Blending Heritage and Future

The Patek Philippe 3940

Some matches in the world are so established that it seems they’re just meant to be. Take, for instance, Ferrari and the color red; or, since we’re talking watches, Patek Philippe and the perpetual calendar. Universally considered amongst the most challenging complications, the mechanical calendar capable of accounting for months of different durations and even leap years is indeed one of the Maison’s specialties. But what is Patek’s most significant perpetual calendar watch?

(…spoiler alert)

Some might say it’s the 97975, a watch created in 1925 by re-casing an unsold perpetual calendar pocket watch, that’s universally accounted as the world’s first perpetual wristwatch. Some others, instead, might side with the reference 1526: launched fifteen years later, in 1940, it was the first serially-produced perpetual calendar wristwatch. Either opinion is absolutely valid, as both watches are momentous milestones in the books of horology. Today, however, we want to offer you a different point of view on the matter, fast-forwarding all the way to 1985 to meet a man about to leave his mark in those same books.

The third generation of the Stern family, Philippe Stern was appointed president of Patek Philippe in 1977. To say he took the helm of the Maison in turbulent times would be an understatement: the industry was still trudging for the quartz crisis, and brands – even historic ones – were disappearing by the day. Even giants like Patek weren’t safe, and their long-standing tradition seemed to be at stake. Philippe Stern, however, had a clear vision for the future and had no intention to compromise.

Philippe Stern, president of Patek Philippe from 1977 to 2009. (Credits Europa Star)

Within just a few years after becoming president, he introduced a selection of new references that succeeded in the (very difficult) task of perpetuating the centennial tradition of the brand while launching it into the future. All those models are now universally regarded as classic icons, but one especially stands out for the scope of its innovation: we’re talking of the 3940, the reference that carried on the legacy of Patek Philippe perpetual calendars.

What makes it such a relevant timepiece, you might ask? Well, let’s break it down point after point. First of all, the 3940 was a thoroughly new watch. The case design, dial layout and movement were all novelties for Patek Philippe. Breaking with the previous references 3448 and 3450, the case had rounded shapes and gently curved lugs that seamlessly integrated with the overall design. It came in at a thickness of just 8,5mm. This was made possible by the new caliber 240Q, an automatic movement with an off-centre micro-rotor designed to be slim.

The dial was also something unseen: up until that day, the five perpetual calendars serially-produced by Patek all shared a minimalistic layout with moon phases and date at six o’clock and cutout windows for the day and month at twelve o’ clock. The biggest revolution in almost five decades had been the leap year display, introduced on the 3450 in the form of a tiny aperture at four o’clock. The 3940 came instead with a more populated – yet flawlessly balanced – dial: the day and month were no longer displayed through windows, but in round subdials placed at nine and three o’clock respectively. The left subdial also featured a 24 hour indication, while the right one integrated the leap year display.

The reference was officially made available to the public in 1985; incidentally, the year also marked the 225th anniversary of Beyer, Patek’s longest-standing retailer as well as the oldest jeweler still active today. Being a close and loyal friend of Theodore Beyer, Philippe Stern chose to release a pre-series of twenty-five individually numbered watches, sold exclusively through Beyer and bearing a dedicated engraving on the caseback. These watches have consecutive movement numbers ranging from 770.001 to 770.025; examples 1 to 15 have a German dial, while the remaining ten are in English.

After the Beyer limited edition, came the official first series of the reference. Watches belonging to it are easily identified by the dial: the counters at three and nine o’clock are recessed with a sharp step. Dials are usually silvered, but some pieces are known to exist with a “doré” dial identical to the Beyer ones – except, of course, for the individual numbers. Produced for three years only, from 1985 to 1987, the first series is by far the rarest: production figures range between 1200 and 1300 pieces, with pieces known in yellow and white gold and in platinum – albeit the “J” accounts for all pieces but two.

Next up was, naturally, the second series. Spanning from 1987 to 1995, it’s when the look of the 3940 becomes the one we’re most acquainted to see. The major difference lays in the subdials at three and nine o’clock, which are still recessed, but drop the sharp step in favour of a smoother slope. Total production of the series is around 3500 units, again all precious metals except pink gold.

A 2nd series 3940 in yellow gold with english dial, sod at Christie’s.

The third and final series of the 3940 shows little variation from the previous version; the major difference, and the most easily noticed, is the introduction of pink gold as a case material – so if you see a 3940R, you can confidently say it’s a third series. This third version was produced from 1995 to 2007, bringing regular production of the 3940 to an end after about 2200 units made (for a grand total of 6900 to 7000 pieces across all three series).

The final act of the Patek Philippe 3940 was not, however, the third series we just mentioned: in a somehow poetical fashion, the reference that came to be with a special edition was also saluted with a limited run, assembled in 2014 with deadstock cases and new dials on the occasion of the Saatchi exhibition in London. Once again, the materials were yellow gold, with a brown dial, white gold, matched to a pink/salmon face, and platinum with a blue dial. Pink gold was not available.

The historical relevance of this reference can not be understated: together with the Perpetual Calendar Chronograph 3970 – also introduced in 1985 – the 3940 is credited as one of the main reasons behind Patek Philippe’s renaissance; its groundbreaking layout and case design stand the test of time so well that, after almost four decades, they still appear in catalog in the form of reference 5327 – the “third generation” of the design, that replaced the 5140. And Philippe Stern himself, the visionary who single-handedly relived Patek Philippe and projected it into contemporaneity, apparently considers the 3940 his best creation – at least, so it seems from his choice of wearing one as his daily watch.

Interestingly, it took quite some time for the market to realise just how special the 3940 is. Prices have been on the rise over the last couple of years, but are still very far, in our opinion, from the real market value of the reference – a value that, again, comes not only from its outstanding intrinsic quality, but also and especially from its tremendous historical significance. It is still the right time to set on the hunt for a 3940. Shall you want to broaden your collection to include one, we are happy to help: the wonderful third-series example pictured in this article is part of our current stock, and you might be its next custodian…

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