For some, gazing upon the segmented outlines of the mythical figures and symbols our ancestors assembled, albeit loosely, by connecting the stars in the night sky — preserving their folklore and navigating the ancient world — instantly leads to memories of constructing toothpick-and-marshmallow parallels in fourth-grade science class.
The keyword there being “some”, not everyone.
For Audemars Piguet’s artisans, however, the stars have historically evoked thoughts decidedly more profound. The wide, majestic views of the cosmos from the Vallée de Joux have long served as a fount of inspiration for the brand, and continue to spur its watchmakers to craft pieces of inspired beauty today.
From ancient sundials and shadow clocks to the drafting of our modern calendar, such observation of the heavens has been integral to the development and refinement of our concept of time and its measurement. And perhaps no complication in horology exemplifies this appreciation of the stars and the evolution of our time-telling instruments quite like the perpetual calendar.
Audemars Piguet has a long history of perpetual-calendar proficiency, traceable to the day its founders, Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet, established the maison, and to the Vallée de Joux itself. Along with spectacular celestial views, the region has historically possessed a wealth of metal ore, the processing of which facilitated its growth into a hotbed for technically outstanding components.
The proper craft of perpetual calendars required watchmakers with access to such components, and who also possessed similarly outstanding skill, and few outside of the Vallée de Joux initially proved up to the task. Believed to have been developed around 1800 or so, perpetual calendars are, at their heart, reflective of the timekeepers mankind relied upon for centuries — graduating from early, rudimentary designs to some of the most complicated in horology today.
Perpetual calendars, for the uninitiated, are the ultimate “set it and forget it” pieces. They generally indicate the date, day of the week, month, and (leap) year in near perpetuity, automatically adjusting to compensate for variations in the number of days in each month and, when necessary, the occurrence of leap years. It’s no surprise that technically, perpetual-calendar movements are some of the most difficult to craft in all of horology.
But technically, they aren’t perpetual. Generally, such watches will eventually require correction on 28 February 2100. This is because, to make up for the slightest of discrepancies between mankind and Mother Nature’s respective calendars, one leap year is subtracted every 100 years — except for centuries that are divisible by 400.
The complexity of this scale-balancing exception only magnifies the complexity of the complication itself and the fervor it generates in collectors today. As mentioned, however, for Audemars Piguet, perpetual-calendar watches have become more than simply opportunities to showcase mechanical excellence, but something of legacy pieces.
In the mid-19th century, long before Jules-Louis founded the family brand, his great-uncle Louis-Benjamin Audemars produced a string of iconic watches, including a dual-perpetual-calendar pocket watch that displayed both the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
And his great-nephew followed suit. Jules-Louis, who continuously upgraded his pink-gold pocket watch from his school days with rare complications, outfitted the piece to eventually include the requisite perpetual calendar. What’s more, he completed that watch before co-founding the Le Brassus manufacture in 1875.
By the early 20th century, Audemars Piguet had started to cultivate a singularly refined aesthetic in their perpetual-calendar pocket watches, highlighted by an exquisite platinum and yellow-gold Art Deco edition in 1921. Manufactures would eventually transition the complication to collectors’ wrists, but cramming the intricate mechanism into those first wristwatches came at the sacrifice of a key component: a leap-year indication. That is, however, until Audemars Piguet addressed the issue, in 1955, with a series of nine two-tone watches that were the first to execute such an indication.
Flash forward to the 1970s, the heart of the Quartz Crisis, when many manufactures were facing sink-or-swim realities. Succumb to a crippled market, or respond with inventive and reverberating mechanical pieces to buoy the brand. One of Audemars Piguet’s most resounding responses to the challenge was a self-winding perpetual calendar, the world’s thinnest, introduced in 1978.
Development of the 3.95mm-thick watch was conducted in secret, and led by master watchmaker Michel Rochat. Its unveiling was met with great renown, and further distinguished Audemars Piguet’s exceptional vision with regard to the complication.