The classic and elegant design of Ref.96 is at the core of Patek Philippe’s design language. In today’s article. I will write about the Ref.96—an absolute personal favourite—in details.
Those who like watches will have heard of the name “Calatrava”. Apart from being Patek Philippe’s brand logo(Calatrava Cross), the term is more widely used to designate wristwatches of a particular style.
A Calatrava is often understood as a classic and elegant round dress watch. Given such an obviously vague and broad understanding, watches with varying dial and case designs are often subsumed under the Calatrava category; collectors sometimes even refer to certain specific models made by brands other than Patek as Calatravas. All of that can be confusing for the uninitiated. The most straightforward approach to understanding the concept in question is to examine the Ref.96, which I believe embodies the essence of the Calatrava.
Horology Ancienne, a London-based father and son collecting duo of the highest calibre, was once asked on Instagram: “What do you think is the best and purest Calatrava ever made?”, to which they answered: “Because you said purest, I must say 96.”Without a doubt, the Ref.96 is the paradigmatic reference which defines the Calatrava style.
The Ref.96 was born in 1932, the year Stern Freres(then Patek Philippe’s dial maker) acquired Patek Philippe. It was the company’s first wristwatch with a numbered reference. Patek Philippe watches, as we know them today, come with a string of numbers: 96, 1518, 2499, etc. However, in the few decades before the introduction of 96, when pocket watches were still the mainstream, although Patek Philippe were already making wristwatches, they never named their creations. This is called the pre-reference period. I think it is safe to say that a lot of the wristwatches produced during this period were imitations of pocket watches, frequently drawing on romantic elements such as enamel dials, Breguet numerals, spade hands and elaborately hand-engraved officer cases.
By the early 1930s, wristwatches had already gained popularity, and people gradually began to perceive them as convenient and reliable tools. At the same time, the utility of expensive decorative pocket watches was greatly reduced.
Under such circumstances, the introduction of the Ref.96 could be understood as the first important move made by the Stern brothers to explore the wristwatch market and lay the foundation for the development of the brand, after they had acquired Patek Philippe. It was subsequently proved to be a significant move that marked the beginning of a new epoch and started a whole new style named the Calatrava.
96 is the epitome of minimalism in watch design. Without fancy decorations, it completes the simple task of displaying time with clean lines and minimal geometric shapes. Below are two 96s in the standard configuration.
A standard dial of the 96 consists of the following elements: polished faceted bullet-shaped indices, sharp dauphine hands, and gear-shaped sub-seconds dial in black enamel. The case is conservatively sized at 30.5mm, with a thickness of 9mm. Nowadays, most men would probably dismiss it for its diminutive size, and even some ladies would find it too small. But one must bear in mind that it was the choice of the most tasteful gentlemen back in the 1930s.
The vast majority of 96s’ cases adopt a 3-piece construction, meaning that the case consists of three separate parts: bezel, mid-case and caseback. The bezel is a polished flat bezel with a width of about 2mm; the transition from the bezel to the mid-case takes a right angle. This flat-bezel design can also be seen in the works of other brands(such as IWC and Longines) of the same era.
The importance of this design cannot be overemphasised. I think it is the wide and sharp-edged flat bezel that makes the small and delicate case not appear weak at all. Coupled with the sword-like dauphine hands, the whole watch exudes sharpness and elegance at the same time. This look has proven to be incredibly enduring— the Ref.96, as one of Patek’s flagship products, was produced for 40 years, between 1932 and 1973, and its design remains relevant until this day.
During its production period, the company continuously made small modifications and innovations on the basis of the design of the 96 and launched many references, such as Ref.438, 448, 570, 2457, 2508/2509, 2545, 2555, 3439, etc. After the 96 was discontinued, it continued to exert impact on the brand. The subsequent series of references ending in “96”, such as 3796, 5096 5196 and 5296 are all derivatives of the original 96. In the strictest sense, only the 96 and its close relatives and descendants form the Calatrava family.
In its 40 years of production, the Ref.96 was made in yellow gold, pink gold, white gold, platinum and stainless steel, with yellow gold being the commonest and white gold the rarest. Cases in precious metals were manufactured by Antoine Gerlach, whereas steel cases were supplied by the famous Francois Borgel. Apart from the standard configuration mentioned above, Patek also made countless variations on the basic designs of dial, case and movement. The richness and diversity of the design language makes 96 one of the most collectable and explorable watches. In the space below, I will attempt to divide the reference into four series based on the four most common movements of the 96.
1. Cal 12'''
1st series of the Ref.96 was equipped with the Cal’”12. The Cal’”12 was an ébauche movement supplied by Lecoultre ( then not yet merged with Jaeger) and subsequently decorated and regulated by Patek Philippe. It was named after the size of the movement, which measured 12 ligne across (1ligne is about 2.26mm). This movement was used for a relatively short period of time.
One of the most notable characteristics of the 1st series 96 is the lugs. As I mentioned earlier, the vast majority of 96s have 3-piece cases, such that the lugs are integrated into the mid-case. However, on the earliest 96s, we can see that the four lugs were made separately from the mid-case and then connected to case through welding. 96 with welded lugs are extremely rare—Patek switched to whole Calatrava cases around the mid-30s.
Most of the dials on the 1st series 96s are relatively simple and clean, with the long signature(Patek, Philippe & Co Genéve), applied bullet-shaped flat indices, feuille hands, and a sub-seconds dial with markers that match the bullet shape of the indexes.
2. Cal 12-120ps / 12-120sc
Around 1935, Patek Philippe began using in-house movements Cal12-120ps(petite seconde) and 12-120sc(seconde centrale) on 2nd series 96s. Although it was in-house, one can see from the picture that the 12-120ps was very similar to the Lecoultre Cal’”12 in terms of the layout, and identical in terms of size(12 ligne).
The movement went from gilded to nickel-plated, giving it a cooler presence. The bridges were treated with Côtes de Genève and minor adjustments were made to the main plate, the jewels and the regulator. The 12-120sc was an indirect central seconds movement, with an independent central seconds module added to the 12-120ps by movement maker Victorin Piguet. The 2nd series was made for approximately 15 years, during which time dials of all styles occurred: Breguet, Arabic, Roman, luminous, diamond, sector, roulette, etc.
I myself own a 2nd series 96 with 12-120ps, which was made in 1939. It is a 96 in pink gold, with a black dial double signed by Eberhard-Milan, then a retailer of Patek Philippe. The “black pink” combination is very rare and sought-after by collectors. The extract from the archives describes the dial as “black dial, rose gold lapped indexes”, which confirms that the dial is in original factory configuration.
Before I encountered this watch, I had been looking for a 96 in this configuration for many years. Since they were mostly made in the 30s~40s, it was quite difficult to find one preserved in satisfactory condition. Luckily, John Nagayama, an expert in vintage Patek Philippe from Tokyo got one in stock at the end of last year. John is possibly the single most experienced and knowledgable expert on the Ref.96, who has seen, owned and sold countless rare and precious examples. He knew that I was looking for this particular configuration, so he messaged me about it and I happily purchased it from him.
Speaking of John, I have to share a fantastic 96 that I unfortunately missed. One summer when I visited John in Tokyo, I had the honour to see two exceedingly rare 96s, as shown below. What makes these two pieces special is that on the dials, not only are the signatures in hard-raised enamel, but also are the numerals, outer rings and sub-seconds markers.
Hard-raised enamel is a major feature of vintage Patek Philippe watches. Letterings in enamel have a distinct three-dimensional presence that reflects lights differently at different angles. Not many examples with full enamel indices are known. I was immediately attracted by the combination of enamel Breguet numerals, spade hands and the naturally oxidised dial on the left one. Just when I decided to go for it, I was told that the watch had already been reserved by a local customer in Tokyo, so I regrettably missed it.
Around 1950, the movement of the Ref.96 was changed from 12-120 to 12-400. The 12-400 was an upgrade to the 12-120: fine-tuning the design, adding a shock absorber to the balance wheel, chamfering the edges of the bridges so that they could fit under a thinner caseback.
One sees less design variations on the 3rd series 96s. The market had already made its choice in the past two decades on the most elegant and enduring design. Most of the 3rd series 96s have standard dial described at the beginning of the article: applied lapped indices, dauphine hands, and sub-seconds dials in enamel.
Many watch enthusiasts will know that by the end of the 40s(48~49), Patek Philippe changed their signature on the dial from the long “Patek, Philippe & Co” to just “Patek Philippe”. This change occurred at roughly the same time with the introduction of the Cal12-400, so most of the 3rd series 96s have short signatures.
A 96 I won at a Phillips auction in 2020 is an exemplar of the 3rd series 96. It is a 96 in platinum, made in 1957, with a dial in standard configuration. One thing worth mentioning is that most of the known 96s in platinum are equipped with feuille hands, open sub-seconds dial and luxurious diamond indices. Platinum, due to its scarcity and processing difficulty, has always been regarded as the most superior metal. Naturally, it was matched with diamonds to form the most exuberant and expensive configuration for a 96 at the time.
However, what was once the most expensive model is not necessarily the most sought-after and collectable on the market today. The fact that most of the 96PTs have diamond markers makes the standard dials without diamonds all the more precious.
This example has an engraving on the caseback which says “L.E. Graf Knudsen Award 1958”. The Knudsen Award for Scientific Research was an award established by Mr. Carl Holst-Knudsen, then the Chairman of the Board at Aarhus University, Denmark. It was annually awarded to those who made outstanding contributions to science, and was first awarded in 1958. The present watch was the prize for the first winner of the award.
Its rarity and historical significance are both remarkable, but what appeals to me the most is the condition of the watch. The watch is in pristine original condition, the dial shows absolutely no sign of cleaning and repair; the case is unpolished, the hallmarks are crisp, the lugs retain all the details of brushing on the sides, and the bezel is razor-sharp. The watch looks exactly like it did when it was first sold in the 50s. Every time I hold it in my hands and appreciate its beauty, it feels like a time travel.
At this point, one might wonder if there was a central seconds version for the 3rd series 96. This leads us to the Ref. 2457.
Around 1949, Patek Philippe began making a distinction between central seconds and sub-seconds 96s. The former were given the new reference 2457, and were equipped with the Cal 27sc(also used on famous references such as 565 and 570). The 2457 has a case that appears to be identical to that of the 96; some early cases mention not only “2457” but also “96” on the caseback. So far only cases in yellow gold, pink gold, and steel are known.
The so-called Amag 96 was the last iteration of the reference. It was launched in the early 60s and was equipped with the 27AM-400. It was an advanced movement developed by Patek to address the threat of magnetism and is said to withstand a magnetic strength of up to 450 oersteds. Certain gold components were used, such as a gold pallet fork and a gold Gyromax balance, for the reason that gold has a lower magnetic permeability compared to certain other alloys.
The 27AM-400 had the design of its shock absorber changed and its regulator replaced by a free sprung balance. The movement was mainly used on anti-magnetic models such as the 2570 and 3417, but it was also used on a few other models that were not designed to be anti-magnetic, including the 96.
All the known examples of the 4th series are in yellow gold, making it possibly the only choice back in the days. I myself also own a 96 with the 27AM-400 movement, which was made in 1972, near the end of the production. It just turned 50 years old this year. According to unofficial data, the 96 was discontinued in 1973. I have only ever seen one 96 made in 1973, making my example the second youngest 96 known. Another feature is that the dial is double signed by Tiffany & Co, indicating that the watch was made for the American market in the 70s and sold through Tiffany in New York.
The four series mentioned above are representative of the vast majority of the 96s out there. However, in a spirit of rigour, I must add a caveat: there are indeed some exceptional 96s that do not fall under the four categories above. After all, Patek Philippe is a commercial company. Although there exist some rules and patterns as to how Patek named their watches and movements and made certain changes over the years, more often than not they are just rules of thumb, and one should not expect them to display the sort of rigour and consistency one finds in academics.
What we can do is simply to discover those rules and patterns as much as possible, but when exceptions arise, we should also acknowledge them. It is all too natural that some anomalies were made in the 40 years of production of the Ref.96. For example, below is a 96 without a seconds hand. It has a plain dial and a movement that does not belong to any of the above.
Judging from the details of the movement, such as the layout and the wolf teeth winding gears, it is likely an early pocket-watch-inspired movement by Lecoultre or Victorin Piguet. Movements from this era did not have reference numbers and were named after their sizes. The present movement, being 12 ligne in diameter, is therefore also referred to as the Cal 12’”. But obviously it needs to be distinguished from the Cal 12’” introduced at the beginning of this article.
This movement also came in a central seconds version. In 1935, Patek Philippe made a special 96 for Margraf, then their retailer in Berlin, which featured the central seconds version.
Apart from two-handed 96s, there also exist four-handed ones. There are only 6 pieces known with a full calendar function. The dial indicates day, date, month and moon phase. Inside is the Cal 11” based on a Victorin Piguet ebauche.
The purpose of this article is merely to provide some practical information and share with you some humble personal opinions, so that more people might fall in love with the Ref.96. But I am very much aware of the limits of language—I maintain that the best way and the only way to fully appreciate a watch is to buy it, wear it and experience it in a visceral manner.
As I mentioned before, one of the reasons why the 96 is so collectable is that there are so many variations out there, that it takes a lifetime to amass a comprehensive collection. Another reason is that it has an exceptionally wide price range. This is true for vintage watches in general— there can be a huge price difference for two examples of the same reference in different configurations or conditions. A 96 of the most collectable sort can set one back $300k, but an entry-level yellow gold example in decent condition costs only $10~15k. Dare I say that at this price range one simply cannot find a better buy in terms of quality, aesthetics and historical significance. I wish those who like the Ref.96 best of luck finding their ideal pieces.