There is no doubt who topped the social media charts at this year’s SIHH: Audemars Piguet. 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. Audemars Piguet is, of course, known for the Gérald Genta-designed octagonal masterpiece that is the Royal Oak, a watch now heading for its 50th birthday and showing no sign of slowing down. The Royal Oak has been extremely good to AP, it saw the brand through the quartz crisis that polished off so many of the old family-owned firms (AP is still owned in part by members of the founding family). And then in the Nineties and Noughties, it occupied a commanding position in the age of the cuff-shredding monster watch with the pumped-up Royal Oak Offshore. I saw the latter at the Basel Fair in its launch year, loved it and bought one because I thought it would go out of production on account of its Brobdingnagian dimensions; I have since given up making predictions.
The Royal Oak seems to do no wrong. In brushed gold by Carolina Bucci it has become a fixture with the 5 Hertford Street crowd. Everyone (at least everyone with 50 grand to spare) wants this year’s sleeper hit, the white gold salmon-dialled extra-thin. And, of course, the two-hand ultra-slim original is at once historically important and effortlessly contemporary.
As a result, AP now makes around 40,000 watches a year, almost all of them with the familiar eight-sided case. The only slightest smudge of a cloud on an otherwise sunny horizon is that the success of the Royal Oak does tend to obscure the brand’s in-house expertise as a traditional watchmaker and its fluency in the great complications. But this is either a case of not fixing something that is working rather well, or a high-class problem.
AP is also a great “straight” watchmaker (with the added ace-up-the-sleeve of owning Renaud & Papi), one of what is sometimes called the “big three” or “holy trinity”: a triumvirate that also includes Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe. With 11.59, Bennahmias gambled that he could break out of the octagon and connect with a different clientele. This has been tried by AP before with the Jules Audemars line, the John Shaeffer line, the Millenary, and a personal favourite, the cushion-cased Tradition (which is just a bit too big for my puny wrist).
I saw the 11.59 watches last November and noted all the design cues, especially the softened but perceptibly octagonal case wall. I am afraid it left me unmoved, and I said as much. It was almost as if it had been designed to a formula that balanced enough familiar content to be able to call it an AP, with sufficiently non-segmenting elements so as to appeal to the broadest possible audience beyond AP loyalists. But I also said that I could see why AP was doing it: it wanted to lure a few customers away from the likes of IWC and the projected 2,000 watches across six models accounted for about five per cent of its production, so it was hardly as if it was discontinuing the Royal Oak.
Had AP just launched it with commensurate restraint, some people would have liked it, others wouldn’t but I don’t think that the bloodlust would have been awakened. Instead, it was trailed for months with cryptic clues, there was portentous Dan Brown meets Vitruvian Man branding, and it was talked up as the most important AP since 1972. By the time guests made their way to Le Brassus for the launch, they could have been forgiven for thinking God had designed the Code 11.59. He hadn’t.
It was the gulf between expectation and reality that ignited the social-media firestorm. I may not be a fan of all the decisions taken by Bennahmias, however, AP has been doing extremely well under his leadership and there have been critical successes such as the Diamond Punk, a truly unexpected contemporary and dramatic jewellery watch. Besides, because I am used to Bennahmias’s boisterous style and his tendency to dramatise and hype every new launch as something only slightly less important than the end of Western Civilisation is why I did not join the pitchfork-waving digital lynch mob.
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