Sometimes, Less is More
Sometimes you don’t want anyone to notice your watch.
Well, almost anyone. There is also a pleasure in a fellow enthusiast recognising your understated watch for what it is: a piece of timeless design, albeit one that is subtle and doesn't cry out for attention.
Both of the watches in this month’s head-to-head, the Patek Philippe Calatrava in 18k white gold, and the Blancpain Villeret 5 Jours Platinum, manage to do just that. Both are modern variations on classic designs, and both manage to combine subtle hints to their illustrious heritage while remaining thoroughly modern.
Both, in fact, are the expression of the same idea – taking a classic dress watch, and dialling things down in order to make things more minimalist. In doing so, both manage to communicate an understated elegance, one that emphasises the masterful nature of these highly regarded horology houses.
Sometimes, it seems, less really is more.
Whilst both of these watches aim at the same idea – to combine the classic features of their iconic ancestors, whilst also including subtle modernist elements – both have managed to become classics in their own right.
The Patek Philippe Calatrava first hit the showrooms in the early 1930's, and was at that time something of a departure for the brand. Far less elaborate and noticeably slimmer than earlier models, the Calatrava range was the august watchmaker’s nod to the functionality and simplicity of Bauhaus design. Since then, Patek have released a number of variants on the Calatrava design, but each retains the focus on simplicity of the first models.
The Blancpain Villeret is, perhaps, less well-known. That’s a shame, because this watch also manages to perfectly blend the modern with the traditional. The Villeret line is named after Blancpain’s hometown, and retains the sophistication of Blancpain’s more complex mechanisms whilst also not making a fuss about it.
The first thing to say when it comes to the design of these watches it this: that they are both dress watches, and so look best with formal attire. Beyond that basic fact, though, the design of each of these watches is actually quite distinct.
Just take a look at the faces, and you’ll immediately see what we mean in the broadest of strokes. The most striking design feature of the Patek Calatrava is the sector dial. Each of the hands is a different length, and each corresponds to a different track. This type of dial emerged during the first world war, in order to improve ease of reading. Patek have made extensive use of it since then, and it has become something of a recognisable calling card for the brand’s more exclusive timepieces, too.
The design of the Blancpain is far more classic, with Roman numerals marking a single dial and leaf-shaped hands. Whilst Roman numerals can look a little stuffy in 2019, here they manage to seamlessly blend with the overall look of the timepiece itself. The minimalist face of the watch means that it retains a modern feel, with the numerals just hinting at the illustrious forebears that it descended from.
Other differences in design between these two beautiful timepieces are also worthy of note, especially due the fact that throughout their history, both the Calatrava and the Villeret 5 Jours series have produced both subtle and more noticeable variations from their standard models. The Calatrava 3919 - surely one of the most sought-after models in the range - boasted an elegant and iconic guilloche “Clous de Paris” bezel. However, the timepiece we’re looking at today was one of the many releases which followed, and which displayed a larger, more masculine bezel (something which diehard Patek fans often criticised, claiming it showed the brand bowing to fashion in ways it had not before). We’d strongly argue, though, that the Patek Philippe Calatrava White Gold (with its 39mm case size) manages to strike the ideal balance between the classic and the contemporary, and hints at past glories while fixing its vision firmly on 21st century sophistication. What’s more, there’s a real sense of harmony which runs through the design of this watch. The use of colour, the balanced choice of materials with the 18k white gold buckle complementing the timepiece itself… it’s a masterwork of horology that’s difficult to overstate.
While the design variations of the Calatrava have, at times, aimed for a broader and more contemporary audience, the same could not be said of the Blancpain timepiece. Elegant and distinguished to the very end, this iconic watch features certain design points which simply couldn’t have come from any other haute-horlogerie maison. Take, for example, the choice to display a double-stepped bezel on the Villeret 5 Jours, as well as a delightfully tapered profile (making it appear even thinner when viewed from the side) - both design features which seriously ramp up the understated distinction of this beautiful watch.
Choosing between the two designs really comes down to your own aesthetic preference. The Blancpain is, perhaps, a little more ‘classic’ and formal as a dress watch, and boasts plenty of timeless and sophisticated design features. However, to my mind, the 1930's-inspired glamour of the Patek just about give it the edge. Paired with the clean lines of a contemporary suit, the sector dial manages to subtly combine period features and modernist minimalism - the perfect juxtaposition for the modern gentleman.
Given that both of these watches are the product of some of the most illustrious haute-horlogerie workshops in the world, it will come as no surprise to learn that both of their mechanisms are nothing short of supremely well designed and produced.
The Patek piece boasts the latest Patek Philippe made movement, the rhodium-plated Caliber 324 SC., which itself is the outcome of a long line of development. It’s a thing of real intricate beauty, with 29 jewels and a patented shock-absorber mechanism, coupled with a gyromax balance. In keeping with the minimalist design of the timepiece as a whole, the mechanical movement provides just one key complication: a date indicator. Though perhaps relatively simplistic for an everyday watch, this lack of additional features helps to keep the piece slim, and therefore easier to wear.
The Blancpain’s movement is similarly straightforward, though it is also the outcome of a century of development. The headline figure here is that the Calibre 6950GC movement, developed in-house by Blancpain, provides up to 72 hours of power reserve. This is not only important for a dress watch that you might not be wearing every day, but it is also (slowly) becoming the standard for modern watch movements. With an oversized date wheel creating the necessity for that iconic face design, this is a dress watch which very much wears its innovative heart on its sleeve.
Again, making a choice between these two watches based on their movements is pretty hard. Both are among the most accurate and dependable mechanisms you can buy, and since both aim at simplicity there is little to choose between them in terms of functionality.
I suppose, therefore, that it all comes down to the practicality of each mechanism, and in this regard the Blancpain has the edge, if only because of its 72 hours of power reserve.
Last but definitely not least, let’s look at the wearability of these two pieces. In this regard, there are some significant differences between the two pieces, which primarily come down to their relative weightiness. A huge part of the appeal of these two timepieces is the fact that they’re made from no small quantity of precious metals - white gold and platinum respectively. While these undoubtedly look beautiful and elegant on the wrist, the use of such metals lead to the watches being rather heavy for day to day wear.
Some have claimed, in this regard, that the Blancpain is perhaps a little thick. At 11.10mm, this piece is getting on to the bulkier end of dress watches. Blancpain have sought to remedy that, to some degree, by using a double stepped bevel that reduces the apparent thickness of the watch. The difference between this watch and the Patek is, however, still apparent when you wear them.
Of course, this is not a huge problem for a dress watch that you are not going to be wearing every day, but this minor gripe points to what I think is the major difference between the watches.
This is that, though both are excellent dress watches, I think the Patek is actually far more than this. It is significantly slimmer than the Blancpain, and the lack of fussy details allows it to be worn as an everyday watch. Whilst looking (and feeling) great with a business suit, it is equally well suited to more casual settings, and so is just a little more versatile than the Blancpain.
When it comes to wearability, the Patek Calatrava has the edge. If you are used to wearing slightly thicker dress watches, you might not notice the (slight) extra bulk of the Blancpain, but I certainly do.
Ultimately, the clean lines and slimness of the Calatrava elevate this piece into a different league: it is certainly an elegant, understated, modern dress watch, but it is also a sporty, everyday piece.
So, which to choose?
I’m hesitant to say. Both of these watches are timeless classics, subtly updated with contemporary features. Both represent recent manifestations of illustrious lines of watches. Both look great when paired with a sharp suit, and both contain mechanisms that are among the best to be found anywhere.
In terms of the look of each of these watches, I’ll let you decide. The Blancpain is arguably a little more classic, and perhaps better suited to the most formal occasions. The Patek’s sector dial, however, manages to look great both at a formal dinner and while out and about on the town.
From where I’m standing, this means that the Patek Phillipe Calatrava in 18K white gold is – if only just – the better watch. Patek have managed a rare feat: not only does this watch look incredibly elegant as a dress piece, it is also versatile enough to become your everyday favourite.