Following years of speculation among watch collectors, Patek Philippe on Oct. 18 introduced the latest iteration of its highly coveted Nautilus wristwatch. And though people unfamiliar with the brand might be hard-pressed to distinguish the model from its predecessor, the new Nautilus boasts one key difference: a luxurious 18-karat white gold case and bracelet.
It just might break the horological internet.
The white gold Ref. 5811/1G-001 is a successor to the Ref. 5711/1A, the stainless-steel Nautilus with a black-blue dial that has been one of the world’s most sought-after wristwatches. Introduced in 2006 and discontinued in 2021, the 5711 still resells for nearly three times its $33,710 retail value, down from a high of $180,000 earlier this year. (Patek introduced a green dial 5711 in April 2021 as a surprise final series of the model before officially discontinuing it that year. The version retailed for $34,890, and it now sells for more than $400,000 on secondary channels.)
But when it comes to steel Nautiluses, “we made enough,” Thierry Stern, Patek’s president, said on a recent video call from the company’s headquarters in Geneva.
The decision upended nearly 50 years of watchmaking tradition. The original steel Nautilus, introduced in 1976 as Ref. 3700/1A, was the work of the celebrated designer Gerald Genta, who took inspiration from the portholes of a classic ocean liner, evident in the cushion-shaped bezel and distinctive “ears” at 3 and 9 o’clock, meant to evoke the hinges on a ship’s window.
When it was introduced, the model was among just a handful of luxury timepieces encased in steel, a commonplace metal generally considered more appropriate for building construction than luxury accessories, a fact that the brand celebrated with ads that proclaimed: “One of the world’s costliest watches is made of steel.”
Millions of dollars in sales later, the brand is repositioning the Nautilus as a more prestigious timepiece, with the price tag to match: The Ref. 5811 — in a 41-millimeter case (earlier Nautiluses were 40 millimeters) and with a blue sunburst dial that fades to black around the edge — is priced at 59,000 Swiss francs and, in the United States, $69,785.
Mr. Stern said his decision to move on from steel, at least for the Nautilus, was intended to ensure Patek Philippe’s long-term success.
“It always comes back to: How many watches can I do per year?” he said. “At Patek, 66,000 is the max. I don’t want to jeopardize the quality of my watches. I need to preserve Patek Philippe, and to sell gold is part of the preservation of the brand.”
He also expressed a desire to pull away from the pack of steel sport watches, including the Rolex Daytona and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, that have maintained a hegemony over the watch industry for the past five years or more.
“Many brands have been pushing steel because it’s easier to sell,” Mr. Stern said, referring to the lower prices that steel watches command.
“We’ll keep steel for sporty watches, mostly the Aquanaut,” he added, referring to a collection Patek introduced in 1997. “But it’s dangerous and too easy for me to make only steel.”
Talk about an understatement. Beginning around 2017, as the global watch market heated up, demand for Ref. 5711 soared; waiting lists were said to be 10 years long. The trophy watch phenomenon seemed to culminate last December, when Patek Philippe debuted a Ref. 5711 limited edition of 170 pieces featuring a Tiffany & Company blue dial made exclusively for the New York City retailer. One sold at auction later that month for $6.5 million.
Mr. Stern has been vocal about his distaste for the speculative frenzy that has overshadowed the Nautilus in recent years. He said the brand buys about 200 pieces, a variety of the brand’s models, from the secondary market every year “to check where they’re coming from.” If they were initially sold by authorized retailers, and Mr. Stern is not satisfied with the retailers’ explanations about why they ended up for resale, “there are sanctions,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Patek Philippe said the new Ref. 5811 would be arriving at the watchmaker’s 371 global points of sale immediately after its introduction.
But Mr. Stern acknowledged that when it comes to who gets one of the new Nautiluses, the decision is out of his hands — pieces in demand often go to retailers’ favored repeat customers.
“There will not be enough pieces for everybody,” Mr. Stern said. “But don’t blame me — blame the retailers.”