at the end of each marker pointing to subtle Arabic seconds index. The case is smooth and round. The lugs are thin and so subtly stepped that it is possible to miss this detail at first look, the pushers are round.

Ref. 3970, with leap year indication at '3' subdial (Image: Christie's)
Ref. 3970, with leap year indication at '3' subdial (Image: Christie's)

Indeed the easiest way to tell the difference a quick glance between the 4th series 2499 and the 1st series 3970 is that for the first time, the new watch featured an indication for leap year, subtly integrated into the chrono minutes counter at 3 o’clock, as well as a 24-hour indicator integrated into the continuous seconds counter at 9 o’clock. This display was critical as adjusting the calendar while the movement was amid its change-over period from one date to the next could damage it.

Ref. 2499
Ref. 2499
Ref. 3970
Ref. 3970

Inside the watch and featured for the first time in a Patek Philippe was one of the most venerable and legendary calibers in watchmaking history, the Lemania 2310. This movement dates back to 1942 and was a joint project between Lemania and Omega. This movement rebadged as the caliber 321 was featured in every Omega Speedmaster from the 1957 CK 2915 to the 1968 145.012-67 and was famously beating inside every Speedmaster that went into space.

Lemania 2310 movement in the ref. 3970, as the Cal. CH 27-70 Q (image: Christie’s)
Lemania 2310 movement in the ref. 3970, as the Cal. CH 27-70 Q (image: Christie’s)

First Series 1986

100 watches

Ref. 3970, first series (image: Christie’s)
Ref. 3970, first series (image: Christie’s)

The first series 3970 watches are characterized by having subdials that are of complementary but non-matching tone relative to the dial (however, this dial is not entirely exclusive to the first series) The easiest way to distinguish a first series watch is that they came equipped with a snap-on solid case back which made them non water resistant. The first series watches were made exclusively in yellow gold with an opaline dial with applied yellow gold baton markers and yellow gold leaf/dauphine hands. The reference 3971 was sold concurrently and was exactly the same watch but with a snap-on display back which is chronicled here in Ben Clymer’s excellent Reference Points article on the Patek perpetual chronographs.

Second Series 1986-1991

Ref. 3970, second series (image: Bonhams)
Ref. 3970, second series (image: Bonhams)

The second series of 3970 watches feature a screw-down case back. For this second series of watches, you could order it with either a solid screw-down case back, in which case it would be designated reference 3970; or with a screw-down sapphire case back, in which case it would be designated reference 3971. In general, the second series 3970 differs from the first series 3970 in that the subdials are now the same color as the dial. However, there are instances where the earlier dial appears on the second series watches such as on this 3971 dated, based on the Patek extract from the archive, to 1990 and which also comes equipped with a second screw-down solid case back dated to 1999.

Ref. 3971 (images: WatchCollectors.co.uk)
Ref. 3971 (images: WatchCollectors.co.uk)
Ref. 3971 (images: WatchCollectors.co.uk)
Ref. 3971 (images: WatchCollectors.co.uk)

The second series 3970 watches could also be ordered on a bracelet as reference 3970/002. However in this instance the watch would no longer have the traditional lugs but be fitted with an integrated precious metal bracelet as seen here making in essence a totally different model from the traditional 3970.

Ref. 3970 with case and integrated bracelet in yellow gold (images: Robert Maron)
Ref. 3970 with case and integrated bracelet in yellow gold (images: Robert Maron)
Ref. 3970 with case and integrated bracelet in yellow gold (images: Robert Maron)
Ref. 3970 with case and integrated bracelet in yellow gold (images: Robert Maron)
Ref. 3970 with case and integrated bracelet in white gold (images: WatchCollectors.co.uk)
Ref. 3970 with case and integrated bracelet in white gold (images: WatchCollectors.co.uk)
Ref. 3970 with case and integrated bracelet in white gold (images: WatchCollectors.co.uk)
Ref. 3970 with case and integrated bracelet in white gold (images: WatchCollectors.co.uk)

Third Series 1991-2004

The difference in the third and most common series of watches is the designation “E” for Etache or Waterproof after the model number. Watches all now come with both a sapphire screw back and a solid screw back, a practice which would continue with the subsequent models. The idea is that owners could have the option of viewing their sumptuously decorated Geneva Seal movement, a tradition that reaches all the way back to the 1518 or could personalize the solid case back with an inscription, initials or coat of arms. The front of the watch differs as well in that all third series watches feature thinner Baton hands and long, more attenuated markers replete with sharp diamond tips. These markers now almost touch the bolder arrow shaped printed indicators that point at the Arabic markers for each 5th second on the seconds track.

Ref. 3970 third series (image: www.watchcentre.com)
Ref. 3970 third series (image: www.watchcentre.com)