In the mid-’90s, Patek Philippe had a problem. Watch enthusiasm was starting to rebound from the effects of the quartz crisis and the recession of the early 1980s. By the mid-’90s, the biggest name in high-end watchmaking was looking at a market that was flush with youthful dot-com cash and a taste for well-made AAA UK replica watches, especially those with a casual sporty appeal.
So what was the problem? Patek Philippe didn’t have a modern sports watch.
By 1996, the Genta-designed Nautilus was nearly two decades old and, though it remained a popular choice among brand devotees, younger buyers were opting for increasingly casual and sporty options. So, in 1997, only a year after announcing the first-ever annual calendar fake watches for sale, Patek Philippe debuted the Aquanaut, a casual sports watch on a rubber-style strap that was both smaller and less expensive than a Nautilus while still managing to capture the root of the Genta aesthetic.
The original reference, the 5060A was offered in steel (“A” is for acier, or “steel” in French) and measured 35.6mm wide and 8.5mm thick. The 5060A had 19mm lugs, a sapphire crystal, a solid steel caseback, and – along with a screw-down crown – it offered 120 meters of water resistance. Sold only with a black dial, the original Aquanaut had Arabic numerals and a full luminous treatment. A proper, sporty watch.
Then and now, the Aquanaut was a big deal both for Patek Philippe and for those who endeavored to own one (or many) of the brand’s often-coveted high quality replica watches. In an interview with Europa Star in 1997, Patek’s then-boss Philippe Stern said that the Aquanaut “responds to the desires of the brand’s clientele who want the traditional Patek Philippe quality but in a true sports watch.” In a manner seemingly both disparate and connected to the previous year’s launch of the “mid-market” annual calendar 5035, the 5060A was another step in the broader commercialization of the brand. A perfect second child to the overachieving and long-standing Nautilus.
Not only was the Aquanaut not a svelte Calatrava or a complicated perpetual calendar – it was rugged, less traditional, and comparatively inexpensive (assuming you’ll allow me the term within the understanding of Patek’s usual price points). At a time when a Calatrava was the better part of $9,000 and best copy Patek perpetual calendar watches would set you back at least $45,000, the 5060A hit the market for roughly $5,000 (based on a list price of CHF 6900 at the time, and factoring for a 0.708 1997 historical exchange between USD and CHF – though the actual MSRP stateside might have varied a bit).
Using an inflation calculator, that’s like getting an Aquanaut for something like $9,300 today. Not too shabby, considering the current list price for a 5167A is $21,650 if you can get one for retail, or $70,000+ on the secondary markets. Woof.
While it is often reported that the 5060A (and the mysterious 5060/S, keep reading) were limited to 1,000 units in the first year, I was unable to find any verification of such a claim and the public statement from perfect Patek Philippe replica watches is that production of the Aquanaut was only limited by how many movements Patek was prepared to produce at the time.
Speaking of the movement, the 5060A housed Patek’s 330 S C automatic, which ticked at 3.5Hz while offering 48 hours of power reserve, a Gyromax balance, and a 21k gold rotor. Tucked beneath the Aquanaut’s closed steel caseback, the 330 S C carried the Geneva Seal.
From the onset, the Swiss movements super clone Patek Philippe Aquanaut 5060A watches’ black “grenade” dial was matched by a black composite rubber strap that helped to differentiate the Aquanaut from its older brother. The strap was designed using a specialized rubber-like material that Patek dubbed “tropical,” as it was meant to withstand the abuse put forth by frequent wear, sweat, salt water, and even UV exposure.
In researching the Aquanaut’s weirdly-important strap, John Reardon of Collectability filled me in on two interesting details about its design and development. First was the manner in which the pattern of the dial is replicated on the strap. “Patek Philippe tried this concept before but always in gold,” says John. “The ‘tropical’ strap concept was truly groundbreaking with the Patek Philippe design language. Seeing this new tropical-style dial and matching strap from 1:1 replica Patek Philippe watches was truly shocking at the time.”
The second element concerned the testing of the strap: “Patek Philippe made a big marketing push that the tropical strap was tested by the US Food and Drug Administration as hypoallergenic. The demand for hypoallergenic straps was growing in the 1990s, as awareness of allergies became more common and watch straps were at the center of the discussion within the watch world.”
The strap also helps to shed some light on the reality of this first Aquanaut reference not really being a full-on Aquanaut, but rather a “Nautilus-Aquanaut,” as the clasp that originally came fitted to the strap for the 5060A was signed “Nautilus” (shown above). As reported by Collectability and our own HODINKEE Shop, it wasn’t until the launch of the 5066 that we find “Aquanaut” shown on the clasp all by its lonesome.
And though the 5060A is indeed the first online fake Patek Philippe Aquanaut watches, it represents a stage of transition away from the Nautilus as Patek Philippe developed some comfort with the departure. This brings us to the 5060/S, an early yellow gold pre-Aquanaut that started appearing in some ads as early as 1996 (as per A Collected Man, and Europa Star). For many collectors, the theory is that the 5060/S reference marks a test in Patek redesigning the Nautilus, the results of which would become the Aquanaut.
With a Roman numeral dial similar to that of a 3800 Nautilus, the 5060/S is noteworthy thanks to its conventional lugs, making it the first Nautilus offered on a leather strap. If there is a bridge between the Nautilus and the early Aquanauts, the 5060/S is most certainly it. By 1997, and alongside the 5060A, the 5060/S was now represented as the Aquanaut 5060J (shown below), despite lacking several of the 5060A’s most defining features.
As many of you are well aware, since these early days, the cheap replica Patek Philippe Aquanuat watches proved to be insanely popular, and not only with the new and youthful buyers Patek hoped to reach. “We are rendering a kind of service to our clientele who already own one of our watches,” Philippe Stern said, “and at the same time, we are providing access to the brand for younger consumers who want to purchase a Patek Philippe watch.” The Aquanaut had quickly become a crossover hit and one of the most successful and in-demand models in the company’s history.
Evolving The Aquanaut
The evolution of the Aquanaut has been ongoing since its release, including the 1998 ref. 5065 “Jumbo,” which was 38.8mm wide, had a display caseback and was offered with a bracelet. From there, the Aquanaut continued into smaller quartz versions and an array of options in steel, as well as yellow and rose gold. Remarkably, it wasn’t until 2011 when the Aquanaut was given its first complication (beyond a date, of course) in the travel time-equipped 5164A (which also happens to be my favorite modern Patek Philippe reference).
Over the past 25 years, the Aquanaut has only grown in terms of popularity. As it turns out, a lot of buyers were keen on an easy-wearing, sporty, and less fussy take on the now-traditional Nautilus. I know I’ll take some heat for the following statement, but in my eyes, the Aquanaut is to the Nautilus as the Royal Oak Offshore is to the Royal Oak. Let’s not forget that the Offshore came out in 1992 and was meant to be a sportier and more youthful offering within the Royal Oak ethos. Sounds familiar, no?
Apples and oranges? Yes, but still fruit that is grown in a largely similar context, albeit under different conditions. The differences between the two executions are, admittedly, night and day and the final product comes down to the leadership and spirit of each brand. That said, I think the market impetus of the ’90s pushed brands like Patek and AP to better understand their audience and its untapped potential. For AP, that meant more. For Patek, less. Some zig, some zag.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a loosely connected group of top fake watches being more popular than the Genta-designed (or -derived) Nautilus, Royal Oak, Aquanaut, etc. Prices for just about any example are well beyond retail, with a tidy 5060A demanding anywhere from $45,000 to $55,000 in today’s market. If like me, you’ve long had your eye on a 5164A, that market has recently cracked into six figures.
General attainability aside (sigh), I guess this is something of a love letter to the earliest days of one of my all-time favorite China replica watches – the Aquanaut. I will always love the idea of a high-end sports watch, of a Patek Philippe on a rubber strap, and dang it if it doesn’t have one of the best names in the entire business. Aquanaut.
If the ’90s did indeed present a problem for Patek Philippe, the Aquanaut was most certainly the solution, both then, and for the better part of the last three decades.