Patek Philippe – perhaps the most prestigious watch brand on the planet – recently made a big (though totally unexpected) announcement. Following years and years of extreme shortages due to overwhelming demand, the brand stated it would be discontinuing the last remaining steel Nautilus, the ref. 5711/1A-010. If you’ve been into watch collecting for a while, you know what a huge deal this is. It’s no exaggeration to describe the ref. 5711 as the world’s most desirable luxury steel watch. Rumor has it that official waitlists at authorized retailers were around a decade long. As a result, prices on the secondary market skyrocketed. This latest announcement has only added more fuel to the fire. It also highlights an interesting quirk of our passionate world of timepieces: There are some watches that we just have to have, no matter how much they cost.
Hang around long enough, and you’ll start to hear about these types of watches being on collectors’ grail lists. Added to their collection, they would make life complete for these enthusiasts. But ask them to explain to you exactly why, and they’ll probably struggle to put things into words. They might mention a few attractive attributes or cite the accomplishments of the brand/watchmaker. Nudge a little harder, and chances are they’ll tell you something along the lines of “there’s just something about that watch…” It’s like they have a connection to it, or maybe even an irresistible magnetic pull. Perhaps they’re going to commemorate a special occasion, and this timepiece will be the reward for all their hard work and sacrifice.
These models (and others like them) are more than just status symbols. While there’s no denying their purpose as symbols of taste and means, more often than not, there’s even more to it. The best-known grail watches have some significance beyond their personal connection to their would-be owners. For example, the ref. 5711 is a direct descendant of the ref. 3700/1, which launched in 1976 and played a pivotal role in the establishment and subsequent explosion of the luxury steel sports watch genre. It was preceded in 1972 by the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo 5042ST – another grail watch for many collectors. The fact that both models are products of famed watch designer Gérald Genta, whose design ethos continues to inform both brands’ modern variations, also plays a key role in their enduring appeal.
Another classic example is the Rolex Day-Date 1803 – better known as the Rolex President. Talk about a power watch. Introduced in 1956, the Day-Date was the first wristwatch to spell out the entire day of the week in a window on the dial at 12 o’clock. It also features a date magnified by a Cyclops lens at 3 o’clock. The ref. 1803 is particularly sought after by collectors because of its rich (and sometimes colorful) history. For example, legend has it that Marilyn Monroe gifted a ref. 1803 to President John F. Kennedy for his birthday in 1962. The two were allegedly having an affair at the time. As the story goes, upon seeing it, the President ordered an aide to “get rid of it.” That same watch surfaced at an auction in 2005, selling for $120,000. The case back reads “JACK, With love as always from MARILYN, May 29th, 1962.” One President who was less shy about displaying his love for the Rolex President was Lyndon B. Johnson. The Texas native wore a solid gold Day-Date ref. 1803, which sparked a demand for the watch in the coming decades among fellow Texans. This model became so common among them it garnered the nickname the “Texas Timex.”
For those inclined toward something a little more sophisticated but no less practical, look no further than the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin. This stylish dress watch offers a level of complexity and finishing that many other brands can only dream of. Its rose gold case is the ideal size for a dress watch and measures 41 mm in diameter and a mere 8.96 mm thick. It can slip neatly under any shirt cuff – not that you’re going to want to hide this timepiece and its stunning dial. In addition to the time, it simultaneously displays the day, month, date, and moon phase at 9, 12, 3, and 6 o’clock, respectively. There’s also an intelligently integrated 48-month counter with a leap year indicator. All of this functionality comes from the automatic 1120 QP movement, which is an amazing 4.05 mm thin.
For many of us, owning any of these watches or other personal grails we secretly long for is simply out of reach. They’re expensive – sometimes (OK, let’s be honest, most of the time) prohibitively so. But is buying your grail watch really about the money? True enjoyment comes from owning and wearing a watch that you admire and is significant to you on an individual level. Seasoned collectors will know what I’m talking about. It’s the watch that will never leave your collection. It puts a smile on your face every time you strap it on and takes you back to the moment you first laid eyes on it. It’s your grail. And best of all, you’re the only one who perfectly understands why.
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