Buyer's Guide

Horological Archetypes: The Patek Philippe Calatrava

In his Horological Archetypes column, watch expert Allen Farmelo illuminates how and why a specific watch gave rise to enduring norms across the watch industry.
By Allen Farmelo
Sep 03, 2022
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The Patek Philippe Calatrava is so archetypal that it would be fair to say it has served as the template for nearly all round wristwatches for close to a century. From the finest dress watches to every Rolex currently in production to a $19-Timex you'd find at the drugstore, the Calatrava's basic form is quietly staring you in the face. But upon its release in 1932, the Calatrava Reference 96 shattered norms and expectations of what a personal timepiece could and should be.

The Stern family, who still owns and operates Patek Philippe independently, had just taken hold of the company. As Patek's elite, and often royal clientele's wealth dried up, Patek needed to innovate. The Calatrava was that innovation – a jarring jolt of the modern into an antiquated brand. Naming it after the company's logo – the Calatrava Cross – assured that the 31mm wristwatch would have a solid brand connection, but beyond its name the Calatrava was a radical divergence.

Patek Calatrava 96. Courtesy of Christie's

Firstly, the Calatrava was serially produced. Serial production was new for Patek, and the practice threatened the company's credibility as an exclusive enterprise serving elites. The idea with the Calatrava was to sell many of the same watches at retail rather than a limited number of very expensive unique pieces directly to elite clients. Serial production was a smart gamble for the Stern family, as the Calatrava was a smash hit among its younger, less wealthy target clientele: the emerging urban professional middle class.

Also radical was that the Calatrava was worn on the wrist. Wristwatches were hardly the norm in 1932, yet the Stern family presciently expected the Calatrava to appeal to youthful sensibilities that downplayed ornate decoration, social ostentation, and tradition in favor of sleekness, jazz-age cool, and modernization. Large pocket watches on exposed gold chains were on their way out. Art-Deco cool was in.

It can be difficult to tease out the multiplicity of styles within the Art Deco movement – some forms were neo-classical, some laced with scrolling decoration – but the strand of Art Deco that the Calatrava reached for was that of modern sleekness, speed, and modernity. Think of a 1930s bullet train or a stretched out sedan with covered wheels and you've got the idea. 

Patek Philippe Calatrava ref . 96110457

But the Calatrava also appealed to sensibilities that looked to modern industry and democracy as social equalizers, this notion best summed up in the design manifestos coming out of Germany's Bauhaus school, which directly influenced the development of the Calatrava. The overarching idea was that objects should not convey, but instead neutralize differences in social status. It may sound ironic today that a solid gold Patek Philippe could be said to neutralize socio-economic differences, but apparently the socio-psychological zeitgeist in Europe during 1932 was able to bear this notion. Furthermore, if you compare the very simple Calatrava to watches Patek was producing priorly, the egalitarian implications become more clear.

To carry all those rather specific appeals, the Calatrava had to be radically modern and minimalist in form. This comes down to three basic features of the watch: the colorway, the minimalist dial, and the case shape.

Patek Calatrava Case Side. Image by Matthew Bain

While silvered dials and solid gold cases were hardly new in the world of watches – in fact dating back to the 1700s– Patek Philippe managed to reduce the original Calatrava's colorway to just three hues: textured opaline silver, yellow gold, and black print. Patek would go on to produce Calatravas in white gold and even steel with radially brushed dials, enameled dials, applied Arabic "Breguet" numerals and so on, but the warm, mellow hues of the silvered dials and yellow gold remain quintessential to the Calatrava to this day. Whenever Patek issues a retro-styled Calatrava, it is yellow gold with a silvered dial.

The minimalist dial of the Calatrava was a revelation in 1932, a bold statement, an emphatic No to adornment. The dauphine hands were stout and wide, providing immediate readability, and the unfettered left-to-right symmetry was fortified by the vertical alignment of the sub-dial at six o'clock and the discretely printed text at twelve o'clock. It may be difficult today to see the Calatrava's dial as radically modern, but in 1932 it was likely as revelatory as the first iPhone. Nothing like it had been seen before, and it would go on to be endlessly copied.

Alternative Reference 96 MilSpec Dial. Image by Patek Philippe

Lastly, and most importantly, we have the Calatrava case. This requires a little understanding of how wristwatches were manufactured prior to the Calatrava. There was the Cartier Tank, which did away with the round case in favor of a rectangular design that lacked lugs in any traditional sense of the word. Then there were round watches – basically smaller pocket watches – with lugs of various shapes welded on. The welded-on lugs were typically quite fancy, with shapes ranging from scrolling, tiered affairs to Vacheron Constantin's famous "horns" and much more.

With the Calatrava, we find the first watch case formed from one piece of metal with the lugs seamlessly flowing out from the side of a round watch to form a continuous surface. We take this form for granted today, because it is so ubiquitous, but if you consider the range of watches that employ the Calatrava case strategy, it's a bit mind-boggling. They're everywhere.

Patek Philippe would go on to riff on the Calatrava 96 with some extravagance, from military models with large numerals in radium luminescent paint to elaborate sector-dial versions to more technical models with clear railroad tracks along the outer edge for precision measurement. Reference 96 was so successful that it remained in continuous production until 1973, making it one of the longest-running watches ever, a full 41 years. 

A Modern Patek 5227J Image Patek

Other references emerged, of course, and today you can find Calatravas from Patek Philippe in such an array of styles that one has to question what the term means within the brand at this point. It appears to me that the word Calatrava has transcended that one distinctive model to encompass a wide-ranging series of watches in the Patek Philippe Catalog.

But it goes further. The word Calatrava has even transcended Patek Philippe altogether, largely as dealers of Calatrava-style vintage dress watches use the term to improve search results for their listings. So, as one looks into the vastness of the internet and sees Calatrava used over and over in ways that don't always make sense, it may be helpful to keep the above information in mind to ground your research. 

And don't be surprised if a dealer in a shop tells you that a watch you're trying on is a "Calatrava," even if it's not a Patek Philippe, as that's becoming the norm. As confusing as that may be, perhaps nothing speaks more to the impact the Patek Philippe Calatrava has had on the world of wristwatches than its name becoming an increasingly generic term.