The Agony and Ecstasy of Patek Philippe’s Strange Pilot’s Watch
Patek Philippe is known as one of the world's greatest watch brands for a number of reasons. Making pilot's watches isn't one of them.
One of the big surprises to come out of this year's Baselworld watch show was the reference 5524G, also called the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time. First designed to be strapped over flight jackets in the days before digital instruments, pilot's watches are usually large, have high-contrast dials with legible numbers and hands, and place a premium on accurate timekeeping. Patek made a few pilot's watches back during the two world wars but has since stayed out of the aviation realm. This new pilot has little in common with the originals; encouragingly, it shows a willingness on the part of Patek, one of the most tradition-minded brands in watchmaking, to push the envelope a little.
The real question is: How did Patek do?
The 5524 is a strange beast. Its 42-milimeter diameter and bold, luminous hands and numerals speak to legibility and toughness, but then you realize the entire case is made of brushed white gold, not steel. A soft, heavy metal doesn't make a lot of sense for a tool watch. The textured blue dial is absolutely lovely, but the lume on the numbers and hands is a pale green color reminiscent of the paint that has historically been used to poorly restore vintage pilot watches. While it's something that only watch nerds would pick up, it's not a great choice.
Powering the 5524 is Patek's Caliber 324 SC FUS, an automatic movement that has a fully adjustable GMT hand for tracking a second time zone, as well as a date function. The GMT hand can be easily adjusted by using the pushers on the left side of the case, meaning no fiddling with the crown, and the pushers lock with a quarter turn to make the case waterproof. However, since the movement was originally developed for the much smaller 5164A Aquanaut, there's a massive gold bezel around the movement on the caseback. It's not terrible, but you know the feeling when you use your iPad to run an app sized for the iPhone: It looks kinda cheap.
The price is a further point of contention. Sure, $47,600 is completely understandable for a white gold Patek Philippe with a dual-time automatic movement inside. But a pilot's watch just doesn't feel like something that should cost almost $50,000. These are meant to be hard-nosed tool watches for daring aviators (or for those of us who like to pretend at our keyboards), not rarified creations for those who wouldn't dare to wear a non-precious metal. Add that relatively few 5524s will be produced—there's not a set number, but we're told distribution will be kept tight—so they're likely to sell for even more than MSRP.
Even with all these contradictions, I'm glad Patek created the 5524. The watch itself may be frustratingly imperfect (I really wanted to like it), but the idea behind it is a good one: Patek understands that it needs to look beyond its traditional customers and styles if it's going to survive deep into the 21st century and beyond.
Watches such as this are an overt attempt to court a younger, more casual watch buyer. And while I wouldn't advise those collectors to snatch up the 5524, I'd tell them to keep their eyes on Patek for what comes next. It is likely to be awesome.