The Patek Philippe Calatrava has a lot going for it. Iconic design. Exceptional brand recognition. High quality manufacture movement. Strong resale value. The list goes on. But is it the best dress watch of all time? I can already see people furiously stabbing at their phone keyboards to say that it’s not. That there are too many great dress watches to crown one the champion. And they’re right. Still, we’d be doing ourselves (and you) a disservice if we didn’t dig a little deeper. So, here’s what makes the Patek Philippe Calatrava possibly the best dress watch of all time.
Defining the dress watch
Before we dive into the details it’s helpful to define what a dress watch is. And what it isn’t. First, a dress watch should be simple and elegant. Clean face, muted colours and a simple time display are all that’s required. Embellishments to the dial should not extend beyond a date window or a small seconds sub-dial. Preferably not both together
The case doesn’t need to be round, although this is generally the preferred shape. It shouldn’t be any larger than 39mm in diameter (36mm – 38mm seems to be the sweet spot) and it should be thin. The watch should be worn on a leather strap, ideally black but other dark colours are also acceptable.
Lastly, and this goes without saying, the movement within should be mechanical. Not quartz. This is a watch for fancy occasions when you want to look your best. It’s not a toy. Sophistication is the name of the game here.
A (Very) Brief History Of The Patek Philippe Calatrava
You wouldn’t know it to look at it but the Calatrava was designed in a time of crisis. Not unlike another iconic watch – the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. In the early part of the 20th-century, Patek, Philippe & Cie (as the company was formally known) was in trouble. Although considered one of the world’s premier watch manufacturers with an exclusive clientele to match, the company wasn’t making enough money. They needed a white knight. Luckily, they found two.
Brothers Jean and Charles Henri Stern purchased a controlling interest in the company in 1932. Their family owned Fabrique de Cadrans Stern Frères, a dial manufacturing firm that supplied Patek, among other Swiss manufacturers. They recognised immediately that they needed to broaden the appeal of Patek Philippe. To create something more mainstream. Something to attract new buyers beyond their core of devoted collectors. It needed to be designed and manufactured to the same high standards the company had become known for. However, it would not have any complications.
In that same year the company introduced the Patek Philippe Calatrava Reference 96. With a heavy Bauhaus influence, David Penney’s minimalist design was eminently practical, yet irresistibly attractive. It would become the blueprint for all future Calatrava watches and indeed, dress watches in general.
Presented in a 31mm round case measuring just 9mm thick, it had a snap-on back and a flat polished bezel. In a forward-thinking move, the lugs were integrated into the three-part case design. At the time, lugs were typically soldered on to the case after the fact. An unattractive look to say the least. On the Calatrava, they tapered slightly to ensure a comfortable fit on the wrist.
The real drawcard of the Patek Philippe Calatrava Reference 96 was its modern dial. Avoiding the elaborate designs of the preceding Art Deco era, it was an exercise in restraint. The only thing it displayed was the time. Hours were marked around the outside of the dial by applied trapezoidal markers in gold. Small seconds were shown on a sub-dial at six o’clock. Two pointed and faceted Dauphine hands in gold were responsible for indicating the hours and minutes. That was it.
Suffice to say the Patek Philippe Calatrava was a roaring success and has become a cornerstone product for the brand. A number of variations have been introduced over the years, several of which can be found in the current catalogue. Arguably the closest to the original is the Ref 5196.
The Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref 5196
To my mind, the Ref. 5196 is the ultimate modern interpretation of the original Ref. 96. The Ref. 5296 is also a contender, with its central seconds and date window at 3 o’clock. Its design too is inspired by an early variation of the Ref. 96. I prefer the dial of the former though. There’s just something about the small seconds being shown on a separate sub-dial that makes it feel more balanced.
The case is significantly larger than the original at 37mm, although still understated by today’s standards. It’s even slimmer now though, at a svelte 7.68mm. Larger size notwithstanding, the case is built the same way, with a flat bezel on top. The lugs are integrated directly into the case and still have that subtle curve for maximum comfort.
The layout of the dial is almost identical to the Ref. 96. Hours and minutes are displayed centrally by dauphine-shaped hands. Prism-shaped indices denote the hours and small seconds are shown on a sub-dial. Keen observers will notice one subtle change: the sub-dial now sits above 6 o’clock. In the original it sat lower, between the hour indices at 5 and 7 o’clock.
Providing the power is the manual-winding Caliber 215 PS. It’s thin at only 2.55mm and beats at a standard 28,800vph. It’s equipped with Patek Philippe’s patented Gyromax balance and Spiromax balance spring and bears the Patek Philippe seal. Four different versions of the Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref 5196 are available; white gold, yellow gold, rose gold and platinum.
My personal favourite is the platinum version, Ref 5196P, which retails for GBP 28,300 / USD 36,970. It features a 2-tone silvery grey dial and gold applied Breguet-style numerals. Hallmarks of yet another iteration of the Ref 96. That said, its design is a bit ‘louder’ than the others. This puts it out of the running for the best dress watch of all time. I would say the main contender is the white gold Ref 5196G at a price of GBP 16,850 / USD 22,000. Although if you’re a real purist, you would go with the yellow gold Ref 5196J at GBP 15,370 / USD 20,070.
There are many, many options when it comes to choosing a dress watch. Very few of them however can match the high standard of quality, design and pedigree set by the Patek Philippe Calatrava. It’s not hard to see then why it’s still one of the brand’s best-selling collections.
Technical Specifications: Patek Philippe Calatrava Ref 5196G
- Case: White Gold – 37 mm x 8.1mm – water resistant to 30 metres.
- Dial: Silvery grey or two-tone silvery grey – time only with small seconds – gold applied hour markers.
- Movement: Calibre 215 PS – mechanical manual-winding – small seconds – Gyromax® balance complete with Spiromax® balance spring – centre hours and minutes hands – small seconds on separate sub-dial – Patek Philippe seal.
- Strap: Shiny black alligator – prong buckle.
- Price: GBP 16,850 / USD 22,000.