The Patek Philippe Ref. 3919: A Star in Soft Focus

The Patek Philippe Ref. 3919: A Star in Soft Focus


by ei8htohms
© 6-19-2003

Introduction

Patek Philippe is a name that resonates deeply with watchmakers and watch enthusiasts alike. They are widely regarded as the single greatest watchmaking marque, with a brilliant history, and a reputation for unparalleled excellence in both masterful Grande Complications and simple 'time only' wristwatches. Creating the most complicated portable timekeepers in the world and dazzling wristwatches like the Sky Moon Tourbillon lends an aura of excellence to even their simplest timepieces and their prestige among collectors with taste cannot be easily overstated.

For this reputation to be truly deserved, it is imperative that all the offerings of Patek Philippe demonstrate the highest standards. While the Star Calibre 2000 beguiles enthusiasts with its phenomenal complexity and exquisite construction, the 'common' Patek Philippe owner wants to know that the watch on his wrist is equally deserving of the Patek Philippe name, in its own modest way. To understand the extent to which this greatest of brands lives up to its reputation, let us carefully examine one of its simplest watches: the Patek Philippe ref. 3919.

The Case, Dial and Hands

The Patek Philippe Calatrava is a study in understated elegance. A timeless line of dress watches that are distinguished by their utter simplicity, they represent a distillation of all the elements that make up a fine wristwatch, with nothing extraneous or out of place. The 3919 design incorporates harmonious features such as Patek Philippe’s distinctive hobnail bezel, a stark white faux-enamel dial with understated Roman numerals, a tasteful sub-seconds track and black-oxidized, white gold, leaf hands.

At 33.45 mm in diameter, the 3919 appears larger in use, perhaps due to the expansive dial or the pronounced hobnail pattern surrounding it. The sides of the white gold case are brushed while the bezel and lugs are highly polished. The solid back of the case is also polished excepting the horizontally grained center portion. [1]

Interestingly, the case is a two-piece construction with the lugs attached to the back of the case and the brushed sides being a part of the pressed-on bezel. The fit of the bezel is incredibly secure and is best removed using a specialized tool (to avoid damaging it), a good argument in itself for using their factory authorized service centers. The attractively (and painfully) small, white gold crown is attached to a split-stem and signed with the Calatrava Cross. [2] The case has a water resistance of 25 meters.

While the famous hobnail case has never appealed to me in pictures, it is much more attractive in reality. From some angles, it is quite subtle and the quality and consistency of the pattern and finish is very impressive. Altogether, this is a most understated and elegant piece. At a casual glance it looks unimposing, but a close inspection increasingly reveals its superlative quality and quintessential proportions.

Disconcertingly, the second hand on this example had a pronounced discoloration that was visible to the naked eye and a similar but smaller discoloration could be seen on the minute hand. [3] Reportedly this is a tarnish of sorts that occasionally appears on the black-oxidized, white gold hands after they have been 'in the field' for a few months. In this example the discoloration wiped off easily, but Patek Philippe is aware of the problem and has taken steps to correct it in future production.

Upon removing the pressed on bezel (revealing a black, O-ring gasket) and separating the two piece stem, the movement and dial could be removed through the front of the case. The case fits the movement and dial nicely without the need for a spacer ring thanks to a supportive lip underneath the dial and four raised tabs around its perimeter. [4] The case is very well crafted and finished inside and out and the dial and hands are of the quality that Patek Philippe is known for: first rate.

The Movement

It is not at all easy to decide what is or is not an appropriate application of technology in the rarefied realm of high-mech horology. Just because a process is time-consuming and traditional does not necessarily make it better; neither is a quicker and more modern process necessarily worse. This is certainly true if functionality is the primary concern, but is worth considering even if the pursuit of craft is our only goal. While, ultimately, industry standards develop with regards to what is or is not appropriate, there is no well defined path to arrive at these standards, and they are nebulous and ephemeral at best.

The 9-¾ ligne (21.9 mm x 2.55 mm) Ca. 215 movement is a visually unassuming piece of work. The center and third wheel bridge is nicely curved towards the balance cock but the shape near the jewels bears no relation to the wheels it supports, simply clearing the ratchet wheel and retreating. Clearly this is a subjective evaluation and there is some historical precedence for the shape of this bridge: it closely echoes a bridge from an original Antoine Norbert Patek pocket watch movement. Likewise, the cock for the fourth wheel and escape wheel is slightly awkward. To its credit, the bridge layout of the Ca. 215 results in excellent visibility of all the train wheels.

The escape wheel rides in bearings with fixed cap jewels on both sides. Although some high-end manufacturers still indulge in settings with removable cap jewels, they are a nicety rather than a necessity thanks to modern cleaning methods. A fixed cap jewel is a testament to Patek Philippe's design philosophy: good engineering over showmanship. If the solution that provides the best performance both immediately and over the long term involves fewer parts, so much the better. As Philppe Stern once said, "If we could build a movement with only one part, we would."

The balance cock is very nicely shaped with a tastefully curved cut-out for the movable stud carrier and the engraving on the movement is nicely done, following the lines of the bridges, elegantly sized and spaced. Ironically, the Geneva Seal was poorly executed, with ill-defined edges and an uneven application of the rhodium plating (applied after the gold plating of the seal and the engraved markings). The Geneva Seal is not applied by the factory, but is stamped independently at a watchmaking school in Geneva, leaving the quality of the stamp itself outside of the control of Patek Philippe.

The commonly seen English translations of the Poinçon de Genève indicate that the jewels on the bridge side must be "semi-brilliant" with polished sinks. This is in fact a mistranslation of the the French term mi-glace, which refers to a specific type of olive jewel (a jewel with a rounded bearing surface in the hole to decrease friction), namely, one with a rounded, high polished transition between the top and the outside edge.

These jewels have a flat bearing surface for the shoulder of the pivots as opposed to the convex surface of high-grade jewels of yesteryear. In all candor, the rounding of the jewel holes was too subtle for me to observe even at high magnification, much less properly photograph. [5] To Patek Philippe's credit, these mi-glace jewels are found on both the bridge side (as dictated by the Geneva Seal) and the plate side of the movement.

Surprisingly, the movement was not as clean as one might expect, having specks on some of the jewels and numerous small fibers present. A bit of lint was even resting in the oil sink of the center wheel jewel and had leached out some of the oil. [6]

All the screws are highly polished and have beveled heads and chamfered slots, individually stamped by hand. The bevels are not as pronounced as those once found in Patek Philippes, and the sides, threads and pilot (the guide at the tip of the screw) are not well finished. [7] The slots in the screws for the Geneva stud cover [8] are much wider than is traditional, but Patek Philippe has found that wider slots with appropriately shaped (hollow ground) screwdrivers are safer in practice (note also the fibers on the stud carrier). To insure a consistent and appropriate tightness of the screws, torque screwdrivers are employed at the factory for the screws in all Patek Philippe watches.

The beveling of the bridges was very consistent if not very highly polished and the Côtes de Genève created a slightly ragged edge around the bevels and countersinks. [9] The crown wheel, ratchet wheel and click were very nicely decorated and I was particularly impressed with the polished bevel on the crown wheel and ratchet wheel teeth that follows the line of the individual teeth. [10]

Overall the Ca. 215 is an utterly simple and straightforward sub-seconds design as befits the understated and conservative design philosophy of Patek Philippe. Although the architecture is less visually appealing to me than many Genevois movements, whether this is the result of its design predating the era of the display back or an example of Patek Philippe's no-nonsense approach to movement construction is left to the reader to decide.

The Bottom Plate

The portion of the movement underneath the dial is at least as well finished as the bridge side, with very nicely applied perlage and polished countersinks around the holes, jewels and screwheads. The hour wheel and minute wheel are beautifully executed, showing the functional and decorative touches that the wheels in modern watches of the highest grade are known for: highly polished pinion leaves and gear teeth with circular graining and a highly polished ring (moulurage) near the hub. [11]

The set-bridge is nicely grained with a very well executed chamfer and a crisp line separating the graining from the polished surface on the downward sloping spring for the push-button release detent. [12] The bend in the set-bridge is a little odd looking but is the result of the more modern (and simple), push-button release detent. A detent screw is more common in high-grade manual wind movements, but Patek Philippe opted for engineering simplicity and functionality and the finishing of these components is appropriate and attractive.

The clutch lever and detent are also nicely grained and beautifully chamfered but the clutch lever spring is unfinished. While not a wire spring (as prohibited by the Geneva Seal), this crudely finished (sand blasted) piece of steel seems entirely out of place vis-à-vis the other well-finished parts. [13] According to Patek Philippe, the absence of hand finishing on this component provides for less variability in production. Other manufacturers, however, do hand finish clutch lever springs with an apparently acceptable degree of consistency. At any rate, the burrs found on the bottom edge of this example are clearly an oversight.

The undersides of the set-bridge and clutch lever show no hand finishing either. A semi-matte finish with rounded edges seems to indicate tumble polishing or some other mass production technique [14] that contrasts sharply with the time consuming finishing of the topsides. This type of finishing has become commonplace for the undersides of keyless works, even in this, the highest grade of serially produced watches. Reportedly this machine finish is also chosen for improved consistency in production.

The Barrel and Power Train

The crown wheel is an involved construction, attached to a hub and pinion under the barrel bridge with three small screws and the click is also elaborately conceived. While it appears quite ordinary (if well executed) from the topside, the click spring is a nicely formed steel spring [15] that is screwed to the mainplate and interacts with the click via a pin through the barrel bridge. [16] This arrangement disengages the click entirely when the barrel bridge is removed. Of no functional consequence, it is an interesting side effect of the unconventional design.

The barrel itself has a nice sunburst pattern on the top [17] and bottom. The inner surfaces of the barrel are satin finished. [18] The power train wheels are as nicely finished as the wheels of the dial train, showing the same decorative touches. [19] As one would expect in a movement of this quality, the pinion leaves, arbors and pivots are perfectly formed and well polished. The relevance of this level of finishing cannot be overstated nor is it as ubiquitous, even at this level of watchmaking, as one might hope.

The Escapement, Balance and Hairspring

The escape wheel is nicely polished on top and bottom, as is the pallet fork, which is also chamfered on the topside. [21] Although lacking a few finer touches found in Patek Philippes of some years ago, the escapement finishing is as good or better than any other high-grade manufacturer today. Unfortunately there was some debris on the bearing surface of the upper pallet pivot jewel, [22] something that is especially unacceptable in such a critical location, as any hindrance to the pallet lever action can have dramatic effects on the timekeeping.

The Gyromax balance is something of an icon in fine watchmaking. [20] It is a symbol of Patek Philippe’s willingness to embrace this finer and more permanent form of rate adjustment long before other manufacturers and is an elaborate and expensive construction. It requires greater skill to properly regulate a watch with a free-sprung balance but the errors introduced by curb pins are done away with altogether.

The execution of the Gyromax balance in the cal. 215 is consistent with modern, high-quality, serial-production techniques. The movable split weights just inside the rim, while brightly polished, do not have crisp edges or well defined corners [20] and while the rim of the balance is brightly polished, the arms have a matte, sandblasted finish. The underside of the balance is coarsely and unevenly grained. [23] This texture reportedly gives the small drills used for dynamic poising ample purchase, but the dynamic poising marks in this example were on the polished outside edge of the rim (?). Regardless, the underside of the balance would be more attractive if the graining were all in the same direction.

The Nivarox 1 hairspring is pinned at the stud and secured at the staff with a Greiner collet. Although it theoretically introduces a modicum of distortion in the hairspring near the stud, pinning is a traditional technique that is more time consuming and involves more craft than the adhesives commonly employed in modern timepieces. Perhaps most significantly, cemented studs are not yet within the guidelines of the Geneva Seal.

Greiner collets are ubiquitous in modern mechanical timepieces while involving less craft than a traditional pinned collet. With a Greiner collet, the hairspring is crimped into a slot on the side, making it a permanent attachment involving greater mechanical deformation than laser welding. Patek Philippe has reported seeing no evidence that laser welded collets offer any performance enhancements over Greiner collets. In addition, laser welded collets have not yet been registered with the Geneva Seal. Both of these hairspring attachments are perhaps further evidence of the conservative approach to watchmaking employed by Patek Philippe. Without demonstrable gains in performance, change for its own sake is a potential liability.

Conclusion

This particular watch exhibited some lapses in quality control in the discolored hands and lint on the movement and a few poorly finished parts. In addition, the decorative finishing is not as impressive as that found in some other high grade movements. At a glance, the Ca. 215 movement seems slightly out of step with the times. Introduced in 1974, it neither enjoys the superior craft and handwork of fifty years ago nor the display-back bridge design and postmodern elaborations found in some other first-tier timepieces today.

Upon closer inspection, it is a reflection of Patek Phillipe's understated approach to watchmaking, which consistently favors good, solid design over showmanship. In almost every aspect of the movement's design and construction, Patek Philippe demands demonstrable short and long term performance gains over unnecessary innovation or elaboration. If possibly a little unexciting to some enthusiasts, this tried and true manufacturing style has won Patek Philippe the admiration and respect of collectors for generations: nothing says quality like a watch that just works.

Taken as a whole, the Patek Philippe 3919 offers significant craft while avoiding the superficial and/or superfluous fineness that is commonplace today. Despite its conservatism (or perhaps because of it), the Ca. 215 is one of the finest two or three simple manual wind movements available today. Ignoring the incredible éclat of the Patek Philippe name, the allure of the brand is subtle and complex. Their supremacy as a manufacture stems at least in part from their commitment to doing as much as possible in their own workshops to insure the highest standards of craft. This integrity of production and design is not immediately obvious nor easily estimated, but contributes greatly to the aura of this most venerable house.

_john

Counterpoint

To be honest, I was unprepared for my initial reaction to the Ref. 3919. I have consistently found the hobnail bezel to be unattractive in photographs, but in person the effect is much more restrained, and there’s a surprising consistency to the aesthetic of the design overall. The angularity of the hobnail pattern, which is beautifully executed, is reflected in the relatively sharp angles and transitions of the case, lugs, and even in the careful faceting of the buckle, which makes for an impression that’s both inviting and yet slightly distancing- in a word, classical. The gently domed crystal gathers ambient light softly to the dial, and the gold leaf hands and very slightly raised imprinting of the lettering and Romans make a beautiful and subtle play of light and shadow.

The watch does seem considerably larger than 33.45mm- partly because of the small yet richly textured and reflective bezel, and partly, perhaps, because of the inimitable Patek aura. My only caveat with the externals is that the crown feels a trifle small- it’s perhaps a bit sharp against the fingers during the winding of what feels like a commendably stout mainspring- but I don’t know that one would really want it any larger visually, so perhaps the small size is a worthwhile tradeoff for the splendid overall coherence of design which the Ref. 3919 displays.

My only other reservation is the Patek Cal. 215. From any other manufacturers such a movement would be cause for celebration, and again, taken on its own it seems a lovely and very refined caliber, both aesthetically and mechanically. But I can’t help but compare the Cal. 215 to some of the great full bridge handwound calibers of Patek's past. Despite the many beautiful features of the Ref. 3919, I feel a little nostalgic for the old fashioned charm of Patek's classical full bridge movements. However, this minor quibble fades in the face of my initial and ongoing response- this is a watch I could wear every day, and easily feel as if any others were superfluous.

-Jack Forster


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