It doesn’t take a genius to spot why this Patek Philippe is special. The text may be small, it may be squeezed onto the seconds sub-dial, but it’s there, unobstructed for around thirty seconds of every minute: ‘tourbillon’. In a world of triple-axis tourbillons and even more besides, a plain jane tourbillon may not seem that special, but cast your thoughts back to 2003 when crazy complications were much thinner on the ground—that’s when this 5101P showed up as one of the pioneers of the recent tourbillon obsession.
This was a time when Urwerk’s most outlandish piece was four-fifths plain steel, and a whole year before the tourbillon-wielding master Greubel Forsey even existed. It was also the year of the tourbillon. Of course, the tourbillon already existed in one way or another since its invention by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1801, but for whatever reason 2003 saw an explosion of the things. Among them was the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Platinum Number Two; Piaget’s calibre 600P, what was then the world’s thinnest tourbillon at just 4.5mm thick; and of course Patek Philippe’s 5101P.
The 5101P wasn’t Patek Philippe’s first tourbillon, but it was unusual. Almost all tourbillon watches made by Patek Philippe came packed with complications, whereas the 5101P’s tourbillon was—aside from the impressive ten-day power reserve—alone as a complication within the calibre 28-20/222. And even more bizarre by today’s standards is the solid dial with no window through to the tourbillon itself: the watch has to be turned over to view it through the sapphire caseback. You can almost imagine a fifty-fifty split on votes when the design team were deciding whether or not to evenvthe sapphire caseback.
Movement aside, the 5101P is an odd-looking thing. The tonneau case is curved (although the dial and the movement are not, making the watch quite thick) and has art deco-esque steps on the sides.
To compensate for the reservedness of the hidden tourbillon, a lone diamond twinkles at six o’clock from within its platinum recess, and the copper dial flashes with texture, sending the imagination to the gleam of a not-quite-new penny. Even the hands and numerals, presented in a deep gloss black, seem like a choice made by the wildcard member of the Patek Philippe design team.
Perhaps that’s what the 5101P is: a project from the skunkworks of Patek Philippe, where watchmakers let their hair down and express their inner rebels. With the Swiss being as reserved as they are and Patek Philippe even more so, the quirks of the 5101P could be easily explained as such. And it’s a cool watch. It’s not a pretty watch, but it’s a cool watch. It’s got a feeling of passion about it.
Patek Philippe can come across a little dry and sterile at times, but there’s no worry of that happening here. I wonder if the people involved in making the 5101P ever have pangs of nostalgia mixed with a tightening wistfulness as they—not often, but sometimes—remember the time they made this outlandish benchmark timepiece? They probably do.
[Note: This is an updated post of a Guest Article published earlier on our website by Gary Robery from Watchfinder.co.uk]