MY NEXT GRAILS: Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendars (Part 1 of 4)

PART 1 – 3940J FIRST SERIES

The perpetual calendar is the most remarkable complication in horology!!

Patek Philippe classifies one of their collections as “Grand Complications” and while they don’t explicitly mention what exact grand complications they are referring to, I automatically assume it is the perpetual calendar (quantième perpétuel). While the category does include mixed perpetual calendars and chronographs with the occasional minute repeaters and tourbillons, I must say that only the pure perpetual calendar appeals to me with nothing else on the dial. I find the chronograph an obsolete and otherwise useless complication today that only clutters the dial. Who really needs a minute repeater today with all the illumination at night and let’s be honest, by the time you calculate the chimes arithmetically, dawn is already upon you. But I find the perpetual calendar, the most ingenious and innovative watch complication in horological history. To be able to mechanically shift the end of the month according to the year, month and leap year by a few gear shifts seems incomprehensible to the amateur like myself but yet Patek invented the complication and has been innovating it for a hundred years. Anyone, whether they are into watches or not, cannot help but be awed by this mechanism. If one thinks about it, a perpetual calendar adds layers of complexity, perhaps exponential, to the date mechanism and adds that much more error. A simple date complication is a rotating wheel which rotates and clicks 31 times a month automatically. A perpetual calendar must adjust the dates 30, 31 according to the month and the year not to mention leap years. The mental adjustment in itself is baffling but incorporating that into a watch mechanism makes this complication the most remarkable complication in all of watchmaking. And Patek perfected it.

As a watch collector, it is a must for me to own a perpetual calendar of some sort one day when I can afford it. But for now these are my grails.

3940J FIRST SERIES GOLD DIAL or SALMON dial

The 3940j with gold dial was Philippe Stern’s daily wearer and this is significant from a man who could pick any watch he wanted to wear regardless of brand. The 3940 was in production from 1985-2007 which is quite a long run. It was a risky production in 1985 for Patek when the Swiss watch industry was moving away from complications and the watch market had taken a downturn. A more in depth and sublime article on all three series of the 3940 and be found here in A Collected Man.

When I think of the Patek Philippe brand, the 3940 is the picture of the one watch, irregardless of complications, that comes to mind. It should be the signature watch from the brand. I know many of you would disagree and argue that it should be the Nautilus but this watch represents much more classical aesthetics and represents a high order complication typical of the Patek Philippe brand.

At only 36 mm diameter and 9 mm thick, one would be very hard pressed to find another perpetual calendar of this size within the Patek Philippe brand let alone any other brand. My favourite 3940 is the first series with either the salmon or gold dial. The first series is differentiated from the subsequent two series by the presence of its recessed subdials. This simple recession or groove accentuates and gives more contrast to the subdials compared to the other two series.

3940j opaline dial first series with recessed subdials and accent grave in Geneve
3940g opaline dial second series without recessed subdials and without accent grave in Geneve

I also much prefer the fonts on all the series compared to modern day fonts. The most classical Patek Philippe metal is yellow gold and the dials which provide the perfect synergy are the salmon or gold dials. I just love the way the yellow gold encases the sapphire crystal and the dial like a painting frame or photograph frame. The very thin ringed bezel reminds me of an old gold painting frame which could frame any masterpiece from Van Ruysdael to Caillebotte. It is the very definition of classical. That gold dial is a softer hue and contrast to the case and together provides just the perfect combination of duotone yellow gold ever assembled on any watch.

The absence of luminous hands and the lack of a second hand are the only inconveniences that I find on this watch but not enough to deter me from chasing one. The first series is much rarer than the other two simply because Patek got it right the first time.

For me this is Patek’s flagship perpetual calendar. It is a pure perpetual calendar with just enough legible information on the dial, the perfect size and thickness and the most perfect tones of yellow gold. There will never be another 3940 and there really shouldn’t be.

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