Patek Philippe has been making the world’s most elegant, complicated timepieces for almost 200 years. It’s an art they’ve perfected to such a high level that it has left them with very few peers. This is especially true with perpetual calendar chronographs, which the brand invented in 1941 with the reference 1518. The 1518 ushered in a totally new era for Patek Philippe and shaped the coming decades for all of watchmaking. This Patek Philippe 5204P Perpetual Calendar Split Seconds Chronograph carries on that legacy and brings the brand’s perpetual calendar chronograph platform into the modern era.
In 1941 when the world was in the throes of WWI, Patek Philippe changed watchmaking forever by introducing the 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph. This was a big deal for two reasons; this was the first time this particular complication was made, and this was the first mass-produced complicated wristwatch. Before this, complicated watches just weren’t made at scale, and, more often than not, they were custom pieces made on request. The 1518 became the first in a long line of perpetual calendar chronographs that would all go on to become historically significant and desirable timepieces.
An important reference to call out for our purposes is the 5004, which was introduced in 1996. The 5004 is a 36mm perpetual calendar chronograph, but unlike the perpetual calendar chronographs before it the 5004 is a split-seconds chronograph. This model was the first serially produced Patek Philippe with a perpetual calendar split-seconds chronograph complication, and it is the immediate predecessor to the 5204.
The 5204, which we have here, replaced the beloved 5004 in 2012 and became the first in-house perpetual calendar split-seconds chronograph made by Patek Philippe. Introduced at Basel World, the 5204 brought with it a more advanced in-house movement, a significant size increase of 4mm, bringing it to 40mm in diameter, and a cleaner, more straightforward design. With its new in-house movement and modern design, the 5204 advertised where Patek Philippe was headed as a brand. This 5204P platinum variant was discontinued in 2019, but the line continues with rose gold versions being produced today.
Visually this 5204P is a bit of a contradiction. It’s somehow both contemporary and timeless. It reminds me a lot of an Eames Lounge Chair. It’s modern and chic but will undoubtedly still be in style decades from now. It manages to balance this traditional and modern look by combining design elements from different eras.
On the more classic end of the spectrum, you have the art deco inspired polished platinum case with its concave bezel and its tapered, beveled, hand-welded lugs. Additionally, you’ll find railroad-style minutes and seconds tracks along with the white gold leaf hands in the sub-dials and the serif numerals. All of these elements are reminiscent of vintage Patek Philippe timepieces.
What’s more modern is the matte black dial, the sharp and angular white gold dauphine hands for hours and minutes, and the rectangular indices. The dial layout is also extremely simple and intuitive. You have the day and month apertures at twelve, chronograph minutes at three, date and moonphase at six, running seconds at nine, and AM/PM and leap year indicators flanking the date subdial. It’s incredibly balanced and uncluttered and makes an exceptionally complicated timepiece very easy to read is. The 5204P perfectly balances clean and simple with decorative and traditional.
That said, I do have one complaint. On modern, platinum Patek Philippe watches, you’ll find a small Top Wesselton diamond located between the lugs at six o’clock on the case. It’s one of my favorite features on any watch, and I see it as the epitome of what makes Patek and luxury watches special. It’s a fun, discreet detail that just instantly brings a smile to my face. What doesn’t bring a smile to my face is the dimple used to set the perpetual calendar that Patek Philippe placed just above and to the left of the Top Wessleton diamond. It looks random, out of place, and distracts from the diamond. For some, this might be a small detail that doesn’t bother them, but for me, it’s an eyesore that doesn’t belong on a watch of this caliber.
Inside the 5204P is the 29-535 PS Q which was engineered in-house from the ground up. This choice showcased the brand’s intention to continue to move away from using Lemania based movements and to bring all manufacturing elements in-house. While the Lemania based predecessors were tried and true this in-house 29-535 PS Q is a modern masterpiece. It has a Gyromax balance which provides added shock and vibration protection and beats at 28,800 BPH—versus the 18,000 BPH of the 5004. Additionally, Patek updated the octopus wheel isolator system to a swan-neck isolator system which beefed up the split-seconds mechanism making it more durable and easy to service, ensuring longevity.
The 29-535 PS Q is manually wound and has a generous power reserve of 65-hours. It’s an exceptionally complex manually wound chronograph movement, and visually it has all kinds of depth and intrigue. Not to mention its finishing is superb complete with the Patek Philippe Seal, Côtes de Genève embellishment, and black polished screws, all of which are fully visible through the display caseback.
The split-second chronograph is one of the most challenging complications to make in all of watchmaking; add to that the complexity a perpetual calendar complication, and this 5204P is towards the top of the mountain in terms of complex movements. So as you can imagine, there isn’t a plethora of competition in the watch market at this level. Even if a watch brand could make an in-house split-second perpetual calendar, they would then have to go toe to toe with Patek Philippe, which is like volunteering to box with Mike Tyson. As a commercial endeavor, it just doesn’t make much business sense.
Enter watchmaking’s Buster Douglas in the form of the A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar reference 421.032. Like the 5204, the 1815 is an in-house perpetual calendar with a split-seconds chronograph. However, the Lange is slightly bigger, being 41mm in diameter, and this model has a much more vintage aesthetic with a rose gold case and classically styled white dial. The vintage aesthetic does, however, make the watch face a bit more crowded and less legible. Where this watch really shines is in its movement finishing. The in-house caliber L101.1 is absolutely gorgeous with hand-engraved embellishments and that distinctly beautiful German silver glow. The Lange name might not have the same gravitas as Patek Philippe, but it also costs about 100k less for quality that’s on par. That makes this 1815 hard to beat in this scenario.
This watch is ideally suited for a Patek Philippe history buff. A collector who loves and appreciates what the perpetual calendar chronograph means to the brand and one who likely has the earlier references in this category. This timepiece is very much a piece of horological art that should be thoughtfully slotted into a curated collection, or if you’re Jeff Bezos, it would make one hell of a daily wearer.
This Patek Philippe 5204P perfectly embodies the brand’s ethos. It’s not about commercial viability, popularity, price, or cost. It’s about making exceptional watches that push the art form forward, and this 5204P is exactly that.