For its true admirers, there’s one idiosyncrasy to Patek Philippe’s Nautilus wristwatch that is sacrosanct above all: the ‘hinge’ mechanism housing the screws that clamp its porthole bezel to the case. This, after all, gives the Nautilus its unmistakable look, the 'ears' that accommodate the screws on either side of case resembling the hinges on marine portholes. The mechanism is also the enabling factor behind much of the watch’s sporty raison d’être, compressing a rubber gasket between the bezel and case to ensure water resistance of 120m (look closely at a Nautilus and you can see the black slither of rubber sandwiched between the layers of stainless steel).

When the Nautilus was launched in 1976, it was this symbiosis of avant-garde form, utilitarian steel and rugged function, somehow without compromising Patek’s luxurious essence, that was both seriously radical and, for plenty of customers of the arch-conservative firm, wholly perplexing. At the time, like Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak before it, it was a sales failure. Today the Nautilus’s strange contours and versatile personality make it arguably the most celebrated of Patek’s watch lines.

That being the case, the removal of the hinge in the brand new reference, numbered 5990/1A, is likely to give some Nauti-loving die-hards cause to splutter. It's not that the watch has been 'de-horned', as such, nor the water resistance affected. But the left-hand protrusion has been re-fashioned for a different purpose: in an act of horological trompe l’oeil, in the hinge's place is now a pair of pushers for adjusting a second hour hand forwards and backwards.

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe

Coupled with a chronograph, this watch then delivers collectors a quadruple whammy: a new combination of functions (chronograph, date and travel time, including day/night indicators for both time zones) for a Patek watch; the most complicated Nautilus yet produced; an all-new evolution of the firm’s nifty CH 28-520 chronograph movement, including silicon escapement; and that perversely rare and covetable thing, a complicated Patek in steel. It'll be priced between £40,000 and £45,000.

Goodbye, 5980/1

In the slow-burning world of Patek Philippe developments, it's pretty major stuff. But we’re not out of the woods yet for the Nautilus faithful – or, at least, not for those who’ve yet to get their hands on the vaunted 5980/1 steel chronograph.

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe

The travel time upgrade means this favourite, in the line-up for eight years, has run its course – such are the careful restraints on production under which the Genevoise firm operates. For those already in possession of a 5980/1, however, congratulations: your investment just appreciated.

When the 5980/1 was launched in 2006 as part of the 30th anniversary reload of the line, the addition of a chronograph seemed to return the element of sportiness to the Nautilus agenda. In the early ‘80s, an amusing advertisement for the Nautilus had stated: “It works as well with a wetsuit as with a dinner suit”. The fact that the watch in the photo was a gold model set with diamonds rather suggests, though, that Patek’s tongue was in its cheek on the subject even then.

But a watch to reflect the active pursuits of the modern wealthy had always been the intention. The watch’s famous designer, the late Gerald Genta, described his original conception of a watch suitable for the skiing and sailing lifestyle of Patek’s then president, Henry Stern, after he spotted him in a restaurant during Baselworld. (So the story goes, Genta – who of course had designed the similarly purposed Royal Oak for Audemars Piguet some years previously – sketched the watch on a napkin on the spot but didn’t immediately approach Patek with it. Its faceted steel surfaces, integrated bracelet and slatted blue dial were passed on by Piaget before Genta finally got to pitch it to Stern).

By any stretch a strange bird – though one whose allure grows with familiarity – the Nautilus was too outlandish for most Patek buyers at the time, and at 42mm, certainly too big (hence its ‘Jumbo’ nickname).

It’s to the Stern family’s eternal credit that they stuck with it, though a glance over various ‘80s and ‘90s iterations shows a cult design trying hard to find its place in the world. It was downsized considerably; there were bi-colour, gold and diamond-set versions, and plentiful quartz women’s models; it gained Roman numerals on its dial; briefly and unhappily, it became strangely elongated in the form of the quartz-powered 3770, which seemed to merge the Nautilus look with that of Patek’s ultimate dress watch, the Elipse.

Throughout, it retained its water resistance and resilient monocoque case construction, but as a watch for the active lifestyle – or even as a casual-wear Patek – form and function were falling out of alignment. When the 42mm Nautilus returned in 1998 it did so with a strange, comet-shaped power reserve display and dressy Roman numerals; meanwhile its hinge-less cousin, the Aquanaut, was launched, which was more streamlined, more affordable and had a high-tech rubber strap – a true sports watch.

The cult of the Nautilus was, however, gathering pace. In 2004 a purer ‘Jumbo’ version appeared, in white gold only and now with a display caseback for the in-house 315 calibre. In 2005 came the first significantly complicated model, the 3712/1A with moon phase, power reserve and calendar, containing a version of Patek’s adaptable 240 calibre.

The following year, the full shebang: the new 43mm ‘Jumbo’ in steel (ref 5711/1A), plus a 38mm model for the slimmer wristed; a marginally upsized version of the previous year’s moon/power reserve/calendar watch (ref 5712/1A); and the aforementioned 5980/1 chronograph. With this latter watch Patek pulled off a masterstroke in crisp dial design, with a mono-counter measuring minutes and hours on a single sub-dial, while the central running seconds hand doubled as a chronograph hand.

Pep in its step

The Nautilus was out from the shadows: the multi-purpose luxury watch fit for dynamic, whizzy lifestyles had regained its pep. Genta had as ever been decades ahead of his time, but his design had finally come of age. In 2010 a rather subtle annual calendar version continued the story of Nautilus complications.

The new 5990/1A, however, is a different animal altogether. Bolder, more complex, with a more technical ambience than any of its forebears. For the first time there are two sub-dials, one for the chronograph and one for the analogue date display, and six hands, while the day/night apertures either side of the dial have “LOCAL” and “HOME” printed above them.

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe

As is Patek’s customary knack, the design keeps such busy goings on – in what is still a small dial space, despite the heft of the case – remarkably clear and readable, on a black rather than blue dial. The famous chronograph hour and minutes mono-counter of the 28-520 movement has been reduced to a simple 60-minute counter, with the hours removed.

Despite its clarity, the dial overall is a world away from the sheer timekeeping simplicity that marked out the original Nautilus in 1976. As with the early Royal Oak, whose Jaeger-LeCoultre movement it shared, there was not even a seconds hand then, though a date window was always present. It offered a relaxing, unburdened way to read the time, and though a sports watch, suggested a more languid style of wealthy living. The new 5990 is, by comparison, all-action.

“The aim was to evolve the Nautilus Chronograph steel on steel model introduced in 2006 by bringing technical added value and a new combination of complications that correspond to the needs of our active, well-travelled worldwide clientele,” says Philip Barat, Patek’s head of watch development, describing it as going “further into the ‘sportive’ and useful daily-wear watch type.”

Going Places

Patek’s travel time mechanism, first introduced in the Calatrava line in the late 1990s, is an especially interesting one, not least because it is so simple and intuitive to operate. The two pushers on the left of the watch are used to move the hour hand for local time – the non-skeletonised hour hand on the Nautilus – forwards and backwards around the dial, removing the need for any finicky crown operation. As the hour hands pass between 6 and 8, the day/night windows change, either from blue to white (morning) or the reverse (night time); move the hour backwards again, and they’ll change back. A security mechanism prevents both pushers being pressed at once.

Travel time as a sports watch function was proposed by Patek two years ago in the 5164A Aquanaut, which also introduced the day/night windows. Integrating this module with the 28-520 chronograph movement, however, meant substantial adaptations.

“We had to totally rethink the classic Nautilus case construction, by setting the bezel onto the middle of the case with four invisible screws, and we had to add intermediate levers to interact between the case pushers and the correctors in the movement,” says Barat.

Patek Philippe
Patek Philippe

Hawk-eyed Nautilus observers will also notice the chronograph pushers have been brought nearer to the winding crown. This is a more ergonomic positioning, enabled by the loss of the hinge screws, and ensuring easy access to the pin-activated date corrector. It does, however, change the silhouette of the watch quite fundamentally – with the 5980 the chronograph pushers seem almost incidental, whereas they now give the watch a more protuberant right flank. Controversial? Perhaps for some collectors.

But in the eight years since the 2006 reload, this is only the second fundamental new Nautilus reference (excluding aesthetic variations) to emerge. There is, however, a perfect logic to this next step in the Nautilus story – a watch that, in its best references, seems to symbolise an entire way of life as successfully as any timepiece on the market. We can but observe with interest whether the 5990 enjoys the same enthusiasm among collectors as the watch it now replaces.