In 2015, Patek Philippe stunned the luxury watch community with the unveiling of the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time Ref. 5524. Polarising in its design, it was easily one of the most talked about watches of the Fair. Four years later and the Geneva powerhouse is at it again, pushing the boundaries even further with its latest Grand Complication, the Ref. 5520P Alarm Travel Time. We were fortunate enough to spend some hands-on time with this impressive new timepiece. Here are our initial thoughts.
Editor’s note: to understand more about the complex 5520P, please check the video on top of this article.
If you’re new to the world of luxury watches, you may have missed all the controversy surrounding the introduction of the Ref. 5524 in 2015. In fact, now you might even find it hard to believe there was any controversy at all, as the model has since become a core part of the Calatrava collection. So much so that a second version – the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time Ref. 7234R Lady – debuted last year to rave reviews. Indeed, as Brice wrote in 2018, the Ref. 5524 has gone from misunderstood radical to highly desirable collectable in just three short years. Does that mean the watchmaking world is ready for its even more outrageous sibling, though?
So far, the feedback has been mixed. Everyone seems to agree that technically the Ref. 5520P is exceptional. Aesthetically though, it is proving just as polarising, if not more so, than the original Ref. 5524. The four crowns/pushers, in particular, seem to be a real sticking point, and understandably so. You certainly can’t miss them, and they give the watch a very distinct look, which is truly unlike anything we’ve seen before from Patek Philippe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing mind you, but it may just take some time before collectors truly make their mind up about this model.
Let’s break it down in more detail to see if we can get to grips with this bold new watch.
Unusually, I’m going to start this hands-on review by discussing the movement first. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I believe that understanding the mechanical ingenuity of the Ref. 5520P is key to understanding the watch as a whole. Secondly, the calibre AL 30-660 S C FUS inside is an entirely new movement and was created specifically for this watch.
According to Patek Philippe, around five years ago it tasked its engineers with developing a new alarm mechanism and combining it with the Travel Time concept’s two time zone arrangement. In order to keep the case as thin as possible, the decision was taken to develop an integrated movement, as opposed to putting an alarm module on an existing movement.
The other key factor was ease of operation, a consideration that is not always at the top of mind when developing a new piece of Haute Horlogerie. The idea was to create a Grand Complication that is logical and intuitive to use and almost impossible to damage via inadvertent user interference (i.e. overzealous owners trying to activate pushers when they shouldn’t).
The result is the self-winding calibre AL 30-660 S C FUS, comprised of 574 parts, including Patek’s patented Gyromax balance equipped with a Spiromax balance spring made of Silinvar. The company doesn’t specifically disclose how many of those components make up the new 24-hour alarm mechanism. We do know however that its development has resulted in four patent applications. These include:
- an anti-backlash mechanism for programming the alarm time, which offsets mechanical play making it possible to set the alarm strike with one-minute accuracy to the next quarter hour. For instance, at 12:14, the alarm can be set to 12:15;
- the alarm logic functions;
- the digital alarm display; and
- the alarm winding deactivation, which deactivates the alarm spring winding device when the alarm display shows ON.
As with the date, the 24-hour alarm is coupled with the local time display, making it convenient for travellers who don’t want to rely on a hotel wake-up call in the morning. When the alarm is triggered, a hammer (visible through the display back) strikes a gong that circles the movement – just like a minute repeater, simplified to a single note. The striking continues for up to 40 seconds at a frequency of 2.5 Hz (2.5 strikes per second), or about 90 strikes in total. A centrifugal governor ensures a regular and sustained striking cadence – again, just like a minute repeater. Power is provided to the alarm mechanism via a separate spring barrel that is tensioned with a crown at 4 o’clock. A built-in clutch prevents inadvertent over-tightening.
The movement has a stop-seconds mechanism that allows the time to be set with one-second accuracy. Adorned with the Patek Philippe Seal, the movement, of course, offers a high level of manual finishing and precision – with a tolerance of -3/+2 seconds per day. Power reserve is between 42 and 52 hours.
The sunburst ebony black dial of Ref. 5520P is very similar to that of the earlier Ref. 5524 in display (not in colour or texture). Local time is still shown centrally by the main cathedral hands, while the home hour hand is skeletonised. The date is still shown via the sub-dial at 6 o’clock and is linked to the local time, and both time-zones have their own day/night indicators (with apertures at 3 and 9 o’clock respectively, which change from white at daytime to blue at night-time). The hours are marked by the same distinctive applied Arabic numerals in 18k white gold with Super-LumiNova coating.
The key change, of course, is the inclusion of the digital alarm display just below 12 o’clock. The 24-hour alarm can be set in 15-minute increments and has its own day/night indicator just underneath the apertures. Above is a small, alarm bell-shaped cut-out, which provides a quick visual indicator of whether the alarm has been set or not; white for ON and black for OFF.
The dial is super clean and easy to read. The only possible flaw is the fact that the placement of the alarm display has meant that the Patek Philippe logo had to be relocated into the sub-dial. The new location is not a big deal, but it does make things look a little crowded down there. The use of slightly smaller font size may have helped with this but obviously, the name on the dial is very important too, so it’s a delicate balancing act.
Adjusting and setting all the functions is done via the crown at 4 o’clock and the three additional pushers. There’s also a corrector for the date between 6 and 7 o’clock. I’ll talk more about the aesthetics of this setup in a moment but for now, let’s focus on functionality.
Firstly, the crown at 4 o’clock has 3 different positions of operation:
- pushed in – turn clockwise to wind the alarm spring, turn counter-clockwise to wind the mainspring;
- pulled halfway out – set the alarm time in either direction in 15-minute increments;
- pulled all the way out – set the time in either direction, with balance stop.
Above that, at 2 o’clock, is the pusher used to activate and deactivate the alarm. The alarm is automatically deactivated once it’s finished chiming but you can cut it short by using this pusher. On the other side of the case are two additional pushers at 8 and 10 o’clock. These allow you to move the local time hour hand forward or backwards in one-hour increments. All three pushers are fitted with Patek’s patented Interlock safety system. This means that before a pusher can be actuated, it must be unlocked with a quarter turn. A quarter turn in the opposite direction locks the pusher again.
Despite its slightly more casual, aviation-inspired appearance, it’s important to remember the Ref. 5520P is a Grand Complication. As such, while you may initially assume the case is steel, it is actually platinum, the most precious of the noble metals and also one of the most difficult to machine. Its dimensions are very similar to that of the Ref. 5524, with a diameter of 42.2 mm and a height of 11.57 mm – a fraction of a millimetre more here and there, that’s about it. That’s particularly impressive when you consider how much more complex the movement inside is.
The case is cold-formed with a high-tonnage press from a blank in platinum, followed by precision machining and elaborate polishing in-house. The bezel and lugs are integrated into the case, with the former being slightly bevelled while the latter are slightly curved for a comfortable fit on the wrist. As with all Patek Philippe platinum watches, there is a diamond set in the case flank at 6 o’clock. Not surprisingly, the case is absolutely gorgeous in the metal. The finishing is superb and the attention to detail impeccable.
It’s also worth noting that this is Patek Philippe’s first chiming timepiece with a water-resistant case. To assure maximum sound quality, the gong for the alarm is attached directly to the caseband instead of the movement. This helps stops the sound waves from being muffled by the water-resistant case. Incidentally, locking or unlocking the pushers doesn’t affect the case’s water-resistance.
There is of course still one (or rather four) elephants in the room that simply can’t be ignored; the three pushers and one crown. At first glance, the design is very confronting, overwhelming even. I don’t really think there’s any other way to describe it. Is it a step too far? It’s tough to say. On the one hand, you could make the argument that this design is more symmetrical and therefore more balanced than the Ref. 5524. On the other hand… Let’s just say this watch has been incredibly polarising for a reason. To be fair it’s not as uncomfortable on the wrist as you might expect. Just don’t expect to be able to subtly slide it away under your shirt cuff.
The Ref. 5520P is worn on a matte black calfskin leather strap, hand-stitched with contrast stitching. Comfortable against the skin, it’s the right choice for what is already a very eye-catching watch.
Overall, I found the Patek Philippe Alarm Travel Time 5520P to be a surprising and intriguing watch. Here is a highly complex grand complication timepiece that is actually surprisingly logical and easy to operate. It’s also refreshing to see something a little more unconventional in terms of the design. I don’t love the four pusher/crown set-up but then again, I’m not the target audience for this type of watch. Price is CHF 200,000 and availability will be, as you can imagine, limited.