Within the world of haute horlogerie creations, certain brands are most associated with particular complications.
Audemars Piguet, for example, has historically placed a particular emphasis on the perpetual calendar. Meanwhile, Patek Philippe — an expert in multiple complications — has a special link with the world timer, that most useful of travel tools for the jetsetter. Today, we’ll take a look at the story of Patek world timers told through the lens of two extremely premium options, the References 5231J-001 and 5230G-010. These two pieces provide an excellent representation of what higher-end models from the maision provide.
A Brief History of the Patek World Timer
Louis Cottier filed a patent for his world timer mechanism in 1931 - (Image by REVOLUTION)
The origins of the Patek world timer date back to the 1880s. While the development of the complication is usually attributed to the famous watchmaker and engineer Louis Cottier, the true story actually begins earlier with Louis’s father Emmanuel. In 1885, Emmanuel filed a patent for his world time design, but nothing ever came of this blueprint. Where Emmanuel fell short of delivering on his vision, his son finished the work that he started, filing a patent for a working wristwatch in 1931.
The younger Cottier’s world time complication features three primary components: At the center of the dial is a conventional handset displaying the time in traditional fashion. Surrounding this time display is a 24-hour ring, which rotates counter-clockwise and points to the time zones displayed at the outskirts of the dial. (These were first displayed on a rotating bezel, and later, on the dial itself.)
Patek Philippe World Timer Ref. 1415 - (Image by PHILLIPS)
This display was brilliant — not only did it allow for the simultaneous representation of 24 time zones, but it also had a degree of clarity that made the watch extremely user friendly. In 1939, Patek introduced the first serially-produced world time wristwatch, the Reference 1415. Its historical significance aside, the 1415 was produced in only roughly 80 yellow gold examples, making it one of the most desirable complicated Patek pieces in the maison’s history, and thus setting many auction records.
Patek Philippe Ref.2523 - (Image by PHILLIPS)
Patek hasn’t deviated much from this original blueprint. The most significant development made within the collection occurred in 1953, when Louis Cottier once again collaborated with Patek Philippe to refine the Ref. 1415’s design: While the original allowed the display of different time zones by manually rotating a bezel engraved with the 24 global regions, the 1953 Reference 2523 used two crowns — one for the time, and one to rotate a wheel that displayed the time zones. The other key development made on the 2523 was the introduction of guilloché finish. This ultimately served as the impetus for the later neo-vintage era of pieces — the References 5110 and 5130 in particular — which featured various guilloché finishes on their dials, including some with incredible cloisonée depictions of the globe.
Patek Philippe World Time Grand Feu Cloisonné - IN THE SHOP
Like the Ref. 2523, certain later Patek references likewise feature cloisonée enamel dials. Today, the first modern piece we’ll examine is the 5231J-001 — launched in 2019, it’s one in a long line of extremely rare Patek watches with such a dial.
The cloisonné process consists of laying gold or metal strips on the dial to outline the shapes of whatever is being depicted. Then, enamel is filled in within this “mold,” after which the material is fired repeatedly and tinted by hand to achieve the correct coloring. This process is so intensive that these watches are not simply waitlist pieces, but “application” pieces, meaning one must apply and be reviewed by the brand in order to receive an allocation. The output is extremely limited each year, since the number of craftsmen capable of doing this type of work is very small. While many other maisons outsource their enamel work, Patek completes the entire process in-house.
A number of changes were introduced with the Reference 5231J: Firstly, the bezel was flattened slightly, and was no longer engraved with the Patek Philippe wordmark as on the previous Reference 5131. (Instead, Patek moved their signature to the dial.) Secondly, the lugs were altered from the previous “flowing” profile to the now sharper, faceted type, which are reminiscent of those on the Reference 2523.
Ultimately, the Reference 5231 is perhaps one of the most attractive world timers Patek has ever made with respect to proportions, with a perfect 38.5mm sizing designed to cater to both aficionados and more casual wearers. Indeed, having this current-production piece made in more modest and traditional dimensions bodes well for the enthusiast community.
Powering the 5231 is the Calibre 240 HU, one of the most important movements in Patek’s arsenal. Lower-end automatics from the brand typically feature central rotors, but on the haute horlogerie pieces and more complicated automatic references, Patek provides micro-rotor calibres such as the 240. Relatively thin by virtue of the micro-rotor layout, these are far more time intensive to finish and assemble. The movement decoration is gorgeous, extending far beyond what one receives on the lower end of the Patek spectrum.
Within the hierarchy of Patek’s non-limited production world time watches, the Reference 5231 constitutes their most exclusive offering. Indeed, while the integrated bracelet craze has caused an explosion of prices on steel pieces, a watch like the Ref. 5231 represents the pinnacle of the brand’s craftsmanship and quality. Beautifully finished yet wonderfully utilitarian, it begs to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.
Patek Philippe World Time New York Edition - IN THE SHOP
This next world time piece is yet another example of the understated, high-end Patek phenomenon. One of 300 examples made for the Art of Watches grand exhibition in NYC in 2017, the 5230G-010 looks at first glance like any other contemporary, white gold world time from the maison.
That said, the stealth presence obscures this watch’s desirability and rarity. In honor of the exhibition, Patek introduced this limited edition with an engraving of the Lower Manhattan skyline at the center of the dial. Executed in a deep blue color that matches the dark navy alligator strap, it differentiates the reference from the guilloché and other enamel models previously discussed.
Outside of the dial, the References 5230 and 5231 are identical in spec — the movements are the same, the proportions are the same, the design is identical. This is the beauty of watches of this kind: On the surface, one might not notice the tens of thousands of dollars of difference between these elevated references and the more “standard” production models. But this subtlety is precisely the quality these references possess.
The appeal of the decorated world time watch extends a bit further than this, however: The world time function, on its own, is a romantic one. There’s a sense of inter-connectivity of the timezones — of possibility, exploration, discovery, and wonder — linking a world full of people on a single timepiece via the cosmopolitan dial. For this reason, the more romantic appointments seem entirely fitting. A watch that lets you see the time across the globe should have an enamel center replicating the globe’s aesthetics. A watch that is linked with travel should display the skyline of one of the most popular travel destinations in the world. There are multiple levels of depth to Patek’s decision to make these watches in the way they do.
While the Nautilus represents a more contemporary, utilitarian side to Patek Philippe, references such as the 5230 beautifully encapsulate the maison’s history, artistry, and horological aptitude. Romantic totems of the classic age of travel, they continue to draw people into the watch collecting hobby with their detail, history, and exclusivity. It’s almost certain that similar references will continue to do so for many years to come.