ICONS: White Metal, Black Dial, Patek Philippe Chronographs

Black and white has the ability to focus the mind, the stark contrasts of monochrome distilling crucial information in the most succinct fashion possible. It is a key reason why so many watches destined for utilitarian environments are born with black dials set with bright markers and matching hands, to ensure quick and accurate time reading under any condition. Couple this with a hard-wearing stainless steel case and you have the very definition of a tool watch, be it an aviator's chronograph or a diver’s three-hander with rotating bezel.

This life under challenging conditions is part of the reason why so few Patek Philippe watches existed in the black dial, white metal combination prior to the modern era, particularly chronographs. We have a few key examples that were born in this configuration, such as the oversized Calatrava reference 530 produced with black dial and Breguet numerals housed in an acier casing, and a few reference 565 screw back watches, the most famous of which being the so-called “Night Watchman” with luminous accents, that was gifted by Patek Philippe to a member of the security detail. And, of course, we cannot forget the reference 1463 chronograph in a similar arrangement that was made for the famed entrepreneur, inventor and sportsman, Briggs Cunningham.

The undeniable beauty of the format has meant that in recent years, quite a few pieces leaving Plan-les-Ouates have featured the contrasting palette, especially on the complicated end of the range. The first model that would spring to mind for seasoned collectors would be the reference 5170G in white gold with black dial and Breguet numerals, most frequently seen due to its relatively generous production, made possible by its “simple” chronograph calibre. When the watch debuted in 2015, it was met with almost universal praise from the collectors’ community, thanks to its trifecta of highly coveted attributes, but also for presenting them in a wonderful 39.5mm package that contained one of the great, pure chronograph calibres of modern times.

Lot 275: Patek Philippe, Ref. 5970P

A reference that has become something of a grail for many enthusiasts is the reference 5970 perpetual calendar chronograph, and the final variant in platinum introduced in 2008 is the most coveted, not only for its casing in the most noble of metals, but the black dial fitted. Mounted with faceted baton hour markers, white outer tachymetre scale and interior subsidiary dials for the variety of additional calendar and chronograph indicators, the dial feels complete, and the proportions of the 40mm case make the watch eminently wearable for a wide range of wrist sizes. While the previous series reference 3970 perpetual calendar chronograph, which superseded the hallowed reference 2499, had been made available with a black dial, the vast majority featured diamond-set hour markers, and were spread across white gold and platinum, so the 5970P, in many ways, ushered in the white metal, black dial as a standardised configuration.

Lot 276 : Patek Philippe, Ref. 5370P

The situation gets even more interesting as one moves further up the complication scale to the reference 5370P. Representing something of a super 5170G black dial in many ways, the two models were introduced alongside each other in 2015, with the 5370 upping the chronograph factor by adding the rattrapante function and enlarging the case to 41mm. Looking at the details, the true elegance and value of the 5370 shine, from the lustrous enamel dial, to the carefully scalloped case, the luminous hands that lend a degree of practicality, and, of course, the split seconds button atop the crown, the 5370 is a true sleeper watch; it would attract little attention from most, but contains one of the most challenging complications to execute that could only be done by a manufacture as revered as Patek Philippe.

It is fitting to draw a line under this rundown of contemporary monochromatic Patek Philippe watches with a focus on chronographs by discussing the reference 5204P, that takes so much of what makes the 5370P great, and combines it with the perpetual calendar complication. With its more traditional step legs and marginally more compact diameter, although slightly thicker due to the calendar functions, the reference 5204 is easy to overlook in the Patek Philippe range, particularly when they are so rarely seen in the wild, but it has be considered among the greatest watches from the company’s recent catalogue.

Underneath it all, what makes the combination so satisfying on the wrist for those lucky enough to enjoy it? Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of what many to consider to be the greatest of manufacturers in the echelons of haute horology, replete with all the fine finishing and attention to detail that one would expect, using a configuration that is most commonly seen on a utilitarian models from less prestigious brands that are destined for a far less pampered life.

There is also the stealth factor when wearing these references; platinum and white gold can easily pass for stainless steel to the unsuspecting admirer, and the black dial ensures that it only draws the eyes of those who are really looking for it, and, of course, the legibility factor that we opened this discussion with, as well as the overall aesthetic merits of the combination. Whatever the justification, it is hard to deny the beauty of these watches, and the pleasure that their owners derive from them.