The public life of the Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 is now a little over six months long. A mere paragraph in the story of a company that dates back to 1875. And yet even within days of its launch it was already a strong contender for the most involving story of 2019. On the bare facts alone — one of the watch world’s most esteemed brands launches an entirely new collection, within it several brand new in-house calibres — that isn’t surprising. And it remains unsurprising when you see the watches themselves; these are not what anyone was expecting.
If you picked up QP magazine back in March, you will doubtless have read Nick Foulkes assessment of the collection:
“It was the brand’s last SIHH and it went out with a bang so loud you could hear it all the way from Geneva to the brand’s HQ in the quiet mountain village of Le Brassus. Everybody was talking about Code 11.59, the new launch from Audemars — just not for the reasons AP might have wished. The obloquy heaped upon the brand and its CEO François-Henry Bennahmias was unprecedented.”
In this context, the launch of the Code 11.59 is a fascinating case study of how new watches — really new watches, not revivals, homages, re-issues or “heritage” collections — are received. And it raises some fairly fundamental questions about what we want from our leading watch brands.
Lest you are unaware, the Code 11.59 broke cover on the morning of 12 January, and before the residents of Le Brassus had finished their muesli, the internet was awash with scathing remarks. Riding fractionally ahead of the vitriolic comparisons (Michael Kors! Calvin Klein! Daniel Wellington!) was a shockwave that Audemars Piguet — a €1.1bn company and owner of possibly the longest horological hot streak bar Rolex — had come out with something that could spark this reaction. Two days later, Bloomberg ran an article headlined “Audemars Piguet Launches a New Watch and the Response Is: It’s Awful”.
One has to wonder how that went down at HQ. But AP’s head of complications, Michael Friedman was sanguine, saying, “I take a long view. If you look at the first two weeks after the introduction of a new form language, which so rarely happens in this industry, you’ll always get a critical response. I felt for the men and women behind the bench, who aren’t directly linked to the marketing efforts; some of them didn’t understand the vitriolic nature of it. Some of it was hard to process. But there are haters in every industry. You can be the best Grammy Award-winning musician; you drop something [new] and there are going to be haters. That’s the culture we’re in.”
In all fairness, even as SIHH began, the overwhelming majority of comments came from those with no hands-on contact with the watches, but regardless, you can assume most companies would want their products to come across well from the official photographs. And yet, there was something knee-jerk about the reaction that makes you wonder: what’s a watch brand to do? Journalists — QP included — and the wider watch community have long expressed a growing ennui at the never-ending stream of heritage reissues that passes for innovation and bold strategic thinking in some quarters. But when top tier “legacy” brands do venture to create something new, the reaction is quite consistent: think back to Vacheron Constantin’s FiftySix; Zenith’s new Defy; even TAG Heuer’s Carrera Heuer 01. Not what you would call critical hits right out of the gate.
Is modern watch design really in such a trough? I feel there’s more at play here. Witness the line of credit extended to brands without AP’s heritage; it’s OK for upstart indies to do odd things with case shapes, but the message would seem to be that we want our established watch brands to exist in a Neverland state, perpetually recreating a rose-tinted ideal of watchmaking’s golden age. And if so, it is a bed partly of the industry’s own making, so reliant — insistent, even — has it been on marketing the history and heritage of the Vallée de Joux.
The fact remains that with the first-impressions reaction to the Code 11.59, Audemars Piguet found itself in unfamiliar waters (although Friedman says the feedback from collectors, up close, has been more positive). Let’s start with the name. It is a bit of a mouthful; not in the way that some watches bludgeon by sheer number of words, but slightly hard to, well, decode. Attendees of SIHH were given a presentation that rationalised Code as an anagram (Challenge, Own, Dare, Evolve) extolling the brand’s many virtues, but this felt thoroughly retro-fitted.
Friedman confirmed that “Code” sprang forward from a company-wide call for names, and resonated thanks to its associations not only with guiding design principles, but with modern technology, communication and meaning. “There was a desire to have something unconventional, that doesn’t sound like it comes from the world of watches,” he says. The “11.59” was added later, intending to encapsulate the optimism of a coming day; for better or worse, it is already being habitually dropped, and it’s likely that in time “the AP Code” will have a bit of a ring to it.
So what are the defining touchpoints of the Code 11.59? It has been created to replace the Jules Audemars collection which has been slowly phased out over the last six years or so, leaving only the most complicated references until last, and is talked of in terms of replacing the round watch in AP’s collection. Comparisons to reinventing the wheel are unfortunate; certainly Audemars Piguet has rendered it more complex. According to CEO François-Henry Bennahmias, the intention was to showcase every possible facet of the casemakers’ art. Speaking to the Hodinkee Radio podcast, he described the goal as having “to be almost impossible to copy… every detail, every craft, every skill has to be pushed to the extreme.”
There is no denying it possesses a complexity and level of detail rarely seen: an ultra-thin round bezel sits atop an octagonal caseband with brushed, curved corners. Skeletonised lugs extend from the bezel and meet the caseback with no physical binding, merely sitting one surface flush against the other. The sapphire glass stretching across the 41mm case is curved in two directions at once; the entire project sounds like it might have been conceived as punishment to the brand’s industrial suppliers, and reportedly AP has only 10 technicians qualified to polish the case.
It’s nothing if not ambitious, and that’s before we talk about the lacquered dials and the two-year quest to design a solid gold logotype that could be hand-applied like the chunky, sporty Arabic numerals. It’s not clear why this was so fundamental to the watch’s identity. Achieving it doubtless took talent, but even in an industry that values hidden efforts it is unlikely to be appreciated by all who see it. The octagonal caseband, too, is confusing: in teeing up the Code 11.59 the brand has been at pains to stress, rightly enough, that its history does not begin with the Royal Oak, so why include such an obvious call-back to its most successful design?
The answer given by Audemars Piguet, not simply to that question but to all the criticisms levelled at the Code 11.59, is that it, like the Royal Oak, Royal Oak Offshore and the Royal Oak Concept models, sits in a proud tradition of daring iconoclasm; the implication being that in time, we will consider the Code 11.59 with new eyes. Friedman also points out the brand has form stretching as far back as the Twenties of making out-there case shapes (indeed every watch design before 1951 was unique in some way, but the business then was a far cry from today’s relatively high-volume production). It is certainly true that the Royal Oak took audiences aback in 1972, and wasn’t a universal hit, relying on the Italian market in particular to shore up sales while the rest of the world came round to the idea of luxury watches cased in stainless steel. And 21 years later, the Offshore met with raised eyebrows, before going on to completely turbocharge the brand through the turn of the millennium.
Does the Code 11.59 sit in the same tradition? Not according to the Offshore’s creator Emmanuel Gueit, former AP designer and the last man to feel anything like the same ire from Audemars purists: “When the Royal Oak was launched, it was a shock because a luxury brand launched a watch in steel. But the hate was not that strong. Within three years all the other brands were doing the same. When I launched the Offshore, people were shocked, that’s for sure; they said it was too big, that it wouldn’t sell, but nobody said it was ugly.”
One difference between the Code 11.59 and its Royal Oak siblings is that where they were genuine firsts, it doesn’t break ground in the same way. Much of what went into its long gestation (the watch is said to have been in development since at least 2013, with multiple designers contributing to the finished product) may be new, but the end result doesn’t sit outside the parameters of what is generally considered a luxury watch. That is unlikely to hold it back, and, in fact, I wouldn’t bet against it performing better commercially in its first few years than either the Royal Oak or the Offshore did in theirs. As Nick Foulkes also said, the balance of expectation versus reality is key.
There are areas in which AP has definitely delivered: the collection houses not only the automatic and chronograph references, but a perpetual calendar, automatic tourbillon, skeletonised tourbillon and supersonnerie minute repeater, and the more complicated references definitely make a better fist of the Code 11.59’s design — the Supersonnerie in particular scores highly for its deep blue gradient dial and skeuomorphic sound wave caseback design. The aventurine dial available on the perpetual calendar is an acquired taste, but bound to sell well, and given the level of detail on the case, a skeletonised version was a no-brainer.
Credit is due for releasing a fully formed collection at once, and the brand is also delivering in a firmly literal sense: the watches were available to buy from February, unlike so many releases for which customers must wait nine months or more to arrive.
Of course, it helps that the movements, usually the element of a new model that takes time to get up to full production speed, have in fact been ready for some time — at least, the ones that will constitute the majority of the Code 11.59’s initial 2,000-piece production run. (Mr Bennahmias confirmed that the goal is to increase production to 10,000 watches a year over the next five to seven years, with AP’s overall output rising from 40,000 to 43,000 by around 2022.) Development of an in-house integrated chronograph movement has been the talk of AP for at least three years now. Bennahmias has said it was one of the first projects he commenced as CEO in 2012, and that the calibre was in fact finished in 2017.
For fans of the brand, it will have been worth waiting for; hitherto Audemars has used the Frederic Piguet-derived calibre 2385 in the Royal Oak chronograph, and a Dubois Depraz module in the calibre 3120 found in Offshore chronographs. Over time, starting this year, they will be replaced by calibre 4401, an in-house flyback chronograph with 70 hours power reserve, vertical clutch and column wheel, operating at a higher frequency than either predecessor (4Hz) and looking every ligne a thoroughbred, while promising better durability and the tactile engagement you expect from a top-end chronograph.
This is accompanied by calibre 4302, a new base automatic sharing its basic architecture with the chronograph. Its arrival was less pressing, but Bennahmias wants the brand to be 100 per cent independent when it comes to sourcing calibres, and whatever your thoughts on the in-house debate at large, this is behaviour entirely befitting a maison of AP’s stature. Also new is the brand’s first central-rotor automatic flying tourbillon, calibre 2950. Bennahmias is pushing to speed up calibre creation, and is now speaking of movements that are retail-ready in anywhere from three years to just 18 months, rather than the more typical five to seven-year development cycle.
How the Code 11.59 will develop from here is an intriguing question; more references may join the ranks, but with such a full range of complications already on offer, the smart money would be on greater variety of colour and materials, construction permitting. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if once the hubbub dies down, the opportunity is taken to evolve elements of the design — the handset, say — but that may also be wishful thinking. Ultimately, it will be sales, not reviews, by which the Code 11.59 is judged, and the feedback from SIHH is bullish.
The prices across the collection (the base automatic starts at £23,800) no doubt to some extent reflect the intense efforts gone into both case and movement; at first glance, some assumed the automatics represented a new entry-level for AP — as has been fashionable among other top end brands of late — but the Code automatics are no feeder series for the Royal Oak. Certainly, the brand is confident in what it has created, and adamant that it has the potential to lure an entirely new audience to Audemars Piguet.
“It’s about people who range from the very young to middle-aged and retirees, who are looking for something different,” says Friedman. “You have young people, 21, 22, who have grown up in primarily a digital space, one of obsolescence, whose attraction towards watches is rooted in permanence. I’m not just talking about Europe and the US, but even more about Asia and India.” This chimes with remarks from Bennahmias, who speaks of the thin bezel and resulting large visual area as sharing a form factor with smartphones, laptops and TV screens.
Time will tell if the Code 11.59 will be seen as a Royal Oak for the millennial generation. It may well achieve perfectly reasonable success without reaching that elevated target; as Freidman says, our first impressions are often changed by time and context. “A big influence on Code 11.59 is contemporary architecture, and like contemporary architecture, not everyone necessarily understands it or feels an emotional connection to it. That’s OK. Contemporary anything is polarising: music, art, furniture, and this is a contemporary watch.”
For me, one line from Mr Bennahmias’s recent interview stands out: “We worked on this collection not pushed by clients, because nobody has been asking us to create something different.” Here, too, time will tell if pursuing such a difficult design was worth it: Bennahmias would surely say it is better to lead than to follow. Let’s see if the world likes where he’s going.