Is the Patek Philippe Aquanaut the ultimate grail watch or an outright failure from the top Swiss luxury watch brand?
At Baselworld 2018, Patek Philippe surprised the world with the release of the Patek Philippe Aquanaut Chronograph (reference 5968A). This new addition to the Aquanaut family turned heads not only as the first chronograph in the Aquanaut collection but also thanks to its flashy orange rubber strap. It has led to some fierce debates about the style of the Aquanaut Chronograph and the purpose of the Aquanaut in general. In this article, Bert Buijsrogge and Jorg Weppelink will give their opinions of the Patek Aquanaut and discuss whether it should be considered a true Patek Philippe.
Before we get to the arguments, let’s take a quick look at the Aquanaut’s history. Patek Philippe introduced the Aquanaut as a multipurpose sports watch for both land and sea in 1997. Essentially, the Aquanaut is a pared-down version of a Patek Philippe sports watch. It targets a new audience and comes with a friendlier price tag than the highly successful Patek Nautilus. Its rubber strap was a first for Patek Philippe, as they had previously only produced watches with either a leather strap or a steel, gold, or platinum bracelet. The current Aquanaut collection consists of different variations of the basic time-and-date Aquanaut, the Travel Time models, and the new chronograph edition.
I love Patek Philippe’s rich history, craftsmanship, and technical brilliance. However, there’s always a “but,” and for me, it’s the fact that most of their watches have very classic designs. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of Patek’s designs and dream of owning a classic Patek one day. That being said, as a casual dresser, most Patek Philippe watches simply wouldn’t fit with my daily style. The Nautilus and the Aquanaut are this brand’s luxury sports watches and the only Patek watches I would consider buying for everyday wear.
To address with the elephant in the room: No, I don’t think the Aquanaut is the poor man’s Nautilus. Patek Philippe has always openly stated that the shape of the Aquanaut was inspired by the iconic Nautilus. It’s the design of all the other elements that gives the Aquanaut its unique look. If shape alone is what you use to determine a watch’s relevancy, you must find a large portion of the watch industry irrelevant.
Would I prefer a Nautilus to an Aquanaut? Yes, if the standard Nautilus ref. 5711/1A and standard Aquanaut ref 5167A are my only options. That Nautilus is a watch icon and has a permanent place in watchmaking history. I love Gérald Genta’s design legacy, and there’s no reason not to buy the watch that started it all if you have the means to.
However, that’s where my love for the Nautilus ends. Every Nautilus with a sub-register shares one design flaw in my opinion, and that’s a crowded dial. For example, the Nautilus Chronograph has a particularly cluttered design. It’s hard to imagine Genta ever intended something so busy considering the simplicity of the original Nautilus. Enter the Aquanaut Travel Time and the new Aquanaut Chronograph, which both do a much better job than the Nautilus.
The Aquanaut Chronograph looks better than not only the Nautilus but also most other chronographs. It took some time getting to know the watch in detail, but it has grown on me tremendously. A larger, 42.2-mm case gives the design room to breathe. The orange second hand and minute indices contrast nicely with the grey dial and lend this watch more character than the standard Aquanaut. I love that it comes with one black and one orange rubber strap. This not only shows off the design’s versatility but also Patek Philippe’s willingness to explore new territory.
I have to commend Patek Philippe for taking these steps. They’re essential to keeping the brand relevant and display how you can keep moving forward without losing any of the heritage that got you to where you are. I realize a lot of Patek Philippe lovers don’t see it that way and would like them to remain the same classic luxury watch brand people know and love. My response to that is there will always plenty to choose from if you are a fan of the more classic Patek Philippe watches. In the meantime, I’d be more than happy to wear an Aquanaut Chronograph with the orange strap every day.
Let’s say what has to be said: The Aquanaut is the poor man’s Nautilus. You’ll hear this opinion time and time again whenever this model is up for discussion. You either love it or hate it. Any model that elicits so much emotion from both sides is doing something right. Having said that, this design is simply not for me. Let me tell you why.
Every time I see an Aquanaut, I can’t help but feel it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It looks like a Nautilus, but it isn’t one. There are subtle design differences. The 3 biggest are the use of Arabic instead of Roman numerals, a lack of an ‘ear’ on the left side, and its tropical strap—Patek’s name for a composite strap with a folding clasp. As a watch enthusiast, calling a strap ‘tropical’ reminds me of those perforated, basket weave straps from the 60s and 70s.
With a design so similar to that of the Patek Philippe Nautilus, an undisputed icon, it’s hard to see the Aquanaut as having a truly original design. In fact, Patek has simply created an ‘entry-level’ watch that resembles its more famous big brother. This is probably why people refer to it as “the poor man’s Nautilus.” Even calling it an “entry-level watch” is a bit of a misnomer, especially once you realize the standard Aquanaut comes with a $15,000 price tag. Yet, when it comes to Patek Philippe, this is about as affordable as it gets.
Since its introduction in 1997, its design hasn’t changed much. This is is actually a good thing in my opinion. A good design (that I’m not convinced it’s a good design doesn’t mean others have to feel the same way) shouldn’t require much change, perhaps just a few slight modifications to adapt to new materials or an update when the time comes. You find something similar in the automotive industry. If you were to line up every Porsche 911 side by side, you’d see a subtle evolution over time while maintaining the DNA of the original. Again, that doesn’t mean you have to like the design. Even the 911’s design has been the subject of much debate.
In the end, the Aquanaut is produced following the same high standards and levels of quality as every other Patek Philippe. That said, the Aquanaut just doesn’t do it for me. Perhaps they shouldn’t have tried to make a sportier version of an already iconic sports watch. Since many people see watches as an investment for the next generation, it’s worth asking if a truly sporty watch is even the right decision. On a recent trip to Rome, I saw someone swimming with a white Nautilus. If I could get any Patek, it would be the Nautilus for sure. The Aquanaut’s big brother ticks all my boxes.