May 5, 2020
by Ariel Adams
A trait that many timepiece collectors enjoy about Patek Philippe’s “Grand Complications” is that they don’t always immediately appear so… well, grand. Strap on the Patek Philippe Alarm Travel Time 5520P (aBlogtoWatch debut here), and you’ll have a busy but subdued and highly practical travel watch with an alarm complication. Little will most people (who aren’t timepiece enthusiasts) know that the watch on your wrist has a retail price that is a stone’s throw from a quarter-million dollars. That’s Patek, and that’s how stately conservatism does so well for the storied Swiss watchmaker. In the luxury watch world, the term for that is “stealth wealth.”
It was Baselworld 2019 when Patek Philippe introduced its first Alarm Travel Time 5520 watch as the reference 5520P-001 in platinum with a matte-black dial. So far, this is the only version, but I anticipate gold versions coming next within three to four years. This “pilot-style” watch from Patek Philippe began life as the 5524 Calatrava Pilot Travel Time (hands-on here), and it was actually quite controversial when it came out because some Patek Philippe collectors felt the design was a bit too casual or sporty. That didn’t stop the 5524 from being a major success. The 5520 formally drops the “Pilot” part of the name, but the DNA of the collection no doubt continues. More so, the 5520 actually builds on the 5524 by offering everything the Pilot Travel Time offered but now with the addition of another complication — an alarm.
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Not just any alarm, but a musical hammer-and-gong-style chiming alarm, as opposed to the vibrating, buzzing alarm sound of most mechanical alarm watches out there. I am not sure if Patek Philippe is the first company to use a chiming mechanism for an alarm complication, but it is among the very few contemporary watchmakers to do so. Patek Philippe deserves enormous credit for taking what is a very complicated set of functions and arranging them into something both simple and pleasurable to use. I credit the 5520 Alarm Travel time as one of the most ergonomic and logical grand complications I’ve ever seen. More so, the alarm complication is one that owners will actually want to use for utility purposes — as opposed to most chiming or minute repeater watches that are used to impress friends and fellow enthusiasts.
To add the alarm complication, Patek Philippe made space on the upper part of the watch dial and added just one crown to the case. Compared to the 5524 the 5520’s case and dial look a bit more visually balanced, to be honest. Part of the in-house Patek Philippe caliber AL 30-660 S C FUS automatic movement, the alarm is incredibly straightforward and a pleasure to operate. To set the alarm, you use the digital windows under 12 o’clock where the alarm time can be set in five-minute increments. A small circular window below the two digital hour and minute windows is used to indicate if the alarm time is for AM or PM. This window joins the other two similar windows that indicate whether the local or home time is AM or PM. This is probably the only watch I can think of with three distinct AM/PM indicators on the dial. A small window shaped liked a bell above the two windows to set the alarm time lets you know if the alarm function is set on or off. See how simple and genius that is?
The 5520P’s other complications include two 12-hour-format time zones and a dial for the date. Even though the overall presentation of the dial is elegant and as simple as can be, there is a lot going on under the hood, and I agree with Patek Philippe that the 5520P Alarm Travel Time is a legitimate grand complication. It just happens to be one that you can wear on a daily basis. The automatic movement is visible through the caseback window and is typically beautiful for Patek Philippe in both design and decoration. The entire movement has 574 parts, operates at 4 Hz, has 52 hours of power reserve, and includes the typical spectrum of high-performance proprietary Patek Philippe componentry.
For me, the genius incumbent in the Alarm Travel Time is that Patek Philippe was finally able to make one of the most useful mechanical wristwatch complications actually luxurious. This is really a fact I cannot stress enough. Alarm complications (assuming they are straightforward in operation) are imminently useful in a world where people are constantly late to things and when reminders are more than useful. Yes, your phone can do all of that, but something about the alarm being on your wrist makes it convenient (if not more fun). So even if it is just a reminder to go put more money in a parking meter, a mechanical watch’s alarm can be extremely useful in today’s world. That is not what I would say about many other high-end mechanical watch complications, such a moon phase indicator or equation of time.
With all that said about alarms, the sound most of them make is… well, sort of ugly. Mechanical alarms were useful in the past because a) other alarm clocks were not available and b) because the sound was supposed to be loud enough to wake you up if you are sleeping. The vibration/buzzing alarm sound of most other mechanical alarm watches satisfies those purposes, but today, luxury watch buyers are seeking beauty and refinement above all else. Ugly and useful? Pass. Pretty and useless? Maybe not pass. Pretty and useful? Now you’re talking.
I’ll be frank that, given the exclusivity and high price point of the Patek Philippe 5520P-001 Alarm Travel Time, there will only be a small number of collectors that will ever get to enjoy wearing one of these on a regular basis. Imagine hearing a pleasant set of chimes and then saying to your guest, “Well, our meeting time is now up!” That’s classy.
Patek Philippe was further smart to combine a two-time-zone travel watch with an alarm, as those complications are often used together. Luxury watch buyers are often very frequent travelers and busy people. So, having a watch that allows you to easily switch the local time zone (while keeping track of time back home), and one that allows you to set chiming reminder alarms for yourself, will have immediate appeal to a large number of traditional luxury watch aficionados.
On the wrist, the Patek Philippe 5520P Alarm Travel Time is very wearable but a bit larger than your average Patek Philippe wristwatch, being 42.2mm-wide, though just 11.6mm-thick. The case is in solid 950 platinum, and despite the impressively loud sound coming from the chimes (as you can see in the casual video I took above), the watch boasts 30 meters of water resistance. Let me repeat again that the volume of the alarm chimes is loud enough to be useful and heard. A lot of timepiece collectors experienced with minute repeater watches (that also chime with gongs and hammers) have probably learned that sound quality and volume on such watches are not all created equally. So, it is impressive to see how loud the Alarm Travel Time is — even if the case material is platinum (which is a softer metal known to absorb sound). A key to this fact is that the gongs are attached directly to the case, as opposed to merely inside the case. This makes the case actually part of the overall audio reverberation system.
Useful and elegant, the Patek Philippe 5520P Alarm Travel Time is nevertheless a “pretty” watch. It is a handsome, actually masculine, tool, but it isn’t going to pass muster as a traditional dress watch. Patek Philippe has other products for that. If you have wildly deep pockets, but not crazy deep pockets to get you something like a Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime, the 5520P Alarm Travel Time is an excellent way to go. I far prefer it over the Grandmaster Chime and other Patek Philippe Grand Complications such as a chronograph perpetual calendar. Why? Because this is a timepiece that I can actually see myself using on a regular basis. You can’t really claim that with most such complicated timepieces at this price range. Price for the reference 5520P-001 Patek Philippe Alarm Travel Time in platinum is $226,810 USD. Learn more at the Patek Philippe website here.