The story of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak is one of the most magical in watchmaking. On the afternoon before the 1971 Basel watch fair, AP commissioned Gérald Genta, now recognised as the great watch designer of his generation, to pen a steel sports watch. Legend has it that Genta pulled an all-nighter and the following morning presented sketches for an angular watch with an octagonal bezel inspired by diving-suit helmets.
A year later, the Royal Oak was launched, and it blew convention out of the water. Not only did it have a bold, oversized case design, it was also the most expensive steel watch ever brought to market. History records it took four years to sell the first 1,000 watches, but nearly half a century later, it’s become one of the most coveted designs in luxury watchmaking.
But for all its successes, the Royal Oak creates a problem for AP, namely that it pushes everything else the company makes into the shadows. The Millenary and Jules Audemars collections barely get a look in. Which if you’re AP and you’re hugely ambitious (few brands make it so clear) just won’t do, because you want growth. And fast. The company’s bullish chief executive François-Henry Bennahmias recently claimed his annual turnover has now smashed through the CHF 1bn barrier following seven years of successive growth, which would put AP in the top half dozen Swiss watch companies by size if true. Not bad for a company that only makes one watch…
Enter then Code 11.59, the curiously named new AP collection, launched at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie a couple of weeks ago. It’s all-new. And, like the Royal Oak, it takes a bit of getting used to.
It has, for example, a round case with an octagonal middle section. Why? The lugs, which are hollowed out – or skeletonised – are bonded to the bezel, but not to the case back. Why? The sapphire crystal is double curved so the dial detail, which includes a gold logo created using a galvanic growth process akin to 3D printing, gets a good showing. Again, why? The brand says it’s all about pushing boundaries, doing something unexpected.
Even if it seems excessive, the spec is undeniably impressive. And so too is the suite of calibres powering the 13 references. There are six calibres in total, three of them new. The four complications include a new integrated column-wheel flyback chronograph, and a minute repeater that features AP’s ‘Supersonnerie’, or extra-loud chiming technology (while not actually offering the functions of a sonnerie).
No two ways about it, the reception since launch has been mixed – and in places vocal. Some critics have dismissed it as incoherent, over-evolved and expensive – at the moment, it’s only available in gold, so prices are indeed at the most northerly end of reasonable. Others have looked on it more favourably because of the inventive spirit behind the design and execution, reckoning that its non-conformity is entirely in keeping with the brand’s heritage.
Some have suggested it’s Mr Bennahmias’s legacy bid, and certainly there seems some logic in the call. Mr Bennahmias is one of the industry’s showmen and revels in the limelight. The fact Code 11.59 has stirred up such a range of strong emotions will please him – as Oscar Wilde said, there’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about at all.
History will pass its own judgement, or at least, till receipts will. But whether it can ever level with the Royal Oak or not, for now it’s injected some zest into the luxury watch conversation. And that’s never a bad thing.