The histories of Patek Philippe and the perpetual calendar wristwatch are richly intertwined. Not only was the prestigious Genevan watch manufacturer the first to create the perpetual calendar wristwatch, it has since gone on to produce specimens that served and continue to serve as the industry standard. The prototypical Patek Philippe perpetual calendar wristwatch is elegant, classical, superbly finished, and importantly, has a dial that is balanced and uncluttered.
Patek Philippe Ref. 3940J
One of the most revered perpetual calendar wristwatches in modern watchmaking is none other than the Patek Philippe Ref. 3940, first debuting in 1985. This was during a time when perpetual calendar wristwatches were few and far between, and the popularity of the mechanical watch was at a sorry low thanks to the meteoric rise of quartz watches. And yet, the reference is widely accepted as one of Patek Philippe’s most important and was famously the daily watch of Philippe Stern, the former president of Patek Philippe and father of the current president, Thierry Stern. Here, we take a close look at a rare and early variation of the epic Patek Philippe Ref. 3940J Perpetual Calendar, a yellow gold watch born in full defiance of the quartz crisis.
The Case, Dial, and Hands
The case of the Ref. 3940J is rendered in yellow gold. Its size is a purist’s dream come true: an elegant 36 mm in diameter and only 8.8 mm thick. As you’d expect from Patek Philippe, the case design is subtly nuanced. The Ref. 3940J sports plenty of curves that flow from lug to lug, as well as a double-stepped, concave bezel. This particular Ref. 3940J was an early production piece; these earlier Ref. 3940s can be identified by the location of the 18k gold hallmarks: on the left flank of the case instead of the back of the lugs as seen in later production pieces.
An even better way to tell when a particular Ref. 3940J is made is by examining the dial. First series Ref. 3940s like the one in the photograph, produced for only two years between 1985-1987, are fitted with a dial with sunken sub-dials. These sub-dials are located at the 9 and 3 o’clock positions. While the day and month displays are level with the dial, the day/night and leap year displays are recessed. Compared to the beveled sub-dials that come with subsequent series, these were much harder to produce.
Another, more subtle, sign of a first series dial can be found in the Patek Philippe signature at 12 o’clock. Here, ‘GENÈVE’ is written with an accented ‘È’, while examples from the second series and onwards do without the grave accent. It is also worth pointing out that the dial of this particular Ref. 3940 is in the German language (note the day and month displays). English, Italian and French versions were also produced during the entire run of the reference.
To mark the hours and minutes, indices were hand-applied along the perimeter of the silvery opaline dial. Indicating the time are central dauphine hands. The perpetual calendar displays are instead indicated by leaf hands so as to minimise confusion. The most striking part of the dial is perhaps the bosom-style moon phase display. With a night sky rendered in midnight blue and decorated with gilded stars and a moon, it adds a poetic element to an otherwise “dry” complication. More than just a pretty face, the moon phase display is also accurate to within a day every 122 years.
Driving the Ref. 3940J is the Patek Philippe Calibre 240Q, based on the iconic and reliable Calibre 240. The thinness of the timepiece can, in part, be credited to the Calibre 240Q – at only 3.75 mm thick, the movement is delightfully slim. This is achieved mainly via the partial integration of the perpetual calendar mechanism into the base calibre, and also the use of a micro-rotor winding system that does not add height to the automatic movement. Equipped with a Gyromax balance wheel, the movement beats at a stately 3 Hz frequency.
Characteristic of a first series Ref. 3940, the back of the watch comes with a solid case back. Due to customer demand for the Calibre 240Q to be visible from the back, the Ref. 3941 was born partway through the production of the first series Ref. 3940. The Ref. 3941, while clearly a separate reference, is virtually identical to the Ref. 3940 save for the case back which was crafted in sapphire crystal rather than solid gold. The Ref. 3941 was eventually – and rather quickly – discontinued, and sapphire crystal case backs began making its appearance in the Ref. 3940; some variations even featured both types of backs.
Testament to the high finishing afforded to the Calibre 240Q, the movement is stamped with the Hallmark of Geneva. While Patek Philippe has now moved on to the Patek Philippe Seal (which it deems to encompass a higher standard), old Patek Philippe movements still bear this relic of the past which collectors may find enticing. Opening the solid gold case back reveals a beautifully finished movement. There are perlage on the base plate, satin finishing on the wheels, even Geneva waves applied across the bridges, polished anglage, black polished screw heads and jewel countersinks, and gold-filled engravings, among other things.
The Competitive Landscape
The perfect size, case design and dial layout, coupled with a now-iconic movement. Even without considering its history, the Ref. 3940 is a winner even by today’s standards. But take history into account, and you have the connoisseur’s dream. The Ref. 3940 – particularly the first series production pieces – came at a time when the mechanical watchmaking industry had been beaten and bruised by the advent of quartz watches. This was Patek Philippe’s “rage against the dying of the light” moment. Instead of fully giving in to the siren’s call of quartz movements, the illustrious Genevan manufacturer doubled down on its reputation and gambled by going the opposite direction – by introducing highly complicated mechanical timepieces in the form of the Ref. 3940 and the Ref. 3970 alongside it. That gamble paid off, of course, and the rest is history.
The particular variant that we photographed is one of the rarer ones as it is a first series piece that was in production for only two years or so. Some have estimated that as few as several hundred examples were made, with the upper limit at no more than 2000 pieces, making it the rarest out of all the series.
To find a timepiece that is equivalent to the Ref. 3940 is an impossible task given its seemingly perfect design and fascinating (hi)story. But that’s not to say there are no worthy alternatives.
If the Ref. 3940 represents Patek Philippe’s past, then the Ref. 5236 is Patek Philippe’s present, built upon the legacy of the former. A thoroughly modern Patek with its striking gradient dial and 41.3 mm case, the Ref. 5236 is the most legible perpetual calendar wristwatch ever made by the Genevan brand. It features a supremely intuitive in-line display of the day, date, and month, along with two apertures for the day/night and leap year indicators, respectively. Priced at over USD130,000, the Ref. 5236 in platinum is anything but cheap. But enthusiasts of Patek Philippe can rest assured knowing that its design stays fully “in line” with the brand’s ethos pertaining to elegance and legibility.
For something a little different to the classic Swiss design, look no further than the A. Lange & Söhne Langematik Perpetual. Germany’s most prestigious watch company makes some of the most beautiful watches and the Langematik Perpetual is no different. From the signature outsize date at 12 o’clock and solid gold moon phase disc at 6, to the guilloched chapter ring for the hours and the doubly assembled Calibre L922.1, Lange spares no effort in sealing the Langematik Perpetual’s place as one of contemporary watchmaking’s finest perpetual calendar wristwatches. This particular variant is crafted in honey gold, a proprietary alloy usually reserved for the brand’s special occasions. Priced at EUR91,000, the Langematik Perpetual is a worthy alternative to any Patek Philippe perpetual calendar wristwatch.
In an age where perpetual calendar wristwatches come as three-dimensional art pieces and openworked sports watches, the old-school Ref. 3940J might look pedestrian at first glance. The truth, however, is that it is anything but pedestrian. The Ref. 3940J is a masterclass in watch design and importantly, was a key player in the modern history of Patek Philippe and watchmaking in general. For any fine watch collection, if you’re only allowed one perpetual calendar watch, this would be the one to go for, for this is the prototypical perpetual calendar wristwatch.