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The Patek Philippe Nautilus: Refining a Design Language

It is often said that Gérald Genta is the single most important designer in all of modern watchmaking history. Despite the numerous noteworthy horological works that are credited to his name, it is undeniably the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus for which he is best known.

The Royal Oak came first and was Genta’s original expression of what would ultimately go on to become his signature design ethos. However, once you get outside the realm of general watch enthusiasm, it is the Nautilus that becomes the more famous and universally recognizable timepiece among the greater population. So, why is it that the Patek Philippe Nautilus is celebrated on an arguably greater scale than the Royal Oak, when it could have just as easily been seen as simply a copycat effort from Patek? 

Well, imagine being given the opportunity to redesign your greatest work. Wouldn’t your second draft be a bit more refined than your first?

Genta's First Pass The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak was released 2 years prior to the Nautilus.

No time for revisions

Gérald Genta famously created the original designs for both the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Patek Philippe Nautilus in incredibly short periods of time. This is especially interesting considering that both of these watches are considered to be among his greatest works. Tasked with designing a revolutionary sports watch for Audemars Piguet and given an urgent deadline of the following morning, Genta produced the initial sketch for the Royal Oak within a single evening.

The Nautilus has an even more incredible origin story. According to legend, Genta spotted a few executives from Patek Philippe dining at a neighboring table while he was eating lunch during the annual Basel trade fair. He then asked the waiter to bring him a pencil and a paper, so that he could take advantage of the situation and present a design to them before they left the restaurant. In just a few minutes, Genta had sketched on a napkin what would later become known as the Patek Philippe Nautilus.

Aside from being flat-out impressive, what this means is that neither the Royal Oak nor the Nautilus ever went through a lengthy design process in which Genta continuously revised or reconsidered their aesthetics. There are small differences between the final production models and their initial sketches, but only in the slightest of details and proportions. In both instances, Genta’s original concepts more-or-less became the exact watches that made it to production, and what he sketched on a restaurant napkin in just a few minutes ultimately became one of the most desirable timepieces in the entire world.

An Early Example A Patek Philippe Ref. 3700

Two Years of Refinement and Feedback

The inaugural Royal Oak was a truly groundbreaking design and it marked the genesis of Genta’s signature aesthetic. However, with no real time to refine or revise his original concept, the Royal Oak is very much representative of Genta’s initial vision for a modern luxury sports watch.

While the Royal Oak needed to have a truly revolutionary design to justify its price, the concept of an ultra-expensive steel sports watch was already proven by the time Genta designed the Nautilus, allowing him to create a timepiece that was less striking in its overall appearance and more refined in order to appeal to a greater range of buyers. Patek Philippe was so confident in the already-proven idea of the stainless steel luxury sports watch, that it even used the slogan, “One of the world’s costliest watches is made of steel” in several of its advertising campaigns. 

Drawing design inspiration from the porthole of a ship, complete with “ears” on either side of the case to mimic the shape of the window’s hinges, the Patek Philippe Nautilus features similar design elements as the Royal Oak, including an integrated bracelet, a non-traditional case shape, and a prominent bezel. However, while the Royal Oak is defined by its angular lines and bezel with exposed screws, the Nautilus offers a more rounded case with a flat, smooth bezel for a more elegant and refined overall package.

The Royal Oak was already in production for roughly two years before Genta first sketched the Nautilus, and during that time he inevitably received feedback regarding its design and what aspects about it most resonated with the public. Genta likely had ideas brewing from the moment he submitted his last drawing for the Royal Oak, and when he finally sat down and created the Nautilus, what he sketched in just a few minutes was actually representative of nearly two years of refinement and feedback from the general public.

Design Vs. Design Language

Calling the design of the Nautilus “better” than the Royal Oak is not quite accurate as aesthetics are ultimately a matter of personal taste. Additionally, among the watch enthusiast crowd, you will likely find just as many fans of the Royal Oak as you will the Nautilus (possibly even more). However, regardless of the model you prefer, it is undeniable that the overall design of the Nautilus is a bit more approachable, while the Royal Oak is more bold and radical in its features and can thus be somewhat of an acquired taste.

The Royal Oak offers the more striking and arresting design between the two watches, but its angular form and the exposed screws on its bezel can sometimes be a little too “out there” for those that are not serious watch enthusiasts. Without understanding the history of the watch or having exposure to highly avant-garde timepiece designs like those from Richard Mille or Greubel Forsey, the appearance of the Royal Oak can sometimes be a bit polarizing. 

Additionally, while the Royal Oak is undeniably an iconic design, it is nearly impossible for a watch to have an octagonal bezel and an integrated bracelet and not be considered a Royal Oak (or a Royal Oak homage). The aesthetic of the Royal Oak is almost too rigid in that it can only exist as a singular design. The second that any other timepiece features more than one or two of its core design elements, it instantly becomes a Royal Oak.

On the other hand, the core design cues of the Nautilus are a bit more open ended. While the Royal Oak is the more striking design and will always represent Genta’s original vision for the modern luxury sports watch, the Nautilus distills down that single design into a series of more digestible design cues that can be applied across a wider range of timepieces. These design cues ultimately became both the signature features of the Nautilus and the basis for an entire design language that Genta would carry forward into his later works.

All Hype Aside

Some of the present-day popularity of the Nautilus can undoubtedly be attributed to the general notoriety of the Patek Philippe brand. Outside of the watch collecting community, and even within a large segment of it, Patek Philippe is widely considered to be the world’s most prestigious luxury timepiece manufacturer. The brand holds claim to the title of being the most expensive watch ever sold, and all hype aside, there is a very good reason why Patek has the celebrated reputation that it does: the company makes flat-out excellent watches. 

Today, it seems that nearly every luxury timepiece manufacturer offers some variation of a stainless steel sports watch fitted with a matching bracelet and a blue dial, and it can be argued that the Patek Philippe Nautilus was the model that started this whole trend. While the Royal Oak will always be the original expression of Genta’s vision, it was the Nautilus that turned his vision into something that could serve as the aesthetic foundation for an entire genre of luxury sports watches.

Above all other standard-production watches, it is the stainless steel Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711/1A that is the single timepiece most difficult to obtain at a retail level. For as long as the Nautilus has existed, the Royal Oak has also been available. And yet, despite being beaten to market by the Royal Oak, it is the Patek Philippe Nautilus – a design that Gérald Genta first sketched on a napkin in just a few minutes – that now holds the title of being the world’s most coveted watch.

Ripley Sellers is a writer, journalist, and the Senior Editor at Bob’s Watches. When he’s not covering a story or writing about the world of horology, you can usually find him hiking or spending time outside with his dog Ziggy.

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