Patek Philippe has always had a love affair with the chronograph, the instrument invented by Nicolas Rieussec to empower man to precisely record elapsed time. Having missed the great boom for complicated timepieces in pre-Opium War China, Patek Philippe decided to focus on pocket-watch chronographs during the mid-19th century. One of the first watches to be born of this ambition was a foudroyante chronograph — a watch with a hand that adopted four positions per second — created in 1856.
Toward the end of the 19th century and through the beginning of the 20th, Patek Philippe collaborated with several chronograph ébauche-makers, in particular, Vallée de Joux’s legendary Victorin Piguet et Fils, to create sumptuously executed and technically superb time-writers.
The relationship between a famous maison like Patek Philippe and an ébauche-maker like Victorin Piguet was the norm throughout the vast majority of the watch industry’s history. It should be stressed that Victorin Piguet would deliver unfinished movement blanks, which were then modified, assembled and finished through chamfering, polishing and decorating to the high standards of Patek Philippe.
These chronographs soon gained a reputation as the finest in the world — a status reinforced today by their residual values, which are among the highest for collectible vintage chronographs.
As tastes following World War I shifted toward a new breed of timepiece, one worn audaciously and in an almost outré display of personal style on the wrist, Patek Philippe asserted its prowess in chronographs with the creation of timepieces such as beautiful rattrapantes from the 1920s.
In the 1930s, the growing demand for chronographs, particularly in the US, inspired Patek Philippe’s new owner, the Stern brothers, Jean and Charles, to strike a relationship with Reymond Frères of the Vallée de Joux, to use its column-wheel chronograph. This movement would form the design underpinnings for Patek Philippe’s laterally coupled chronograph calibres for the future. The calibre 23VZ measured 13 lignes and was informed by what would become the iconic three-armed chronograph bridge. It had a large balance wheel mounted on a dedicated cock and a swan-neck regulator to adjust the active length of the hairspring. It was named the Valjoux (the renamed Reymond Frères) cal. 23VZ, and would be the dominant chronograph movement for Patek Philippe until 1974.
This movement was the base calibre for Patek Philippe’s ref. 1518, the world’s first perpetual chronograph made in series. A total of 281 ref. 1518 watches were made over 13 years, including four timepieces with steel cases during the Italian embargo on luxury materials before WWII. The ref. 1518 was something of a revelation in the year of its introduction in 1941 and remained an icon all the way through to 1954 when it was replaced by the ref. 2499. Its 35mm size was considered huge at the time and its overall sense of volume was enhanced by elongated lugs. Indices in the first series were Arabic, which created a distinctly modern feel, though toward the end of its production run in its fourth iteration, Patek Philippe transitioned toward the baton markers found on the ref. 2499.
The ref. 2499 is considered by most Patek Philippe collectors to be one of their Holy Grail timepieces. It is inarguably the single most famous and commercially sought-after perpetual calendar chronographs in horological history. First introduced in 1954, this amazing 36mm timepiece formalized the design iconography of Patek Philippe’s famous perpetual chronographs with side-by-side windows for day and month at 12 o’clock, and date and moonphase indicator fused into one subdial at six o’clock. By this point, Patek Philippe had replaced the ref. 1518’s avant-gardist Arabic indices with simple, sleek baton markers that added greater clarity to the perpetual calendar display. Like the ref. 1518, the ref. 2499 used the Valjoux calibre 23VZ. Today, examples of the ref. 2499 have approached the US$2 million mark at auctions.
In the 1970s, the Swiss watch industry was rocked by the Quartz Crisis, and one of its victims was the venerable Valjoux manufacture’s chronograph calibre. Although the cal. 23VZ ended production in 1974, Patek Philippe had kept enough movement blanks to continue producing the ref. 2499 until 1985. In the interim, it sought a worthy successor to the Valjoux movement and found their answer in Nouvelle Lemania and its calibre CH 27-70.
For those brought up in the ’90s and the first decade of the new millennium, the Lemania CH 27 is something of an icon, first powering Patek Philippe’s replacement to the ref. 2499, the ref. 3970, distinguished by its round pushers.
While the Lemania calibre was also used by Vacheron Constantin, and later by Roger Dubuis, it reached an apex of augmentation at Patek, where almost every component was replaced or substantially modified. At the same time, pains were taken to ensure the movement retained the design architecture of the Valjoux cal. 23VZ, including separate cocks for the escapement wheel and balance wheel as well as the basic form of the chronograph bridge. The Lemania calibre would be used alone in the 42mm ref. 5070, the perpetual calendar chronographs ref. 3970 and ref. 5970 (this featured a larger case and a return to square pushers), and the ref. 5004 perpetual calendar split-seconds chronograph.
Says Philippe Stern, “The 5004 was a particularly difficult watch to realize because the base calibre was never designed to be a rattrapante. We had to create a special isolator mechanism to lift the return lever off the split-seconds wheel, so as to maintain a steady amplitude even when the rattrapante brake was deployed.”
For two decades, Lemania reigned supreme in Patek Philippe’s dress chronographs, even as rumours abounded around an in-house chronograph movement.
In 2005, Patek Philippe launched its first salvo into the in-house chronograph field, introducing the calibre CHR 27-525 PS. This movement, inspired by an old Victorin Piguet ébauche, was a revelation as the world’s thinnest split-seconds chronograph movement. However, it was, in terms of complexity to produce, equal to a minute repeater, and as such, only around 10 ref. 5959 watches featuring this movement could be made each year, hardly a true serially produced chronograph.
That said, Patek created beautiful line extensions for the ref. 5959 in 2010, including the sumptuous steel cushion-cased ref. 5950, and the ref. 5951, the world’s thinnest split-seconds perpetual calendar chronograph.
In 2006, Patek Philippe launched its first in-house chronograph movement calibre CH 28. Featuring a vertical clutch and automatic rotor, it was intended for the sporty-dressy family of timepieces such as the ref. 5960, rather than as a replacement for the Lemania-equipped series of watches.
Finally in 2009, Patek Philippe revealed what collectors had long hoped for. The CH 29 is a genuine in-house horizontal-clutch haut de gamme column-wheel movement to succeed the Lemania CH 27. However, from a performance perspective, with its 28,800vph vibrational speed (as opposed to the slow-oscillating 18,000vph Lemania), it not only could divide time into smaller fractions, but also had far greater autonomy from shocks and other perturbations. Those wondering when the first complicated CH-29-equipped watches would emerge need wait no more.
New for 2011 is the ref. 5270, the successor to the ref. 1518, ref. 2499, ref. 3970 and the ref. 5970. At 41mm, it is 1mm larger than the ref. 5970, but it feels more massive because of its flared and elongated lugs. The horizontal subdials have shifted perceptibly lower in deference to the calibre CH 29 powering the watch. Featured on the right is the calibre’s distinct — and precise — jumping minute counter. The ref. 5270 gains unique status as the very first in the line of iconic Patek Philippe perpetual chronographs to feature a true 100-percent in-house Patek Philippe chronograph movement, a fact that is guaranteed to make it one of the most collectible timepieces of all time.
Excerpted from an article by Wei Koh in REVOLUTION’s archives.