In 1932 Patek Philippe released the very simple, unadorned Calatrava wrist watch. Until the early 21st century, the word Calatrava only referred to that specific model from that specific brand. Today, however, you will find that journalists, chatty enthusiasts and especially vintage watch dealers use Calatrava to indicate almost any time-only or time-and-date dress watch from any brand, and the style of the watch can vary immensely. This sloppy usage of Calatrava confuses collectors at all levels.
I can’t alleviate the sloppy usage, but below I explain how and why Calatrava became dislodged from Patek’s simple wrist watch to become the vague horological genre it is today.
Genericization & Genre Formation
If I say to a fellow American, “pass me a kleenex,” they know I mean a tissue. Kleenex, a brand that makes tissues, became so popular that we Americans have converted Kleenex from proper to common noun. This linguistic phenomenon is called genericization.
genericization – (n) 1. the process of becoming generic 2. with respect to a trademark, the act or process of becoming so widely identified as a reference for a type of product as to cease representing a particular brand or manufacturer of that type of product
The term Calatrava has in the past decade become genericized and now defines a type of watch. We might also say that the Calatrava has become a genre.
genre – (n) a category of artistic composition characterized by similarities in form and style
This dislodging of the term Calatrava from the specific Patek watch has taken nearly a century. That history involves nearly all brands imitating Patek’s hit watch, Patek attaching the Calatrava name to an ever-widening array of watches, and, finally, today’s vintage dealers using the famous term to drive traffic to their ads for all kinds of dress watches.
A Knight’s Cross Becomes Patek’s Totally Unoriginal Logo
Originally, Calatrava was the name of a fancy cross used on flags of the Calatrava knights who held forth at the Calatrava fortress (now in modern Spain) against invading Moors back in the middle of the 12th century. Patek Philippe adopted the Calatrava cross as its logo in 1887, no doubt in imitation of their main competitor, Vacheron Constantin, which in 1877, eleven years prior, had adopted the Maltese cross as its logo. Patek Philippe’s lack of originality here is striking, if not surprising.
Patek Philippe’s First Big Hit
What Patek Philippe did do quite originally was create a watch ready for the changing tastes and declining wealth of the Great Depression (1928-WWII). The watch was rendered in Bauhaus simplicity, stripped of embellishments of the Belle Epoch, mechanically uncomplicated, and relatively inexpensive to produce. For Patek Philippe, a brand that had spent about fifty years making highly complicated pocket watches for immensely wealthy royals and industrialists, this new wrist watch was a great departure. To secure its position as a Patek Philippe to be taken seriously, the brand smartly named this diminutive simpleton The Calatrava. It’s reference number was 96.
The now famous Calatrava Reference 96 was a smash hit. The Calatrava was the Patek Philippe for the professional class, the academic earning tenure, the banker becoming manager, the dandy inheriting Aunt Tildy’s nest egg, or any man who wanted to assert himself tastefully and with respect to emerging democratic norms taking hold internationally. The Calatrava saved Patek Philippe from insolvency during The Great Depression.
From the very early days, imitators of Patek Philippe’s Calatrava 96 abounded, including Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Rolex, Omega, Longines, and eventually pretty much every watch brand was making a watch in the style of the Calatrava. But what was that style, exactly?
Features Of Early Calatravas
Sticking with Patek Philippe for a moment, let’s look at what made up the Calatrava 96.
THE CASE – Other than the rectangular Cartier Tank of 1919, the Patek Philippe Calatrava 96 was the first round wrist watch to have a completely smooth transition from the case to the lugs. this remains a defining feature of a Calatrava watch from any brand, and generally speaking the lugs will slope down at the ends to hug the wrist. Cases were typically in yellow gold, but pink and white gold weren’t entirely uncommon. Platinum and, later, stainless steel models were more rare.
THE DIAL – Silvered dials typically carried baton markers with seconds on an handsomely unadorned sub-dial, usually marked only with thin printed black markings. Variations, of course, began to arise: 12 up top was popular, slanted applied Breguet numerals were a nice variation, and some military-focused variations carried larger Arabic numerals. Eventually central seconds variations emerged, and by the 1960s a date aperture was fairly common.
STRAPS – A Calatrava is almost always worn on a strap, and though some bracelets are attached to watches with the Calatrava case shape, it is generally accepted that bracelets are not a defining feature of a Calatrava.
And that’s about it. Calatrava ref. 96s were simple, unadorned wrist watches.
The Calatrava & Military Watches
The Calatrava style quickly found its way into field and military watches, and this often causes some confusion among collectors. Patek did produce Calatravas for various military units, and the case shape and dial layouts eventually came to be part of various military specifications for wrist watches. This makes sense because the Calatrava’s lugs were securely attached tot he case, because the cases were relatively unfussy to produce, and because the dials were, with the right markings, highly legible.
Today the line between a Calatrava and a field or pilots watch is often blurry, and that goes for new and vintage models.
My own Vacheron Constantin “Calatrava” from the 1950s is a great example of how confusing this can all be. This is a time-only watch with a center-seconds hand, a yellow gold case with lugs very much like those on the original Patek 96 models, applied gold markers and numerals and a seconds/minutes track that’s very much like a field watch. The seller used the word Calatrava in the listing to drive traffic to their listing.
Today Patek Philippe will use Calatrava to indicate very large modern pilots watches, such as the Calatrava Pilot Travel Time pictured below, a 42mm monster with a very cool complication. This watch created a stir when it dropped in 2016, with many fans of Patek Philippe rolling their eyes, others expressing outrage. To my eye, the Pilot Travel Time resembles not what I believe to be a Calatrava, but there are watches much further afield that carry the Calatrava name in the Patek catalog today.
The Chaos of Modern Patek Calatravas
When I look at many of Patek Philippe’s modern Calatrava models, I get a little upset. Patek has taken what I consider a masterpiece of 20th century restraint and dolled it up like a high-priced hooker to work the streets of boutique districts around the world. Nothing could be further from the ethos expressed in the Bauhaus egalitarianist manifestos that informed the original Calatrava.
My annoyance aside, Patek’s attempts to capture the attention of those for whom a simple and elegant dress watch carries insufficient bling has only helped push the term Calatrava further toward genericization. The blinging and elaborating here makes the term Calatrava all the more confusing and unclear.
Not Long Ago, ‘Calatrava’ Meant Just One Thing
The imitators of the original Calatrava (IWC, Vacheron Constantin, Omega, Audimars Piguet, Oris, Jaeger Le Coulte, Heuer, Bulova, Timex, Waltham, Hamilton, etc.) kept pace and proliferated through the 20th century, but no one called their imitations Calatravas. I do remember hearing Calatrava-style now and again, but mostly we just called these dress watches or time-only dress watches. Up until the more recent watch craze and the rise of social media, a Calatrava was a Patek Philippe.
If I was to characterize how we watch enthusiasts used to think about the genre inspired by the Calatrava, the truth is we didn’t really think about it at all. We understood that the Patek Philippe Calatrava was the original, and we just enjoyed the proliferation of imitations and called them watches or, if we needed to delineate further, dress watches. We hadn’t confused the imitations with the original, and we hadn’t genericized the term Calatrava. Accordingly, we weren’t confused.
The Abuses of ‘Calatrava’ as SEO Optomizer
Let me show you how I can make this article climb the results when you google Calatrava.
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Meaningless as all those calatravas are to us humans, the AI bots find them meaningful. Current search engines are purposefully designed to drive consumer behavior at the expense of informational accuracy. And so people are scratching their heads asking a question that didn’t used to exist: What is a Calatrava?
As someone I forget once said, “Kick a word around long enough and it becomes meaningless.” What a mess. Someone pass me a Kleenex.