The element that to me provided insight into the crazed attention to detail in the design and case construction of Audemars Piguet’s now two-year-old Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet was, innocuously enough, a small screw. Specifically, a high-polished, screw-slotted, hexagonal-shaped threaded device used to retain the attachment for the strap.
This solid bar slips through each side of the strap and is milled — in the words of Peter Speake-Marin, aka the Naked Watchmaker — to resemble “a balance staff”. It fits between the two lugs and is secured with the screws in question. Which, if you think about it, is an incredibly complex way to attach a strap.
Why didn’t Audemars Piguet simply create a circular-slotted screw to fit the hole in their signature open lugs instead of machining a double-stepped and intricately shaped element that goes from hexagon to circular and that is also polished with slavish devotion to perfection? Aha. Good question. Well, it seems, as with everything related to the collection, Audemars Piguet decided not to take the path of least resistance but impelled itself to navigate the road less travelled.
O.K., at this point it is impossible to discuss the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet without confronting the maelstrom of social-media and online controversy directed towards its launch in 2019. As Audemars Piguet’s Chief Executive and my friend François-Henry Bennahmias explained to me in a video interview earlier this year, “To say the launch was controversial is an understatement. The truth is, we got slammed.”
So, what is the reality? Is the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet an unappealing timepiece? My take is that it is a very cool and complex case that is a sincere and appealing step forwards in Audemars Piguet’s design history, and is combined with a new family of well-executed in-house automatic movements, including, for the first time in the manufacture’s history, an in-house automatic, column-wheel-activated vertical clutch chronograph.
I feel that the initial designs of the dials jarred next to the case: you’ve made a hyper-complex and extroverted watch, so why then fit it with a dial that seeks Zen reductionism in a way that contradicts its raison d’être? Either you’re a maximalist or a minimalist, and the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet is more suited to being larger than life than an example of understated élan (as those initial dials would have you believe).
So the end result were watches that, while visually arresting and exciting from the profile and the back, seemed somewhat uninspired or tepid when viewed from the front. And it is for that reason that I find the new dials of the 2020 collection of the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet both genuinely appealing and capably transformative for this watch family. Their high-gloss lacquer, sunray finish with fumé smoked effect (graduating from lighter to darker at the outer perimeter) suddenly brings the electric rush of chromatic expressionism that perfectly complements the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet’s case and movement.
But before delving into the burgundy, purple, blue, light- and dark-grey dials, which evoke the louche opalescence that takes the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet in a highly appealing direction, let’s look at the rationale behind the creation of this watch.
To many people, including those highest up at their manufacture, Audemars Piguet has become perhaps too heavily associated with the iconic Royal Oak designed by Gérald Genta in 1972. To be fair, it is a watch that has since charted extraordinary success for the Le Brassus house. So much so that essentially every permutation of the watch, from perpetual calendar to chronograph, and in particular the reference 15202 Royal Oak Extra-Thin created in homage to the original watch, is accompanied by both holy grail status and a massive premium on the secondary market.
The Royal Oak perpetual calendar, to me the greatest sports-chic execution of this complication in history, has also been a platform that has allowed Audemars Piguet incredible success in both material innovation (with the introduction of ceramic) and technical innovation (in terms of re-engineering their movement to heretofore unseen thinness with the RD2).
Bennahmias says: “It was clear to us that we wanted to bring back the diversity of the brand we had in the eighties and nineties, when the 5548 round, extra-thin perpetual calendar was as commercially important and equally synonymous with our manufacture.” It is interesting that one of the criticisms levied against the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet is that it was not a classic ultra-thin round watch.
But understanding that the AP customer of today is often a larger than life, extroverted, sybaritic leader endowed with unbridled charisma — think Jay-Z and Bobby Axelrod (both AP devotees) — AP’s decision not to create an ultra-slim, elegant, round, vintage-inspired watch makes total sense. Could they have? Well, considering they own the manufacturing rights to the legendary 2120 (based on the Jaeger-designed calibre 920) — one of the world’s most beautiful and thinnest movements, which powered the Patek Nautilus, the Vacheron 222 and Royal Oak, and is today found in the Royal Oak Ultra-Thin and as the base calibre of the Royal Oak perpetual calendar — they could have. And considering AP have set a record with the world’s thinnest perpetual calendar with the incredible RD2, had they wanted to walk down this path, they could have. Very easily.
Instead, they chose to create a watch that at 41mm is slightly on the large side but with a very substantial wrist presence with a stack height varying between 10.9mm, for the automatic time and date version, and 13.5mm, for the spectacular sounding Supersonnerie version. The point is, no one wants an under-the-radar AP. The point of wearing an AP is that, when you walk into a room, everyone knows it’s an AP. And whether you subscribe to this mentality or not is irrelevant, because that’s the appeal of an AP. Trying to tone down an Audemars Piguet would be like trying to transform Claudia Cardinale or Monica Bellucci into Audrey Hepburn. It just ain’t gonna happen. And to me that’s fine, because brands are at their best when they are being true expressions of themselves. Case in point is the renewed Cartier under the brilliant Cyrille Vigneron: Cartier have stopped trying to make oversized high complications and have gone back to making the world’s most sublime thin, elegant-shaped watches.
The thing to understand about the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet is that the substance of the watch comes from a highly inventive and complex tripartite case, which, even at the launch of the family, was clearly the coolest part of the watch. So you get my point: the objective of the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet is not to be a wilting flower or an example of discreet elegance. A Dufour Simplicity it ain’t. Think more in terms of an MB&F LM Perpetual, which is a big, heavy and round but highly appealing and totally in-your-face watch, and we’re on the right track.
So let’s go back to that screw. When I saw this detail, the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet made me smile. Because this intricately machined element is a dramatic wink — or as they say in French, a clin d’oeil — to the 1972 Royal Oak, the watch that reversed Audemars Piguet’s fortunes at the onset of the Quartz Crisis and created a tradition of subversive and brash innovation that found full steam with the 1978 launch of the 5548 perpetual calendar, an extra-thin mechanical super-complication, which was followed up in 1984 with the cosmic marriage of the Royal Oak and the perpetual calendar, and in 1993 with the creation of the Royal Oak Offshore.
I know that was a mouthful, but the point is that the hexagonal screw that retains the strap is a nod to the same hexagonal screw found in the Royal Oak’s iconic octagonal bezel. This is executed in white-gold despite the case of the watch being made in steel. But more importantly, it marked the first time a purely functional element was placed front and centre as a signature decorative device on a watch. This is how the Royal Oak is assembled today. It consists of its signature octagonal bezel, a thin middle case with a visible gasket, and the similarly slim back case. These three parts — four if you count the gasket — are retained by the eight gold screws that travel through the whole watch from bezel to caseback, where they are secured with slotted nuts. As the hexagonal screws are fitted into a hexagonal-shaped hole in the bezel, they are unable to turn. So why did Genta put slots in them for a screwdriver? Simply to toy with our perception and as a statement of functionalism turned into aesthetic code.
When it came to constructing the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet, AP decided to return to the idea of a multi-part case. But instead of having an octagonal bezel, this time it is the middle case that is eight-sided. Indeed, at 10.9mm, the original 7.2mm Royal Oak 5402 is approximately the same thickness as just this part of the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet alone. And this is an apt comparison, because the level of finish dedicated to this one simple element is, to put it in colloquial parlance, kick-ass.
The centre part of the middle case receives AP’s signature fine brushing, but both the top and the bottom of the mid case are beveled and highly polished, exactly the way the bezel of the Royal Oak is. This alternation of finishing techniques has adorned many other models before the RO. In this respect, it is more a nod to one of AP’s trademark decorations that has permeated its history.
So it is clear that the team behind the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet is still very much enamoured, and understand the role, of the Royal Oak, as they’ve essentially placed its most iconic element at the heart of their new design. The caseback is thin, retains a flat sapphire crystal, and again receives the combination of a brushed centre and high-polished top and bottom bevel. While the bezel is extremely thin, it also has a brushed centre and two mirror-polished bevels.
But its purpose from a structural perspective is to retain the open lugs that flare out in a manner reminiscent of the flying buttresses of the cathedral at Chartres, to be anchored on the caseback. The lugs are also brushed, before receiving a high-polished bevel along their outer and inner edges. Which means that if you look at the profile of the 11.59 by Audemars Piguet, it features a total of 10 hand-polished bevels — six horizontally and two on each lug. And there are the ones you don’t see. The surface of the lugs that rest against the caseback also has a polished bevel. The watch has been finished by hand to the highest detail, even when invisible to the eye.
The bezel also serves to retain the massive totemic canopy that is the sapphire crystal of the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet. The effect of the ultra-thin bezel and the crystal, which is curved on two axes, is to present enormous focus on the dial. It should be noted that the bezel is so thin as to be almost non-existent, and it gives the illusion that the sapphire fits directly to the mid case. It was the criticism of the first series of watches — that AP used this vast, ethereal, amphitheater of a dial to display dials that were, to put it plainly, somewhat uninspiring. The dial of the perpetual calendar model made with aventurine, a man-made glass from Venice that is strewn with copper and evokes the night sky, was definitely attractive. But for the new collection, this massive stage is the perfect complement to the arresting and visually dynamic dials.
As it happens, I am a big fan of ‘fumé’, or smoke. No, not as it applies to genetically modified rapper weed. But as it applies to watch dials. A fumé dial is one in which the color goes from lighter and more vibrant at the centre of the watch to darker and more intense at its outer edge. One of my favorite Audemars Piguets is the titanium Royal Oak with a platinum bezel and a blue fumé dial that was launched in 2018 and made in a limited edition of 250.
However, the first Code 11.59s by Audemars Piguet to receive the fumé effect was the brilliant and Geneva Grand Prix-winning Supersonnerie and the Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon in blue. This white-gold watch features a stunning blue dial made from grand feu enamel that goes from Yves Klein blue to midnight blue in an appealing chromatic arc from the centre of the watch to its bezel. It was clearly not lost on AP — that is, the dynamic energy that could be created by injecting color into this collection.
In many ways the new Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet is a perfect fit for readers of my other magazine title, The Rake with a penchant for sartorial expressionism through color. And from a cultural perspective, the watches come at an apt time. We’ve now gone through a cycle in which men were dressed perhaps too libidinously on the chromatic scale (highlighted by Lapo Elkann’s Ferrari-red suits and the like), through a period of self-enforced sobriety, and into another period where we are again embracing color — if for no other reason than it provides for optimism. Color is making its way back into men’s tailoring, but in a more elemental and pure way: think the controlled color fields of Mark Rothko’s Abstract Expressionism as opposed to the spray-and-pray approach of Jackson Pollock’s Action Painting. The beauty of the new dials of Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet is that they manage to be controlled, nuanced and modulated while also being seductive and arresting. There are a total of five different colors.
You can see how transformative they are to the visual identity, particularly with the purple and blue chronograph models, especially when combined with similar-toned textile straps that afford them a sportier and laidback attitude. Off its alligator strap and on to this, it is perfectly at home paired with shorts, relaxing around the pool at the Capri Palace, or piloting your vintage Lambretta to lunch along the Amalfi coast or in Saint-Tropez with a barefoot auburn-haired beauty clutching your waist as you weave skilfully through traffic.
The chronograph model is also executed in white-gold with a burgundy dial, which I could see myself wearing while exploring the different climats of the Vosne-Romanée in Burgundy, a trip I normally make each year but that has been put on hold for now because of Covid-19. Then it struck me why I liked the colorful dials of the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet: they made me feel optimistic, in that they reminded me of these annual pilgrimages I hope to make again. I could see myself wearing the rose-gold and purple-dial chronograph wrapped in my purple velvet smoking jacket, ensconced at my favorite table at Venice’s Gritti Palace bar as the head barman and my friend Cristiano Luciano pours me his fabled balsamic martini.
This year Audemars Piguet have also made the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet in a two-tone version with a white-gold bezel and caseback while dedicating the use of rose-gold to the octagonal mid case, the crown and pushers, and indexes on the dial. In both the time-only chronograph version, these two-tone cases work particularly well with the dark-grey fumé dial.
What is also appealing about the Code 11:59 by Audemars Piguet are the movements, which all feature a beautifully executed full transverse balance bridge and a free-sprung oscillator. I love how the balance wheel is held by a triangular-shaped polished steel stud, and that this stud is in turn held in place by a double-sided thumb-spring stud holder. This entire assembly can be rotated slightly to ensure the balance wheel is interacting with the escapement at the perfect angle, and is not something I’ve seen on other movements. The large central openworked rotor runs on ceramic ball bearings. It winds in both directions. The point is that despite the fact these new watches are targeted towards a lifestyle audience that connects with the color and style, there is incredible technical credibility and hand-workmanship that has gone into each timepiece.
So do I think the new Code 11.59s by Audemars Piguet are so good that they’ve shrugged off the vestiges of their controversial launch? Let’s talk about that. With full respect to the manufacture, they made perhaps two missteps regarding the launch of the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet, neither of which had anything to do with the watches but had the net result of causing the collecting community to amplify the blandness of the dials while overlooking the innovation of the case and movement.
The first was telling everyone how great it was before it was launched through videos and adverts. Tall poppy syndrome is a cultural phenomenon in which we delight in mocking those who appear to think too highly of themselves. And while it is controversial, I feel there is a place in our industry for the humorous memes that often take shots at our leaders, as they tend to keep us in check. More pragmatically, when you set expectations high you also set yourself up for a fall, especially when you have been riding a non-stop wave of success that can cause jealousy within the industry. The second thing AP did was that they essentially gave exclusivity over the launch of the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet to a website that itself could be perceived as a victim of tall poppy syndrome. So when the watch launched and negativity began piling up, you can see how the majority of journalists who had been excluded from not only the event but covering the actual launch might have felt disinclined to rush to AP’s defense.
But there’s something else here. Interestingly, while studying the phenomenon the Germans call Schadenfreude — the delight we take in the misfortune of others — scientists decided to map what happens in the human brain using an MRI machine. What they found was that when your football team wins, or you or your friends succeed, the part of the brain that is triggered is the same part that deals with morality and ethics. But when you take delight in a rival team losing or your enemies or rivals suffering a setback, the part of the brain that is triggered is the same part that releases dopamine and is most responsible for self-pleasure and addiction. The point is that ‘hating’ is addictive and about giving the hater pleasure through causing hurt. And like laboratory monkeys that are willing to forgo food and press a button hundreds of times to get one hit of cocaine, haters need to escalate in order to get the same dopamine reward they got when they began their cycle of self-pleasure.
In other words, in the context of the world today, when we’ve all gone through a pretty seismic life-changing experience, I think we can benefit from being considerate and empathetic to one another. So in conclusion, what do I think of the new 2020 Code 11.59s by Audemars Piguet? I like them a lot. I like them because they not only survived the initial and unfair onslaught they received, but with their beautiful expression of colour I see them now as symbols of optimism in a world that desperately needs hope and kindness.
The case is incredible, the movements are brilliant, and the dials are now genuinely beautiful. Is there still room for improvement? As with all things mechanical and human, yes, of course. You could say the same thing about my orthodontics. Incidentally, the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet has, since its launch, won awards at the Geneva Grand Prix, while a unique tourbillon version sold for more than $1m at the Only Watch auction to benefit research into muscular dystrophy. Would I wear one?
Now that the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet and I have been properly introduced, I absolutely would. Would I buy one, you ask? Aha. That, my friends, is a moot question, because like many of us this year, I am bereft of adequate shekels to rub together for any significant purchase. But, like you, I’ve managed to survive 2020, and things can only get better.
In the words of the legendary Kinks, from Better Things, one of the songs that has got me through this year (and that has me thinking of that blue-dial Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet chronograph on a blue textile strap): Here’s wishing you the bluest skies and hoping something better comes tomorrow. Hoping all the verses rhyme and the very best of choruses, too. Follow all the doubt and sadness, I know that better things are on their way.