When we hear the name Ellipse we immediately think of the deep blue eyes of Patek Philippe's iconoclastic collection. However, this will not only be about the watch itself but rather its backstory. And I want to address a few common misconceptions about the Ellipse. There's actually a lot more to the history than 55 years from Patek Philippe. Find out what roles Audemars Piguet, Cartier and the mysterious Mr. Rubli played in all of this.
August 16, 2023
The Ellipse - Tracing the Origin of Patek Philippe's Design
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
When we hear the name Ellipse we immediately think of the deep blue eyes of Patek Philippe's iconoclastic collection. It is an astonishing collection with a rich 55 year history and a timepiece we're proud to have listed ourselves several times. However, this will not be about the watch itself but rather its backstory. There's actually more to the history than 55 years. And I want to address a few common misconceptions and confusions about the Ellipse:
"The Ellipse was designed by Gerald Genta for Patek Philippe"
Even though we can find several resources connecting these three pieces of information* - design, designer and manufacturer - this sentence is actually not correct. And not just as in "it's not 100% precise because of attribution etc."... it's not correct as in "there's really nothing to this statement".
Arguably the best overview over the 55 year history of the Patek Philippe Ellipse. Summary slide Courtesy of Tom Mulraney & Monochrome Watches.
1) The man behind the design
Blasphemous you might think but we actually got insights from The designer of the 20th Century himself. Gerald Genta answered about the origin of the Ellipse ref. 3548 (the first, introduced in 1968) in an interview from December 2009.
"[Patek Philippe] made the Ellipse with Rub[e]li"
Felix did a great introduction into the history of Patek Philippe's 1968 flagship a while ago... and it aged well, so give it a view if you like.
In other words we got the first point out of the way quickly - it's not a Genta but a Jean-Daniel Rubeli** design[3,7]. Mr. Rubeli was the Chef de Creation (Head of the R&D department) at Patek Philippe at the time and conceived the Ellipse in 1966. Interestingly, he himself supposedly attributed the design to the likes of Genta:
"Had Mr. Genta not existed, I would never have conceived of the idea for the creation of the Ellipse"
In other words it's not extremely off to relate Genta to the Ellipse. Particularly since Patek Philippe rarely shares information about individuals who worked on designs. It's an honest mistake but a mistake nonetheless. So let's move on to the Patek Philippe part of the story.
2) The manufacturer of the first Ellipse
The further interesting tidbit of information is that Mr. Rubeli was not only the designer for the Ellipse but also drew it for ... drum roll ... Audemars Piguet! Again this piece of information comes from Mr. Genta himself:
"It is true that watches similar to the Ellipse had first been designed by Rub[e]li himself for Audemars Piguet"
Don't get me wrong - Patek Philippe's Ellipse (ref. 3548 in particular) has been an original and independent design! The way the deep Ellipse blue was applied to the dial was a groundbreaking innovation[3-4]. Nevertheless, the design wasn't conceived in a vacuum and has been the result of an evolution of oval watch shapes.
Since Mr. Rubeli has been working for Audemars Piguet too let's have at first a deeper dive into the oval watches ("Ellipse" is really a Patek Philippe connotation) from AP.
An evolution of "Ellipse" Oval Audemars Piguet dress watches from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. Photos Courtesy of Antiquorum, Christie's, Collectability & Goldammer Vintage Archives.
As you can see the shape of these pieces definitely changed throughout the years. The earliest executions from around 1960 can most certainly be called oval and weren't coming as the classic 'rounded rectangular' that is the (Patek Philippe) Ellipse. However, by the end of the 1960s AP models reached the stage of Ellipse-esque design. Those are potentially the pieces that Gerald Genta attributed to Mr. Rubeli's work at AP.
Comparing both 1968 designs we can see how easily one can mistake one for the other. It's only directly next to each other when the differences become apparent. It is the upper vertex that is shorter for the AP version making it appear slightly more egg-shaped in comparison to Patek's execution.
The earliest oval Audemars Piguet watches were indeed extremely oval - the major difference to later Ellipse-esque timepieces is the lack of straight vertices to the outline. Photo Goldammer Vintage Archives.
Later, Audemars Piguet definitely played quite a lot with the blueprint making it their own interpretation of shaped watches. The way AP used the case, bezel, dial and bracelet was a lot more varied then for Patek Philippe. And this makes a lot of sense when we look into the standing the design had for the two brands. Patek Philippe sold "The Golden Ellipse" - a trademark that was heavily marketed (the "1700$ trust fund") and needed it to have model recognition. For AP it was "a" shape that could be used in many ways, an approach which appears to have been very liberating.
In contrast to Patek Philippe - initially Baumgartner (Geneva key #2), later Ateliers Reunis (Geneva key #28) for classic & Favre & Perret (hammerhead #115) for unconventional Ellipse cases - Audemars Piguet also appointed different case makers: So far I could identify Eggly (Geneva key hallmark #23) & Brera (Geneva key hallmark #27).
Audemars Piguet said "let's have fun with these ellipsoids" and there we go... a funky early 1990s dress watch with opaline dial. Photo Courtesy of Justin Dahan @JDwrist.
3) The Last Common Ancestor
Frankly, we're talking shapes here. In the end, it's neither here nor there to pretend that Audemars Piguet or Patek Philippe had a prerogative or even a patent on a case shape. Moreover, the 1960s and 70s generally have been a very experimental era when it comes to imaginative outlines.
Still I feel it's an academically interesting question to go further down this rabbit hole and see whether we can find the "first oval wristwatch". And I'd argue this price goes to Cartier. La Maison launched their Baignoire (french for bathtub) collection 1957 - predating all examples shown here. But did you know that that exact collection was inspired by an unnamed design from 1912? This makes the Cartier design probably the last common ancestor between Patek's and AP's Ellipse models.
Potentially the first oval wristwatch - the Cartier Baignoire. Introduced in 1957 the design followed a blueprint from 1912(!). Photo Courtesy of Phillips NY June 2022. There's also a late 1970s AP design that borrows a lot from the original Baignoire (see for example here).
4) The Conclusion - What's unique to the Patek Philippe Ellipse
Conclusively, there are a few misconceptions regarding Patek Philippe's Ellipse I hope to have lifted here. First, it was designed by Mr. Rubeli, not Mr. Genta. It is a very Genta-esque design but nevertheless didn't arise from his sketch book. Second, Rubeli designed the first Ellipse for Audemars Piguet and not Patek Philippe. And lastly, even AP wasn't the very first as design generally is a long process of inspiration and if we want to trace it back to the very first we might have to go all the way to 1912 Cartier.
Direct comparison between a Patek Philippe and an Audemars Piguet "Ellipse". Very similar yet very different at the same time. Photo Goldammer Vintage Archives.
However, we shall not forget that Patek Philippe's Ellipse was still revolutionary and groundbreaking in several aspects. From the coloring of the dial to the way the collaboration between watch- and case-maker was organized[3-4]. Thus, the historical importance does not lie in the design but in the way it influenced the watchmaking process itself and we need to explicate that more. But if you want to keep just one (potentially new) detail in mind about the Ellipse it's this sentence:
"Mr. Jean-Daniel Rubeli originally designed the Ellipse for Audemars Piguet"
Three fine examples of Audemars Piguet Ellipse watches - a design by Mr. Rubeli. Photo Courtesy of Roni Madhvani.
-- This article truly has been a group effort and I'd like to thank all the people involved! First and foremost Herman @hurmen for pointing me to the Gerald Genta interview, which virtually is the foundation to this story! Also a big thank you goes to gentleman collector Roni Madhvani who lend some of his knowledge as well as a lot of eye-candy to this article; Manuel Knospe from @PlusUltra for additional insights; as well as Justin Dahan @JDwrist for some high-def shots of one of the coolest (AP) Ellipses out there. Thanks so much to all for their knowledge and contribution! --
* We are guilty for spreading this rumor ourselves. We made the same mistake one or the other time in conversations and early drafts of our articles and videos.
** It is actually not entirely clear what role Georges Delessert may have played in the design process - back then the director of Patek Philippe's electronic department.
 Creating Design Rules; Constantin Stikas interviewing Gerald Genta, VeryImportantWatches;
 Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse - Celebrating 50 Years of Golden Style; Tom Mulraney, Monochrome Watches;
 The History of the Golden Ellipse; Tania Edwards, Colletability
 Why the Patek Philippe Ellipse Matters; Felix Scholz, A Collected Man;
 The Modern History of Watch Case Making; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
 The Baignoire De Cartier - Cartier's Criminally Underestimated History; H. VU & Christian Zeron, Theo & Harris;
 Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse - The first 18k blue gold dial; Felix Goldammer, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
 Jean-Daniel Rubeli for Patek Philippe original watch designs; La Cote des Montre;
All Rights on the text and graphics reserved to the Author.