Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Chronograph Selfwinding
To say that Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Chronograph Selfwinding debuted to mixed reviews is to say nothing at all. While many enthusiasts were impressed by the technical firepower on display – the collection featured a host of new movements, including AP’s first in-house self-winding chronograph movement – as well as the elaborate case construction and obviously high level of craftsmanship throughout, the dials, especially in the simpler models, were very divisive. However, the Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Chronograph Selfwinding collection isn’t going anywhere. Audemars Piguet has committed itself to the collection for the long haul, and both as a token of that commitment and as an indication that the collection will continue to evolve, AP has just released the latest versions of the CODE 11.59 Selfwinding and Selfwinding Chronograph models. These feature five new sunburst lacquer dials, as well as a quite striking new version of the case, in white gold, with a pink gold case middle.
The manufacture of two-tone cases using two gold alloys is a relative rarity at Audemars Piguet in terms of the historical production (although, of course, we have seen a more frequent use of two-tone construction in the Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore, including the reference 5402SA and the reference 15400). According to AP’s archives, of the 550 complicated watches the firm produced between 1882 and 1969 (a number whose relative minuteness bears considering; the company’s total number of employees did not exceed 30 until the year 1950, and did not exceed 100 until the 1970s), there are only eight which combined two types of gold. There were, of course, two-tone watches which combined gold and steel, including the ref. 1533 which was the basis for this year’s [Re]Master chronograph, but using two different kinds of gold was much more unusual. In AP’s entire production prior to 1970, there is only a single watch which combines white and pink gold.
I think one of the issues with the original Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Chronograph Selfwinding time-only watches was that the dials suffered somewhat in comparison with the cases. Although the case architecture took some getting used to for long-time AP fans, and especially for AP enthusiasts who have come to the brand more recently and know it largely through the Royal Oak, the Offshore, and the various iterations of those models (and I think some AP fans will never get used to it), there was, especially if you had a chance to see the cases in person, no gainsaying the quality of construction and the extremely meticulously applied hand finishing on the cases. The dials, in contrast to the jewel-like shimmer of the cases, the robust architecture of the movements, and the rather mesmerizing visual effect created by the double-curved crystals, seemed rather plain. And although AP was at great pains to explain the complexity of the dial construction and the technical challenges that had to be overcome, there were still many – not a unanimously united front, not that AP fans are ever unanimously united on anything, but many – who felt that the original dial designs in the time-only models left something to be desired. (I ought to point out, by the way, that the typeface for the numerals isn’t a newcomer to AP either; it can be seen in the reference 5528 minute repeater, which was completed in 1951).
The new models are not the first nor the only Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Chronograph Selfwinding models to have dials with color gradients or more complicated dials. The minute repeater at launch had a blue gradient dial, as did the self-winding flying tourbillon; there is, of course, the openworked tourbillon model as well, and the perpetual calendar had a lovely blue aventurine dial. I think AP probably recognized that having a dial treatment which offered a greater sense of visual depth would probably create quite a different impression than the flat dials for the less complex launch models, and so the company released a watch which was a bit the shape of things to come – a limited edition for the Bolshoi Ballet, with a blue gradient grand feu enamel dial. That watch came at a considerable premium over the $26,800 price for the standard models, at $41,300, but the benefits of the more elaborate dial were immediately evident and very likely prompted the company to decide to produce visually similar, but considerably less costly, versions for the regular collection as well.
The CODE 11.59 case has a most unusual construction – the case middle, which is octagonal in shape (a visual link connecting the collection to, of course, the Genta heritage and the octagonal bezel of the Royal Oak), is a separate part, and the lugs attach only to the upper part of the case; there is a minute gap where the lugs lie against the caseback and overall, the watch seems to hang suspended from the lugs. The effect is extremely subtle thanks to the small size of the gap, but it’s definitely noticeable if you look closely. I have had several opportunities to see these cases in person, and the degree to which the finish is finely executed is hard to overstate. Whether or not the design is your particular brand of vodka, the razor-sharp transitions between brushed and polished surfaces are immediately striking as are the very high quality of the various finishes overall.
These are manually applied and are similar in many respects to the hand-finishing techniques found on haute horlogerie calibers. The cases are rather thick, but that thickness is, I think, intentional, in that it provides a bigger canvas for the display of the different polishing methods. After all, if AP wishes to make an ultra-thin watch, it has that capability – its ultra-thin watches are an essential and interesting part of its heritage – but in this instance, something more overtly architectural was clearly the goal. The Royal Oak is rightly famed for its revolutionary treatment of stainless steel, but at least in terms of complexity and quality, the CODE 11.59 case can easily stand comparison with its stablemate from the 1970s.
While it is tempting and somewhat natural to think of unusual case design at AP as beginning and more or less ending with the Royal Oak, the company has been producing cases which very much fall outside the realm of the conventional for many, many years – indeed, for almost as long as they have been making wristwatches of any kind at all. The birth of the wristwatch is, in fact, directly linked to the invention of unusual case shapes, or what we today think of as unusual case shapes.
I have always thought that the most challenging part of a watch to design, particularly if the watch is round, are the lugs. The transition from case to lug affects everything – how it is handled affects not only the appearance of the watch, but also how it feels once it is on the wrist. The fact that wristwatches must be attached to the furthest end of the human upper extremity means that the connection must be a secure one, and for that reason, various geometrical cases became a part of the early history of the first true wristwatches, and the first wristwatches from Audemars Piguet, almost immediately. Beyond the strict geometry of rectilinear cases, there is also, once the technical problem of securing round or oval watches has been solved (and it was largely solved by the invention of the spring bar), the fact that rectilinear geometry in watch cases offers an opportunity to depart dramatically from the tyranny of the round case. AP has, for most of its history, done just that – not exclusively, perhaps, but consistently.