Review: The New Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse Ref. 5738/1R

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The fine wristwatch market is one that is highly conservative where form is concerned. A quick look at history suggests that watches that aren’t round either become forgotten eventually or – for a handful – become an icon that transcends eras, strangely with very little middle ground. Given the risk, it’s no surprise that the industry is, and has always been, dominated by round watches. Take for example: Patek Philippe’s oldest model name and flagship model is none other than the now-almost-centurion Calatrava, the prototypical round dress watch, the ever-prevailing industry standard for round watches. But what if I told you that the second oldest Patek Philippe model still in production is a non-round wristwatch? No, it’s not the Nautilus or the Aquanaut – it’s the Golden Ellipse.

One might be tempted to think that the Golden Ellipse could not have arrived at a worse moment in history. Quite the contrary, it was born at the perfect time, in 1968, to help redefine Patek Philippe and the fine watchmaking industry. In the advent of hyper-accurate quartz watches and cheap mass production, the Golden Ellipse was heralded as an exclusive ‘non-watch’ and an object of class and long-term value. With its novel ovoid shape and the championing of the Golden Section in its design philosophy, the Golden Ellipse forged its own path by simultaneously resisting current trends and breaking free from the traditional dress watch mold.

Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse Ref. 5738/1R

Fast forward to today and the Golden Ellipse remains not just a Patek Philippe staple but also an ageless icon. This notion is further strengthened with the release of a new Golden Ellipse at Watches & Wonders Geneva this year. Here, we bring you the details and our honest opinion on what could arguably be Patek Philippe’s best novelty piece this year, the Golden Ellipse Ref. 5738/1R.

The Case, Dial, and Hands

The essence of the Golden Ellipse is in its case. Straddled between a circle and a rectangle, the harmoniously proportioned elliptical case is inspired by the Golden Section, an aesthetic rule that continues to form the basis of some of history’s greatest works of art and architecture. The Ref. 5738/1R measures 34.5 mm x 39.5 mm, with a thickness of only 5.9 mm, making it one of Patek Philippe’s slimmest wristwatches. It is rendered in rose gold, including the solid case back, and has a water resistance rating of up to 30 m. The cherry on top of the cake is the crown that’s set with a black onyx cabochon, a deliberate choice to match the equally mesmerising dial.

Apart of a size increase to suit current tastes, the design of the case is virtually unchanged compared to that of the first Golden Ellipse from 1968 – a testament to the longevity and timelessness of the original design.

Executed in ebony black with sunburst pattern, the highlight of the dial is in its purity and simplicity. Nothing that is unneeded for time-telling save for the brand signature is present. Ever elegant, Patek Philippe’s latest Golden Ellipse utilises applied baton hour markers and cheveu hands to indicate the hours and minutes. There is no seconds or even a minutes track, in order to preserve the pristiness of the dial.

Black and gold are an age old pairing. In the Ref. 5738/1R, the two are at their best and accentuate one another.

From the time of its first debut to the early 1980s, the Golden Ellipse came not only on leather straps but also on several types of bracelets such as the milanais and polonais. With the Ref. 5738/1R, chain bracelets are making a comeback on the Golden Ellipse and they are better than ever before. The new 18K rose gold bracelet is precisely manufactured and hand-polished throughout. All 363 parts, including 300 links, are hand-assembled, one by one. The clasp – with its cover engraved with the Calatrava cross and motif resembling the links – offers the choice of three adjustment notches, allowing the length of the bracelet to be shortened or lengthened on the fly. It goes without saying that the bracelet is as supple on the wrist as it looks.

Compared to the bracelets last fitted unto the Golden Ellipse before 1980s, the one on the new Ref. 5738/1R are evidently and expectedly a level above, thanks to vast improvements in manufacturing and experience.

The Movement

Driving the Golden Ellipse Ref. 5738/1R is the tried-and-tested Calibre 240. Even describing the Calibre 240 as “tried-and-tested” is understating it given that the calibre powers hundreds of Patek Philippe wristwatch references, past and present. The movement’s ultra-thin profile of only 2.53 mm is what allows the Ref. 5738/1R to be the thinnest wristwatch in the brand’s regular collection. It features a mini-rotor that allows for automatic winding, has a minimum power reserve of 48 hours and operates at 3 Hz frequency.

From a finishing perspective, the Calibre 240 is adorned in accordance to the exacting requirements of the Patek Philippe Seal. Sure, there are better looking, more interesting movements in the brand’s arsenal, but the workshorse Calibre 240 remains attractive and sets the standard. The usual decorative techniques can be seen through sapphire crystal case back: Geneva waves on the bridges, polished bevels on edges, perlage on the main plate, and polished screw heads, among other things.

The Competitive Landscape

Judged more harshly, non-round wristwatches must either hit the nail on the head or risk falling into obscurity. The round dress watch might be Patek Philippe’s forte but the brand is no stranger to other shapes. The Golden Ellipse aside, there’s the Gondolo line and, of course, the Nautilus and Aquanaut. Of these, the Golden Ellipse remains, unsurprisingly, the go-to option where timeless elegance is required. With the grand-taille version fitted with a chain bracelet for the first time ever, expect a surge in demand as the Ref. 5738/1R goes on the charm offensive. Expectedly, there is a significant difference in price between the new Ref. 5738/1R on bracelet and the Ref. 5738R on leather strap – a 40% difference to be specific. The Ref. 5738/1R – essentially a jewelry watch – is priced at USD60,100 while its predecessor is priced at USD36,900.

The Ref. 5738/1R oozes elegance on the wrist. The lack of conventional lugs means that the watch wears smaller than its numbers suggest.

Another Maison that has thrived on non-round wristwatches throughout the century is Cartier. It was Louis Cartier who designed the brand’s first wristwatch back in 1904 for his close friend and pilot Alberto Santos-Dumont. Santos-Dumont had complained of the impracticality of pocket watches when flying, where both hands are needed on the controls. In response, Louis Cartier came up with a watch to be worn comfortably on the wrist with a flat, square and legible face. That watch was named the ‘Santos’, a model name that has lasted 120 years and continues to star in Cartier’s watch catalogues. This year, the brand has presented a number of Santos Dumont novelties in various executions, including the Rewind: a 200-piece limited edition timepiece in platinum with a ruby cabochon (pictured below).

The Cartier Santos-Dumont Rewind in platinum

No talk of non-round watches is ever complete without mention of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso, arguably the most well-known watch of its kind. The story of how the Reverso came to be is just as famous. It all began in 1930: British officers in India kept damaging the crystals of their wristwatches during games of polo. The rigors of the game were just too much for brittle crystals to handle. Word eventually reached the firm and designs for the reversible case of the Reverso was patented in 1931. By reversing the case and revealing the solid case back instead, the crystal is protected from impact, including that coming from a mallet stroke. Almost a century later, the Reverso is as popular ever and continues to be Jaeger-LeCoultre’s most recognisable watch. The latest Reverso on offer is the Reverso Tribute Enamel ‘Dragon’, part of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Chinese Zodiac series that started in 2022. Where the case back was once used to shield the front crystal, it now serves as a blank canvas for art – in this case, an engraved dragon on an enamel backdrop.

Concluding Thoughts

In a world where time-telling is merely a secondary function of mechanical wristwatches, craftsmanship and design have become ever more important. With no complications and superfluous elements on the dial, Patek Philippe had to get it absolutely perfect with the Ref. 5738/1R – which they did. The Ref. 5738/1R is a reminder of what is possible in fine watchmaking when both craftsmanship and design are placed on a pedestal, and not an afterthought.

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