The first, the best – Patek Philippe 2526

Few things in the world are absolutely certain, one of which is that there will never be a watch that brings all enthusiasts together: never mind the long hours of discussion or the torrents of talk on forums. However, one thing can be said, and that is that based on objective characteristics, it is possible to identify the timepiece with the highest intrinsic quality, both in terms of workmanship and research. In our opinion, the name is one and only one: Patek Philippe 2526, which represents, first and foremost, the first automatic watch ever produced by the Genevan maison, as well as a real economic drain in terms of production costs.

CC: Phillips

The origin of reference 2526

It was introduced in 1953, some 25 years later than Rolex, which holds the record for the first automatic in history. A delay certainly not caused by a lack of expertise or innovation on the part of the brand, but due to the patent held by Rolex itself and lasting exactly 25 years, at the expiry of which Patek Philippe, right on time, presented the reference 2526 which would leave the catalogue in 1960.

Even before its success among collectors in the late 1980s, Patek Philippe was perfectly aware of the value of its products, and this time more than ever it has lived up to its reputation as the most important maison in history. A sober and austere appearance, in fact, conceals painstaking work on every single component to bring it to the highest possible level of quality, an intent that seen from today’s perspective – almost always marked by stringent cost control – seems to conflict with the logic of profit and end up being an excessive virtuosity.

This is not the case at all. Despite the maniacal attention to detail, the Patek Philippe 2526 is devoid of any frills or unnecessary superstructure, it is a ‘simple’ time-only watch, were it not for the fact that its movement is considered the best executed and finished automatic calibre in history.

An exceptional beating heart

To begin with, let’s call it by its name: this is the in-house cal. 12-600AT, which introduces yet another of the company’s technical cornerstones, namely the new patented Gyromax balance wheel. When observing the movement of a 2526, we are confronted with finishes that are perhaps unusual for an automatic timepiece, even more surprising when one considers that the caseback was closed and therefore this pleasure was reserved only for the watchmaker in charge of servicing.

Wonderfully finished cal. 12-600AT with patented Gyromax balance wheel

This last aspect encapsulates the best definition of what ‘vintage’ means when it comes to a watch: a quality that is present but never ostentatious, hidden even, but of which the owner of the watch is well aware. In short, the apotheosis of the concept, so dear to the English, of ‘who knows, knows’.

A unique dial

The other completely transformed and revised element is the dial, which is also sober and unassuming but, a small detail that should not be overlooked, made of enamel and whose production was entrusted to the skilful Donze Cadraniers manufacture. This enamel required a drying process in order to dry and set on the surface, which involved an actual (double) kiln firing at around 800 degrees. The thermal shock between this temperature and the external environment was the nightmare of any enameller of the time, with nine out of ten dials being broken. An economic drain, as mentioned above.

However, the result of using this technique – which was practically never replicated – is a surface that, when viewed up close, lends an unparalleled elegance and refinement along with the gold signature.

Historical context and production numbers

These production difficulties were not only a cost but also an obstacle to large-scale commercialization, which was the main intention for Patek Philippe to develop its first automatic timepiece. An object reflecting traditional standards of excellence but, at the same time, in tune with the needs and desires of the public. An object that would be as sober a companion as possible, as can be seen from the (apparent) simplicity of the case shape.

With production lasting seven years, an estimated 2,870 pieces have left the Geneva manufacture, of which, however, only about 70 in platinum and 60 in white gold. A relatively high number, almost 3,000 units, if one considers the standards of the time, but which drops dramatically if we consider the specimens that have survived intact, because of the extreme fragility of the dial.

A very interesting insight concerns the original price tag, which, hand in hand with production costs, was bound to be extremely high. In fact, a 2526 with a gold bracelet commanded a staggering 3,400 Swiss francs; to put it in perspective, a 2499 (perpetual calendar with chronograph) would cost just 400 francs more. The platinum with bracelet reached the astronomical sum of 5,500 francs, making it a more than élite object.

The enormous intrinsic quality and rarity of certain configurations, especially those in platinum or white gold, have allowed the Patek Philippe 2526 to become, since the dawn of collecting, one of the great classics that are always in vogue and never disappoint when they appear on the international market. An object that, more than any other, is not affected by sterile fashions and trends but, like so many other watches of the maison, traces its own path that will still give its lucky owners plenty of satisfaction.

written by Lorenzo Rabbiosi

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