Behind The Lens: Vintage Patek Philippe Reference 3450J
It’s good to have friends, and it’s even better when they are watch fanatics! Unlike some other collecting-oriented pursuits, ours is a quite social hobby, and I am sure that I’m not alone in yearning for the return of in-person watch lunches and dinners with buddies, even more for the swapping of tales and exchanges of opinions than for the watches shared.
In the meantime, I have ventured out from time to time for brief, top-secret rendezvous in parking lots and on park benches to receive and return the generous loans of friends’ watches to photograph. Recently, I had the chance to shoot a true classic: a second-series Reference 3450J perpetual calendar made by Patek Philippe.
Reference 3450 and the lineage of Patek Philippe perpetual calendars
In chronological terms, Reference 3450 sits about midway between the very first serially produced perpetual calendar wristwatch, Reference 1526, and this year’s newest Patek Philippe perpetual calendar, Reference 5236P with its in-line display of day, date, and month.
Back in the day, Patek Philippe perpetual calendar references were produced for long periods of time and in quite small numbers. Reference 1526, introduced in 1941, wasn’t updated until 1951’s Reference 2497, a larger and thicker piece that also replaced the 1526’s subsidiary seconds indication with a lovely sweeping central hand.
In 1962, Patek Philippe’s Reference 3448 dispensed with the seconds indication altogether but added – for the first time in a serially produced perpetual calendar – an automatic winding feature. The 3448 also introduced the bold, bluntly angular “Padellone” (“frying pan”) case that was retained for the 3450.
It wasn’t until the 1981 introduction of Reference 3450, though, that Patek Philippe added something to its line of perpetual calendars that we’ve pretty much come to take for granted: an indicator for the leap year cycle positioned in a small aperture near 4 o’clock.
In the first edition of the 3450, the leap year was signified by a bright red dot filling the aperture, a feature that I quite like and one that is prized by collectors today. For reasons all its own, in later examples of the reference, including this watch, Patek Philippe replaced the red dot with a subtler Roman numeral IV.
Reference 3450 was also the last of a continuous line of Patek Philippe perpetual calendars to display the day and month in small apertures; starting with 1985’s classic Reference 3940, Patek Philippe began displaying all of the calendar-related information on small subdials at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock.
As an owner of References 1526 and 3940, I see the merits in both the aperture and subdial designs. With the luxury of hindsight, I can also understand that Patek Philippe may have felt that by 1985 it had to some extent exhausted the number of extensions it could make to the original Reference 1526 style, which along with the possibilities presented by the new, thinner Caliber 240 movement led to a step change to the dial displays as well as to the case dimensions and shapes.
The overall design of Reference 3450 is certainly admirable for its longevity when we consider that all of the fundamentals save the leap year aperture were put in place in 1962, and that Reference 3450 was in production through 1985. On a really clean example like this one, the broad, sloped bezel, sharp (but not too sharp) lug edges, vertically brushed outer lug surfaces, and partially recessed crown convey an early 1960s design vocabulary that not only managed to remain relevant at retail for 23 years but still engages collectors today.
The simple case shapes and recessed crown are also clearly evident when we take a look at the back of the watch. In the photo below, the tab at the left of the case back ostensibly allows the owner to remove the back easily. Despite the appearance of those small scratches above the tab, I swear the thought of trying never crossed my mind.
If you look closely, you’ll see that a few strap changes have been done on this watch over the years but that it otherwise looks remarkably clean and original. And as a bonus, careful inspection of the lug at lower right appears to reveal an inscribed shop serial number from Beyer Zürich, although the dial of the watch is not double signed by the retailer.
Once I decided that it was best to leave it to braver souls to get a look at the movement, I turned my attention to the buckle, a straightforward Patek Philippe tang affair.
Shooting Patek Philippe Reference 3450J
The thing for me about shooting a particular watch for the first time is that I’m never quite sure how it’s going to go! There are some predictable challenges: for instance, trying to capture polished silver hands and numerals on a black-dialed watch without having them either vanish into the darkness or blow out. But sometimes the most straightforward-seeming pieces bedevil, and tough-looking ones fall readily to hand.
Happily, the 3450 was quite a solid citizen as a photographic subject. As usual of late, I used the Hasselblad X1D II fitted with the XCD 120 macro lens. Most of the shots you see here are focus stacks rendered from multiple images with slightly different focal points to give sharpness across the frame, but a couple of the straight-on images are from single exposures.
The only significant challenge was keeping the appearance of the dial true to life in varying light conditions. In direct light, it tends to look a bit too bright and silvery, and in more subdued light it falls off to the yellow side. While the images you see here do portray a range of dial color and brightness, to my eye they are within the variation that you’d see with your own eye as the light shifts.
I was able to shoot effectively with both light and dark backgrounds and both eliminate light scatter from the crystal when I chose and incorporate it as seemed to make sense.
On the wrist: Patek Philippe Reference 3450J
I think we’ve all had the experience: a watch looks great in the case or on the display tray but is somehow off when seen on the wrist. Or, conversely, some pieces seem a bit cold until they are strapped on and you’re checking them out as they peek out from under your sleeve.
For me, Reference 3450 tended a bit toward the latter. I’d seen plenty of 3448s and 3450s at auction, and one of my pals, whose taste I respect deeply, has the 3450 as one of his top three objects of desire. And yet with its sober angles and relatively uncluttered dial it had never really called my name.
Once it was on my wrist, though, I got a much clearer sense of what all the fuss is about. At 42 mm in diameter it would be way too imposing, but at 37.5 mm it settles nicely into place and seems completely in proportion. And those long lugs hold the strap out just enough for it to wrap smoothly around your wrist as you contemplate it.
I’m a fan of a bit of clutter on my watch dials, but the relative openness of the 3450’s dial not only seemed just right once I had it on my wrist but seemed completely contemporary and much better suited to today’s casual lifestyles than some of the fussier dress watches I’ve worn. I’m not giving up on my other watches by any means, but wearing this piece reinforced the old dictum that a watch must be seen, and worn, to be assessed fully.
One of my fantasies in watch collecting has been to add an early Patek Philippe Reference 2497 or 2438-1 to my assortment, the references that immediately followed my treasured Reference 1526.
If I somehow swallowed hard and sold the pieces needed to make that happen, the next Patek Philippe perpetual calendar references down the line would be the 3448 and 3450. I hadn’t previously considered that the slippery slope might eventually take me there, but having spent time with this minty 3450 I now have one more thing to muse about.
For now, though, I’ll be content taking my Reference 1526 out of the vault from time to time and advancing the calendar so that I don’t get the leap year cycle out of whack! Let me know your thoughts on these Patek Philippe perpetual calendars from different eras, or other “vertical” families of watches from over the years you’re interested, in regardless of maker, in the comments section.
In the meantime, happy hunting!
Quick Facts Patek Philippe Reference 3450J
Case: 37.5 mm, yellow gold with polished bezels and horizontal lug surfaces and brushed case band, central case back, vertical lug surfaces
Dial: brushed opaline dial with applied yellow gold baton indices and printed date numerals and brand logo; day, month, moon phase, and leap year indications in apertures
Movement: automatic Caliber 27-460 QB stamped with Geneva Seal 19,800 vph/2.75 Hz frequency, 38-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes; perpetual calendar with leap year, moon phase
Production years: 1981 to 1985
Production volume: estimated total production 237 examples across all metals
Recent auction prices: (late 2020 to spring 2021) $225,000 to $285,000
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Nice images Gary.
For me, I think the watch really comes alive on your first wrist shot outside. I particularly like the effect the sunlight peaking through the tree leaves has on the dial and sapphire crystal. Which camera do you use for your outdoor wrist shots? I am suspecting it is not the Hasselblad.
I agree with you that this one comes to life on the wrist — much more than many others I’ve shot.
No wrist shots with the Hasselblad — I usually use my iPhone and search for favorable light as in the shot you mention.
All the best, Gary