Patek Philippe’s Aquanaut sports line celebrates its twentieth year in 2017. 

Granted, watch collectors have become jaded by fatuous “anniversaries” in an industry infatuated with the notion, but the Aquanaut’s double-decade experience pulses with unusual zeitgeist energy; 1997’s Aquanaut embodied the spirit of a world in flux. Far more than the symbolic “Y2K” festivities of the millennium, 1997 was a watershed in the collective psyche. 

Given 20 years’ hindsight, it is clear that 1997 embodied a quiet turning point in our collective perception of “past” and “present.” That’s a powerful notion. While the 1976 Nautilus enjoyed a colossal head-start in mindshare terms, even a Gerald Genta pedigree and timeless design can’t outrun the model’s roots in a time no longer recognizable as our own. The Aquanaut, by comparison, is a creature of the here and now. 

As the first examples of the ref. 5060A Aquanaut departed Geneva for Basel 1997, the world – and the era – we call our own was taking shape. 

1997 was the year “Titanic” broke the box office, won the Oscar for Best Picture, and elevated Leonardo DiCaprio onto the Hollywood A-list; Silicon Valley went mainstream as Intel CEO Andrew Grove was named Time’s Person of The Year; once exiled founder Steve Jobs returned to the helm at Apple.

In politics and economics, the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and the subsequent meltdown of hedge fund Long Term Capital Management offered ominous signals about the contagion potential of modern interlinked global finance. Tony Blair became the U.K.’s Prime Minister just as Britain ceded its rule of Hong Kong to Beijing. Speaking of Mainland China, Deng Xioping, a leader whose life spanned almost the entirety of the modern Chinese experience, died at 92. U.S. President Bill Clinton banned federal funding for agencies engaged in human cloning. 

In other words, 1997 was a rare year in which the line between “our times” and “past times” became sharp.

The Patek Philippe Aquanaut launched into this world as the second of two transformative debuts in as many years. 1996’s annual calendar reflected a democratization of complication from a brand renowned for the like. But the Aquanaut was a lifestyle statement. Patek didn’t need an haut-de-gamme active lifestyle model – the Nautilus already was an all-timer in that segment. Rather, the Aquanaut was a stripped-down roadster of a sports watch for a new kind of sensibility. Like 1990s grunge rock and Ducati’s blockbuster bodywork-bereft Monster sports bike of the same era, the Aquanaut embodied the notion that less could be more… compelling.

The Aquanaut’s boldest statement was its strap. As a polymer alternative to the Nautilus’ traditional bracelet, the Aquanaut’s strap was as provocative a gesture in the 1997 as the 5524G “pilot” of 2015 or the automotive-inflected Calatrava 6000 of 2005. Polymer straps on expensive watches had been done before – Hublot broke that barrier in 1980. But then as now, true luxury wasn’t a simple matter of price. Patek’s new sports watch needed the finish and tangible in-the-hand substance to compare favorably with its in-house counterparts in the Nautilus line.

Rather than stick a rubber strap on a Nautilus, Patek embraced an all-or-nothing clean-sheet design that matched the hobnail composite strap to the hobnail cut of the dial. In character, the resulting effect evoked the “tropic” straps of 1960s dive watches while channeling a measure of the “tapisserie” magic of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Offshore dials. Bezel and case lines were tailored to retain a family link to the Nautilus.

The Aquanaut easily could have suffered the fate of contemporaneous gambles like the “Neptune” and “Sculpture,” neither of which captured the hearts or minds of modern watch collectors. But the 38mm reference 5060A was the only one of this 1990s steel Patek trio that correctly took the pulse of its historical moment. While the Neptune and Sculpture were baroque executions that likely would have slayed the market if released a decade earlier, only the minimalist Aquanaut resonated with the mindset of its age.

Who was the customer for Patek’s newest sports watch? Hint: he wouldn’t look out of place in today’s office ecosystem. Newly minted watch collectors weaned on 1980s and 1990s steel Rolex had come to populate the hedge fund, Silicon Valley, and investment bank floorspace of the late 1990s economy. These buyers had the money and the inclination, but theirs was an era of board-shorts in the boardroom and dotcom CEOs in cubicles alongside the rank-and-file. Against this social backdrop, the Aquanaut offered an aspirational alternative to mass-market sports watches without the patrician hauteur of the Nautilus or AP Royal Oak.

Fast forward to 2017, and the Patek Philippe Aquanaut has become a lineup mainstay. The initial 1,000-piece reference 5060A has long since given way to larger, more complicated, and gender-specific options, but its fundamental mission in Patek’s catalog remains as that of a café racer’s alternative to the Nautilus. And just as the office iconoclasts of the late 1990s have progressed to become the corporate partners and dealmakers of the present, the Aquanaut has achieved maturity without diluting its essence.

Patek Philippe’s reference 5168G is the anniversary collection’s most direct descendant of the original 5060A. In truth, the 5168 follows the footsteps of the 41mm ref. 5065 and display caseback ref. 5066. The latter two were the first Aquanaut models to offer increased size as large watches took command of the modern marketplace. This year’s 5168G swells to a contemporary 42.2mm of white gold. 

In terms of wrist presence, the non-limited edition 5168G offers sufficient size to hold its own against the revitalized 2016 Vacheron Constantin Overseas lineup without provoking a forearms race in the ultra-luxury sports watch class. 

Blue dials are en vogue within all luxury watch categories, and Patek’s use of a blue hobnail serves a double purpose. The cobalt hobnail’s gradient fade unifies Patek’s sports models and amounts to an acknowledgement that Aquanaut has joined the pantheon alongside its gradient-dial Nautilus counterpart. And for Aquanaut super fans, the new blue dial recalls one of Patek’s most coveted special editions: 1998’s blue-dial Aquanaut 5066A for the Japanese market.

While taste is individual, Patek Philippe collectors appear to have embraced the new 5168G more rapidly than 2016’s fortieth anniversary Nautilus equivalent, the 700-piece 5711P. That exuberant model’s year-inscribed dial and diamond indices perfectly illustrated that Patek continues to grasp the core identities of the two model lines. To celebrate a legacy dating back to the 1970s, the diamond-set 5711P is as bold and ambitious in concept as Ziggy Stardust, and, by comparison, the new 5168G is Nirvana. While both have passionate fans, the white gold Aquanaut remains recognizably a creature of our moment.

On the complicated front, 2017’s open-dial Advanced Research Aquanaut Travel Time 5650G, a limited series of 500 pieces, dares to be as provocative as the rubber-strapped 5060 was in 1997. While last year’s fortieth anniversary Nautilus 5976G chronograph overpowered with its complication and grandeur, the 5650G’s risqué open dial reveals its principal innovation: mechanical minimalism. 2011’s hit, the Aquanaut Travel Time ref. 5164A, has seen its parts count slashed by Patek’s innovative use of a pivotless elastic actuator.

Technically known as “compliant” or “flexible” component, the dial-side function selector of the 5650G eliminates many of the pivots and lubrication points of the original Aquanaut Travel Time. Aquanaut’s induction into Patek’s “Advanced Research” series sees the introduction of a cross-braced multi-spring. Functions previously accomplished with a litany of lubricated posts and individual components are served by unitary structure within the dial-side opening. As a result of this measure, the complication’s parts count has been reduced by two thirds. True to its origins, the Aquanaut continues to dispense superfluous details.

Dial side openings on luxury watches stir emotions – and debate. With rubber straps long ago consigned to the mainstream, the Aquanaut Travel Time 5650G returns to its provocateur roots with an expansive view of the compliance unit. The deceptive simplicity of the compound-spring is juxtaposed against the intricate and traditional Geneva finish of its steel structure. In contrast with previous editions of the Advanced Research series, which incorporated case-back magnifiers to illuminate nearly invisible silicon assortment parts, the compliance device of the 5650G is large, visible, and suitably dynamic in action.

That isn’t to say that the Aquanaut Travel Time 5650G lacks silicon sizzle. Far from it: the new model debuts Patek’s largest innovation in its Spiromax silicon hairsprings since the pioneering ref. 5250 of 2005. 

Patek Philippe’s 5650G employs a Spiromax hairspring with new flattened sections at the stud (outer end) and the collet (inner end) to improve the concentric beating properties of the hairspring; this reduces position-induced timing variation. While Patek Philippe traditionally has employed overcoil hairsprings for this purpose, the nature of silicon means that three-dimensional bending of overcoil structures is not practical. The new Spiromax sculpting overcomes the limits of a flat silicon hairspring and enables the 5650G to be regulated to a new Patek timing standard of -2/+1 second per 24 hours.

2016 and 2017 were extraordinary model years for Patek Philippe. With two sports watch anniversaries in as many years, the challenge for Geneva’s finest was to issue character-correct special editions to mark the occasions. Differentiation within a single class of watch is a tall order for manufacturers, and the task is made no easier when similar models cohabitate one catalog. In the Aquanaut 5168G and 5650G, Patek Philippe has returned to the core mission of its 1997 brainchild: an analog companion for – and of – the digital age.