Watch collecting—all collecting, for that matter–is all about finding pieces that have something special about them. Watch collectors want something uncommon, whether it’s a design trait, provenance, or historical merit. What’s even more desirable for a collector is a special example of an already beloved timepiece, and that’s exactly what we have here. These are two first series Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar 3940‘s. This is the very first iteration of one of Patek Philippe’s most legendary complicated timepieces. Its elegant design with its prominently sunken sub-dials that can only be found on these first series examples allows an extremely complicated timepiece to look very uncomplicated and beautiful. This reference has garnered a lot of favor among some of the watch world’s most influential thought leaders, and here we’ll take a closer look at why those in the know love it so much.
The Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar 3940 was introduced when many watch brands were trying to mix things up to survive in a post-quartz world. However, Patek didn’t mix anything up. In 1985 they used the 3940 to double down and further illustrate why they were considered one of the world’s best complicated watch manufacturers. The watch showcased that the art of watchmaking was about craftsmanship, design, and ingenuity, not just telling the time.
When it was introduced, the model was only available in yellow gold, though it would later be released in other precious metals through its prolific 30-year plus production run from 1986 to 2007. It was also reintroduced in a limited batch in 2015. Because of how it helped the brand during trying times and because it serves as a reminder of what Patek Philippe is all about, the watch is beloved by the brand and fans of it. Famous collectors like Ben Clymer of Hodinkee and John Reardon of Collectability are on record, stating this is one of their favorite references from the brand, and former Patek Philippe CEO Philippe Stern has been photographed on many occasions wearing the 3940. These are stamps of approval any watch would be jealous of. What’s more, this specific 3940 is especially desirable because it is a first series reference and was produced in the model’s first year of existence.
First, we should discuss what hallmarks on this watch are exclusive to first series examples. The most obvious difference between these and all the 3940s that came after are the stepped subdials. They’re very prominent and add a lot of depth and visual interest, as well as separate the text for day and month from the day/night and leap year indicators. This makes the dial easier to read, but lore has it they also made the dial harder to produce, which is why Patek Philippe changed the design. Other details that are trademarks of the first series are the smaller brand text at twelve o’clock and the grave accent above the second E in Genève. First series 3940’s also only had closed case backs, while the subsequent series had the option of a display caseback.
Zooming out a little from the exclusive first series details, you’ll find one of the best design traits this watch has is its simplicity. Perpetual Calendars are extremely complicated, and because of that, they’re often hard to read and understand, especially for someone who’s new to watches. The 3940, however, is extremely intuitive. First, the hierarchy of information is implemented perfectly. Despite all the subdials and text, the display of the time is boldly at the forefront, with the sunken sub-dials appropriately playing second fiddle. At three o’clock, you have the month and leap year indicator. At six, the date and moonphase, and at nine, you’ll find the day of the week as well as the 24-hour indicator. All laid out neat and legible on a 36 mm dial.
In order to achieve this clean-looking layout, Patek does a bit of design trickery. They’ve chosen to display only every other value on the month and date sub-dials using a dot to indicate the missing text. In doing so, they kept a visual balance across the whole dial. Despite there being twelve months and seven days, both sub-dials are symmetrical in size and shape, and the date dial isn’t overly cluttered with all 31 numerals. Patek also used varying sizes of hour indices to help distribute the visual weight. Any of these details in isolation may be odd, but together, they make for a very cohesive watch.
On top of that, the timepiece is effortlessly wearable at 36mm in diameter by just 8mm thick. Its simple gold case has an interesting concave bezel which draws attention toward the dial and gives the case a distinct but not complicated aesthetic. Additionally, you’ll find dimples at six and nine o’clock for adjusting the perpetual calendar and hallmarks that are only found on first and second series examples.
Powering this Patek Philippe 3940 is the famous caliber 240Q. This automatic micro-rotor perpetual calendar movement was introduced in the 3940 but has since been used in over a dozen other Patek Philippe models, and despite its age, it is still in production today—though it has received some updates. The petite movement has a 48-hour power reserve, 275 parts, 27 jewels, and powers a date, leap year, month, perpetual calendar, day/night indicator, moonphase complication, and of course, hours, minutes, and seconds. This early version is stamped with the Geneva seal of quality, meaning that despite your inability to see it, the movement is finished to an extremely high standard. This is a movement that has proven its worth over dozens of watch models and decades of service and will likely go down as one of the best the brand has ever produced.
Versus The Competition
While these first examples are very rare and collectible, there are some other watches you should check out if you’re in the market for an elegant and prestigious perpetual calendar. This yellow gold Vacheron Constantin Perpetual Calendar reference 43031—a reference that was launched just one year before the 3940–isn’t talked about as much and presents a relatively good value in comparison. A model like this is valued at roughly $30,000, which is a cool $52,000 less than the 3940. Its vintage proportions of 35.2mm in diameter by 8mm are just as elegant and wearable as the 3940, and its dial is also very thoughtfully laid out and easy to read. To be honest, it would make a great compliment to the 3940 in a collection, with both being gorgeous vintage perpetual calendars from the holy trinity of watchmaking.
Another watch that I see as sort of a modern kindred spirit to the Patek and VC is this A. Lange and Söhne Langematik Perpetual Calendar reference 310.021. This is a very early model for the brand, and while it too has vintage proportions measuring 38.5mm by 10mm, its design is much more ornamental. It’s not cluttered by any means, but the traditional design touches are intentionally a bit showier. This can make the watch appear more complicated, but it also makes it arguably more interesting to look at. Details like bold applied roman numerals, the trademark big date window, and the classic typeface all give the watch a touch of old-world elegance. This watch is not nearly as shy as the others about being a gold perpetual calendar wristwatch. Like a grandfather clock, part of the appeal of this watch is in the decorative flourish it adds to the environment. At around $60,000, it lands right in the middle of these two watches.
This is a watch for a die-hard Patek Philippe fan who appreciates the brand’s history. The 3940 represents Patek Philippe preserving tradition at all costs, and it illustrates what great watchmaking is all about. No Patek Philippe collection or collector is complete without it.
The 3940 is a timepiece so important and beloved it’s almost mythical. A watch designed to help save the brand, it ended up becoming a favorite among titans in the industry and had a prolific production run that lasted decades. It’s simply one of Patek Philippe’s most meaningful creations, and these rare examples are forever cemented in history as the first examples of a future legend.