If you’ve been around the watch world long enough, there’s no way to escape the influence of the Patek Philippe Aquanaut. The model has, somewhat improbably, come to represent “hype watch culture,” with the various modern references becoming so desirable that an OEM green rubber strap for modern Aquanauts regularly sells for thousands of dollars on the secondary market. With that said, the market forces at work with the modern references (as well as the sustainability and philosophical debates that accompany those forces) are a subject for another day. What is infinitely more interesting to me is the origin of this unlikely superstar of the watch world – the original “Jumbo” Aquanaut (reference 5065).
The Aquanaut was originally introduced in 1997 as the reference 5060, a 36mm limited edition of 1,000 pieces that was offered in steel and gold and had a closed caseback. Soon after the release of the 5060, Patek released the “Jumbo” Aquanaut, a 38mm version with an exhibition caseback (the reference 5065). The case design mirrored some of the established DNA from the Nautilus line, mainly through the brushed, eight-sided bezel, but the Aquanaut also represented a departure from other offerings in the Patek Philippe catalog at the time. Marketed to a more active, younger crowd, the watch sported 120 meters of water resistance and was the first Patek Philippe to be fitted with a rubber strap instead of a bracelet (though the reference 5065/1A, such as my example, did eventually offer a bracelet as well).
The most critical element of the Patek Philippe Aquanaut, however, was the dial. Whether it resembles a grenade, a globe, a bar of chocolate, or a pineapple, collectors can agree on one thing: the design is among the boldest ever created by the manufacture.
The most immediate thing that stands out about the dial is the three dimensionality of the design. While it’s easily observed in photographs and wrist shots, the “experience” of the 5065 is heightened in the metal. The raised guilloché finishing is dynamic, constantly changing in appearance based on the watch’s angle, and the design is cohesive. The date window blends seamlessly in with the other block hour markers, and the applied marker at 3 o’clock remains, only slightly displaced.
Another critical element in its desirability for collectors is the face that tritium was used for the 5065’s luminous material during the first seven years of the production run. In my view, the majority of tritium 5065 examples have aged to a perfect shade of patina, a testament to the case construction and luminous compounds employed by Patek during that time. The result of all these design elements is a dynamo on the wrist, ever changing and highly complementary.
Finally, the 5065 utilized an exhibition caseback to show off the Calibre 315 S.C., only 3.2mm and capable of a 48 hour power reserve. The movement is self-winding, powered by an 18K gold rotor, and sports the Geneva Seal, which predated the Patek Philippe Seal now emblazoned on the manufacture’s highly-finished movements. With a case thickness of only 9.2mm and easily adjusted rubber straps, the watch hugs any wrist with ease and feels finely engineered compared to bulkier sports watches of this era.
The Aquanaut’s Legacy
By almost any measure, the reference 5065 had an enormously successful run. The watch was continuously produced from 1998 to 2008 and was a commercial success with a younger demographic, cementing the Aquanaut’s place in Patek’s catalog for years to come. However, the Patek Philippe Aquanaut changed substantially from the first generation to the second (the reference 5167).
Gone were the dynamic ridges of the raised guilloché dial, replaced by finer, recessed lines. Gone, too, was the applied numeral at 3 o’clock, as the date window was shifted over and a small luminous marker was added. The applied numerals were also enlarged and filled with Luminova, as tritium was no longer used in any watches by this time. Finally, a substantive change was made to the case, which was beefed up considerably from 38mm to 40.8mm and the rubber strap was also updated to have a more seamless fit against the case relative to the straight ends of the 5065 straps.
Depending on who you ask, these changes either killed the spirit of the Aquanaut or ushered in a new, more refined generation of the collection. The schism is fairly predictable, with modern watch collectors favoring the larger size, toned down dial, and integrated straps, and vintage collectors more drawn to the bold and warm tones of the original 5065. As you’re reading this post about my own 5065, you can likely guess which camp I fall into, though it wasn’t always that way.
The Story Behind My Patek Philippe Aquanaut 5065
In order to continue growing in this hobby it’s important to have enablers…I mean…friends with interesting taste. Two such friends, Andrew and Rob (@t_swiss_t and @vintage.robi on Instagram), both purchased 5065 Aquanauts in 2020 and 2021 and provided my first meaningful exposure to the reference. As I continued to see the examples pop up in their feeds and listened to their rave reviews of it on the wrist, I became increasingly curious. It was visually more interesting to me than the later 5167 and was also much more attainable than a modern 5164R, which had also caught my eye.
I began to research the reference and soon realized that, aside from their endorsements, the 5065 had a few critical elements that made the watch desirable from a collectability standpoint:
- “Right Artist, Right Piece”: Patek will always be one of the two most important brands in watchmaking and the Aquanaut has consistently been one of the brand’s most popular collections over the past 25 years. Seeking the original version of an icon is typically a good place to start when weighing future demand from collectors and the relative “safety” of a large purchase.
- Perfect Proportions: Despite the 5065 using a “Jumbo” moniker, the 38mm x 9mm case is more in-line with vintage proportions than contemporary sportswatches. I consider the 5065 to be perfectly sized for the majority of wrists, making it widely accessible and extremely comfortable.
- Tritium Plots: The use of tritium plays an important role in vintage and “neovintage” watches. Well preserved tritium plots add a natural warmth and texture to dials that either can’t be found in modern watches or comes across as contrived (i.e. “faux patina”). In the case of the 5065, well aged tritium hands and markers are a strong visual asset. Finally, the use of tritium was limited to a small time period in the Aquanaut’s production history, which increases the collectability of the tritium examples.
The final box to check before finding one of my own was to try on the watch. While the 5065 is still “affordable” relative to the asking prices for modern Aquanauts, it is by no means an inexpensive watch and was not something I was willing to commit to upfront. While passing through New York in December 2021, I was able to try on Rob’s example, and after only a few minutes with the watch on my wrist, my fate was sealed. As soon as I got home from the trip, I accelerated my search efforts.
One of the downsides of hunting for a Patek Philippe (and particularly an Aquanaut or Nautilus) is that there are very few examples sold directly by long-time or original owners. While it was not a prerequisite in my search, I eventually found a private listing on a popular online marketplace with horrendous pictures and no price listed – a red flag for some, but an intriguing prospect for me. If the watch was more utilitarian, like a vintage Tudor Submariner, those circumstances might mean I was about to get a great deal. In the case of this Aquanaut, it meant the opposite.
Despite the poor photography, I could tell that the tritium had aged perfectly and it came with the original bracelet. After reaching out to the seller, I got more information about the watch. The seller, an eclectic and well known art collector, had purchased the watch from a Sotheby’s auction roughly 15 years ago and had not worn it since. While his asking price was higher than any other examples from reputable sellers, the condition was truly top tier and the watch had not been prepped at all for the sale (as an example, see the detritus below). After negotiating over price for multiple weeks, we finally reached an agreement and the logistics were hashed out, which included a cameo from Adam Golden (of Menta Watches), who served as my bag man.
In the months since purchasing this 5065 Aquanaut, it has become a staple on my wrist. The rubber strap is amazingly comfortable, and given the thin case and perfect diameter, the watch is effortless to wear in just about any situation. I could make the case that the 5065 is already an icon and its importance to the collecting community should continue to grow, but even if that doesn’t ever happen, it will still be here on my wrist. And you can likely find me happily gazing into that amazing dial.