Some watches are iconic because they look just as fresh today as they did decades ago. Others are iconic because they represent a specific moment in watchmaking history. This slightly kitschy Patek Philippe Beta 21 is definitely the latter. True connoisseurs take note.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a watch that looks more like a relic of the 1970s than Patek Philippe's first serially produced quartz watch, a brash gold stunner that wholeheartedly bought into the Studio 54 aesthetic. Technically this is the reference 3587/2, but everyone knows the watch by the name of the strange movement inside, the Beta 21.
The Beta 21 was Switzerland's answer to the quartz movements coming out of Japan, and it was developed by the Centre Electronique Horloger (Electronic Watch Center), a coalition of many brands including Patek, Rolex, and Piaget. The movement was extremely expensive to develop and produce, and not many final watches made it to the market from any brand. It's essentially an electronic micro-motor that is regulated by the quartz crystal, and you can hear it whirring from a few feet away. It's awesome in a "wow, that's terrible but makes me feel nostalgic" kind of way. (And if you like to make your presence known.)
Patek chose to house its first implementation of the Beta 21 in an equally crazy design. The TV set-shaped case has a rounded square opening and two-tone gold dial. It's 43.5mm across, making it absolutely monstrous for the time. It's thick and heavy, made even more substantial by the perforated gold bracelet, which is integrated right into the sides of the case. There's no doubt this watch is from 1971. None.
Even if you don't love the look, this watch is historically significant in two major ways.
First, it is the culmination of Switzerland's attempt to stave off death at the hands of inexpensive Japanese quartz watches. When Seiko and others attacked in the late 1960s, they did so with gusto, and many storied brands had to shut their doors. It wasn't clear at the time that mechanical watches would survive, and the Beta 21 was going to be Switzerland's lifeboat if they didn't. And, second, although mechanical watches continue to be the flagship products from Patek Philippe, the Beta 21 was the brand's first reach into quartz timekeeping. Today, the collection of Twenty-4 watches for women continues to be one of Patek's greatest commercial successes, in some ways providing the cash flow needed to continue strong mechanical R&D.
It's important to note that the Beta 21 was not a commercial success at all. It's unclear exactly how many were produced by Patek in this case shape, but we're talking in the mere dozens most likely. This makes them extremely rare today, exacerbated by the fact that repairing the early quartz movements is difficult (thanks to sweeping seconds hands and complicated, rudimentary electronics). Finding one in this excellent of condition is nothing to scoff at.
This Patek Philippe Beta 21 is available from the Christie's Watch Shop and is priced at $22,200.
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