In this new series, “Grail Watches”, we will take a break from real life and talk a bit about watches which are all but unattainable for us non-members of the billionaires club but show a level of horological perfection that we can all enjoy and admire it. Consider this the Madison Avenue window ogling of the amateur horologist.
We start the Grail Watches series with an absolute monster of a watch, the Patek Philippe 5204. The 5204 is essentially the big brother of the 5270, itself the definition of a grail watch (and quite possibly the subject of a future post). Patek took their flagship combination of perpetual calendar and chronograph and decided to add in one of the most delicate and difficult to produce complications; a split second mechanism. Patek first did this with the Ref 5004 in 1996. The 5004 was an exceptional watch, but with the 5204 Patek has refined their design and created a masterpiece of modern horology.
The 5204 comes in a 40mm case (up from 36.7mm in the 5004). With a dial layout in line with that of the 5270. 2 windows at 12 show the month and day of the week. Minute counter for the chronograph is at 3 o’clock, date wheel and moonphase is at 6 o’clock and running seconds is at 9. At 5 is a leap year indicator and at 7 is the am/pm indicator (a must for a manually wound perpetual calendar). The upsizing to 40mm is in line with the times and while Patek generally stays traditional it is a welcome improvement for such a complicated watch. As you can see below, the movement was so crammed into the 36.7mm case that the quick set pushers stuck out in a way that wasn’t the most visually appealing in the 5004. The 5204 remedies that problem, giving the case a sleeker look while still being exceedingly wearable.
The addition of the windows at 5 and 7 are something of a love-hate thing. They provide crucial information in a cleaner but less traditional way, which may be a good way to describe most of the dial changes from the 5004 to the 5204. The 5204 has sword hands and stick markers in place of the arabic numerals and leaf markers on the 5004 (note that at this level of watch buying customer often request their own dial configurations, so I am just talking about the most common configurations, not the only ones). The 5204 even has lume on it! Something Patek never seems to do with their grand complications. If I had my way (which is the whole point of this discussion, right?) I would probably bring the leaf hands and arabic numerals back for a more classic look, but I can get used to the windows at 5 and 7. Patek is legendary for taking the perpetual calendar-chronograph combination and making it supremely legible. Even the best from Lange or Vacheron don’t always have that clean feel that Patek pulls off and those windows feel to me like the natural progression for Patek.
Honestly, there isn’t much to be said about the movement that does it any more justice then just admiring it, so take a few seconds and enjoy……okay now to the technical talk. The movement is probably the biggest change from 5004. The 5004 movement was based on a heavily modified Lemania movement, beautiful and impeccably finished, but not technically revolutionary. In the 5204 Patek used their own in-house calibre as a base and then added a newly designed and patented split second mechanism. This is the 8th in-house chronograph in Patek’s history and is absolutely gorgeous and full of new patented tech. The movement is manually wound with a power reserve of 65 hours, long enough to make it though a weekend on the bedside table. Manual winding is the great catch 22 of the Grail watches from Patek. On the one hand it is traditional and gives you a much better look at the stunning movement, but if you own this watch its safe to say you own a number of other watches and won’t be wearing this watch every day. You also likely travel for work and won’t be able to keep this watch wound consistently. While the quick set pushers make setting the watch easier, it is always a pain to set a full calendar, especially if you are well removed from today’s date. Still it is part of the experience of owning a watch with this much history attached (and frankly if you have the money for this watch you can probably pay someone to look after your watches when you aren’t around)
Why is this a grail watch?
Honestly this section is probably unnecessary for the 5204, it may be the most obvious grail this post series ever sees, but I’ll go through it anyways. To many, myself included, the Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronograph series is the pinnacle of watch collecting. The 5204 just puts some split second icing on that cake. At 40mm it is supremely wearable and exceptionally legible for such a complicated watch. At this price point you usually see the Gruebel Forseys of the world with extravagent cases and features, but the 5204 maintains the quiet poise and presence Patek is so known for. This is genuinely a grail watch you could wear and enjoy every day and few people would take notice. Those who did, though, likely wouldn’t stop gawking. It costs $340K, production is less than 50 a year, and there is probably a waitlist. It is without a doubt a grail watch.