There is a special space reserved for watches – and clocks – which have proven to be timeless. There is no such space currently reserved for the Patek Philippe Naviquartz. It is very much a product of the time it was made, so much so that you may never have even heard of it. The Naviquartz is a nautically themed, quartz-powered clock released by Patek in the 1970s. It was originally designed as a back-up navigational system for ships, but later relegated to dryer environs. As watches became collectible, this clock fell out of favor. At one point, the Naviquartz was a status symbol. It is symbolic now only of a time gone by. But just because we don’t talk about it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.
I have very distinct memories of the Naviquartz. We had one in my childhood home growing up. It sat on a coffee table in my father’s home office, just ticking – and ticking – away. Earlier this year, when we all began working from home, my wife and I spent some time at my parents’ house. I took every HODINKEE meeting in my dad’s office. My colleagues couldn’t see it, but just off-camera, beside my computer, was that loud ticking clock. The sound alone brought a flurry of those childhood memories back. In fact, one of the most sense-triggering aspects of this clock is the sheer volume and forcefulness of its ticking. Some of that sound is muffled by the wooden case in which it sits, but nothing can dampen the sound of the Naviquartz.
My dad was (and still is) proud of his clock. “It’s a Patek Philippe,” he always says – that mere statement, a point of pride. But I get it. The brand itself is one of the true status symbols that we have. My father purchased his Naviquartz sometime in the 1970s for – as he recalls – $ 1,700 (which was no small sum). But why did he buy it? In many ways, I think his story is the story of many Naviquartz owners. This clock, in its day, was a real showpiece. But labeling it as such actually undercuts the technological aspects of its construction, as well as the purpose for which it was originally built.
This is no dainty library relic, but rather a real chronometer. The Naviquartz is a true nautical clock, an almost miniaturized version of the sophisticated electronic clockmaking efforts spearheaded by Patek Philippe in the middle part of the 20th century.
It would be an understatement to call the Naviquartz undervalued. Its worth today is pretty much in line with inflation, so there is a fair amount of stasis in terms of any increase in price. There are three variations of the Naviquartz – aptly named I, II, and III. In this article, I will focus almost entirely on the Naviquartz E 1200 model, which had a production run from the early 1970s to the mid-1980s.
The origin story of this clock is a matter of some debate. The first Naviquartz was announced at the Basel Fair in 1970. The debate centers around the fact that some models have appeared, in the wild, which date back to 1969. According to John Reardon, noted Patek expert and founder of Collectability, some Naviquartz clocks have been sold at auction which date back to as early as 1968. But for all intents and purposes, we can date the clock to roughly 1970, which was when Patek actually began marketing it in earnest.
Though the Naviquartz was released in 1970, it did not spring up out of nowhere. In 1964, at the World’s Fair in Queens, New York, Patek had a large booth completely dedicated to showing off electronic timekeeping. This was the apex of horological technology at the time, and a lot of that technology later manifested inside of the Naviquartz.
Upon its release, and for much of the 1970s, Patek pushed the clock’s nautical slant. The Naviquartz was made to be put on boats – at least that was the original conceit. By the 1980s, the marketing changed course. At that point, Patek began marketing it as a feature for the desktop – which is a polite way of calling it a desk ornament. Now, you might think it a bit strange for a brand such as Patek to have ever produced a large, clunky, nautical-themed clock, with a quartz movement, but looking at the individuals behind the brand – the Stern family, which purchased Patek Philippe in 1932 – it begins to make sense.
Former brand presidents Henri Stern and his son Philippe (who is now Honorary Chairman) were very much into nautical sports, and specifically sailing. Henri Stern had a fervent passion for the nautical angle of the Naviquartz. In fact, he had his very own Naviquartz – a Naviquartz III – presented to him on May 1, 1974, which the brand featured in an advertisement in the 1970s. That very clock is said to still be within the family today (Patek Philippe is currently run by Philippe’s son, Thierry).
In 2017, Christie’s auctioned off a Tiffany-stamped Naviquartz E 1200 which was a gift from Elton John (it is not known if John owned it himself), but that only fetched $ 13,750. It even came with a gold record. HODINKEE Vintage Manager Brandon Frazin worked at Christie’s at the time. “Ultimately, I wasn’t that surprised at the price. I was just happy that it sold,” he says. Now, who knows what the Stern family’s own Naviquartz might do for the market if it ever crosses the block, but it is clear that interest in the clock is not particularly high.
There is a nautical function to the Naviquartz as well. In the 1960s, it was common for large barges to have Patek Philippe timing systems. These were used for navigation and were redundancy systems that kept time throughout the ship. To own a Naviquartz clock was akin to owning a miniaturized version of that technology. The Naviquartz was the culmination of Patek’s quartz clockmaking effort, especially in light of the quartz revolution. It was developed at the same time as the Beta 21 movement, which was the first movement produced by Switzerland’s Centre Electronique Horloger (C.E.H.), a consortium of 20 Swiss watch brands, including Patek Philippe. The Naviquartz was therefore regarded as the bellwether of cutting-edge electronic timekeeping technology upon its release.
This is interesting for a number of reasons. We often read, or hear stories, about the quartz crisis and how it almost destroyed the Swiss mechanical watch industry. In fact, as Reardon notes, Patek was a pioneer in developing quartz technology, pushing the envelope for accuracy. More than that, Patek had a serious business operation with its implementation of quartz clocks (or subsidiary clock systems) on ships and barges.
In its time, the Naviquartz was certainly a desirable thing, but not necessarily an item the brand was selling in volumes. In Reardon’s view, the clock was more a vessel for Patek to place all of its resources – and technology – into the retail market, so that buyers could have a status symbol on their ship or their desk. Despite the name, this never really became a navigation device, but instead a really nice novelty. You get that sense when you look at it – with the ornate wooden box, the gold accents, and the key.
The very first movement utilized in the Naviquartz was the caliber RH29. In 1974, the caliber 33QZ was released, which is the caliber most often seen in the line. This is an in-house movement made of a solid circuit construction. The clock itself was noted by Patek – in its catalog – as an “electronic marine chronometer with quartz time base” featuring a “jumping seconds-hand.” While there is no decoration to speak of on the movement, it is signed Patek Philippe. The clock requires batteries to power the movement; however, the method for putting the batteries into the clock is quite different than most quartz timepieces.
The Naviquartz takes standard D batteries, which fit into a tube, and that tube is screwed into the case of the clock. The tube must then be locked into place. As a result, it functions very much like a screw-down crown. According to Reardon, this clock is capable of being submerged in water. Reardon also notes that while Patek’s marketing never went so far as to specifically state any specific water resistance or depth rating, that is the understood purpose of the screw-in battery chamber. The catalog description for the Naviquartz does, however, list the clock as being “Humidity-Protected.”
While both of the clocks photographed in this article are of the same E 1200 series, circa the 1970s, they could not be more different in terms of aesthetics. On the one hand, you have the more classical looking, Roman numeral dial variant, with ornate script Naviquartz written on the case (sans Patek logo). On the other, you have a more sporty, almost tool-like, black dial with Arabic numerals for both minutes and hours. The typeface is actually reminiscent of some of Patek’s aviation-centric pieces. The typeface on the aluminum exterior is printed, and includes the Patek logo.
The E 1200 series measures in at 169mm wide, 229mm long, 80mm tall, and with a weight of 2.9kg (approximately 6.4 lbs). Like all Naviquartz clocks, it comes inside of a wooden box with a soft red lining. The box can be locked by a small key. When closed, the audible ticking, noted earlier, becomes softer beneath the exhibition glass viewing window. When you remove the clock from its case, there is a kickstand on the underside. This allows you to prop up the clock both outside of the box and within.
When Patek augmented its marketing pitch for the Naviquartz from a navigation device to an office piece, the tagline became, “From Boat, to Office.” I have only ever seen the clock in an office environment, and I think that atmosphere adds to its status symbol effect. In its day, the Naviquartz was a killer addition to any office – its ticking, a simultaneously comforting and foreboding sound, depending on the occasion.
So, why hasn’t the Naviquartz risen in value – apart from the normal accounting for inflation? That I do not know. From my research, and talking with people in the industry, it has little to do with the fact that it boasts a quartz movement. Quartz, alone, doesn’t carry the same negative connotation that it used to. It could be the fact that it is a clock, and that there is not as robust a market for clocks as there is for watches. As Reardon put it, “It is not that it will never happen for the Naviquartz, it is just that it hasn’t happened to it yet.”
Sometimes, it is OK to appreciate a thing for what it is, to have an intellectual interest in something, independent of its monetary value. The Naviquartz is partly a relic and partly the culmination of one of the most technologically exciting times in horological history – and that is definitely something I can get behind. I will always have fond memories of the sound of this clock, and with that I say, tick away Naviquartz.
A special thanks to both Jon Reardon of Collectability and HODINKEE Vintage Manager Brandon Frazin for their contributions, expertise, and assistance on this story.
Photos: Kasia Milton