In 1972 Audemars Piguet gave birth to the Royal Oak, the world’s first high-end steel sports watch. It was a risky move, and though it is now one of the brand’s most iconic models, at the time gold was still considered the only option for luxury timepieces. Four years later, in 1976, Patek Philippe took a stab at the upscale steel sports watch. That watch was the Nautilus, a convention-defying timepiece that bravely commanded the price of a gold watch, and haute horlogerie has never been the same.
The story of the Nautilus begins, appropriately, in the sea. Patek Philippe was looking for a watch that was strong in design and personality, yet universally engaging. The same man who gave Audemars Piguet its Royal Oak, the legendary Gérald Genta, was tapped for the project. For inspiration he turned to the porthole found on virtually all maritime vessels. The wide steel bezel of the watch takes its design cues from the watertight window’s shape, while the protruding “ears” found on either side of the case evoke the prominent porthole hinges.
Armed with a nautical name – derived from the Greek word meaning ‘ship’ or ‘sailor’ – the original Nautilus (Ref. 3700/1) debuted. At 42mm it wasn’t a small piece, and came to be affectionately known as ‘the Jumbo.’ Despite its current icon status, the world took a while to warm up to the Nautilus. It wasn’t until the 80s that its outrė design, scale and choice of materials really hit their stride.
Attitudes evolved. Lifestyles changed. The trend in the 80s was for hyper-masculinity, which meant a powerful-looking men’s watch in a formidable material was exactly what the watch doctor ordered. An increasing interest in maintaining an active lifestyle also meant that the time was right for a watch that expressed both luxury and athleticism at the same time. On top of it all, Patek Philippe launched an advertising campaign that emphasised the versatility of the Nautilus and unabashedly celebrated its brazen price point.
Over the years, the Nautilus continued to evolve and retain relevance. Patek Philippe released a women’s version in 1980 to capitalise on current trends. The first Nautilus to feature anything more complicated than the time and date came 1998, followed by a string of updates that dove straight into the deep end of complications. In honour of the 30th anniversary of the original model, a refreshed Nautilus collection was released in 2006 that continues today.
In Popular Culture
The introduction of the Nautilus was a watershed moment. The watch completely redefined what it means to be a luxury timepiece and, naturally, that came with its fair share controversy. Not only were the features of the Nautilus a drastic departure from what was found on the market at the time, they also bore little resemblance to the rest of the Patek Philippe family. To this day, aficionados of the Nautilus set themselves apart from other Patek Philippe collectors. You may even see the Nautilus discourteously dismissed as “not a REAL Patek” by purists.