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The case for novelty

Petrina Fernandez
Petrina Fernandez  • 9 min read
The case for novelty
In one of its boldest moves in recent memory, Audemars Piguet breaks away from its signature Royal Oak profile to start an entirely new family
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In one of its boldest moves in recent memory, Audemars Piguet breaks away from its signature Royal Oak profile to start an entirely new family

SINGAPORE (Sept 30): You can spot a Royal Oak from a mile away: an octagonal bezel secured with eight screws, tapisserie motif on the dial and integrated lugs and bracelet. Okay, the last two might be harder to recognise from a distance, but the point stands — it is a trademark silhouette with a cult following and it was only a matter of time before its cues were borrowed by other watchmakers.

This is the collection that was vilified in 1972 by an industry that recoiled from its oversized, eight-edged bezel and the idea that a stainless steel watch could sit in the same room as other luxury timepieces in precious metals. And this is the brand that withstood extensive criticism to defend a novel concept in which it had utmost conviction. So, when Code 11.59 (pronounced “eleven fifty-nine”) was launched at the annual Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) Genève in January to heavy disparagement, Audemars Piguet knew how to weather the storm.

In a statement, CEO François-Henry Bennahmias said Code 11.59 was intended to prove that the company could move beyond the Royal Oak. “We encourage people to come and try the watch, see it in real life instead of just looking at pictures,” he said in response to unrelenting flak on social media as photos of the new timepieces were making rounds. “People will judge for themselves.”

“We were absolutely bashed on social media for the watch; there were very violent comments, including those asking us to fire the CEO,” said a brand spokesperson at the unveiling in Singapore. “We were puzzled but not worried. People just needed to see the watch in person. But we also knew that for the last seven years, hundreds of people worked on the Code and to read such bad comments on the first week of SIHH was hurtful. The mood changed when people actually saw the watch.”

Perhaps, like the first sip of wine, it is an acquired taste. The regional launch took place at versatile soundstage Infinite Studios across the Causeway. A darkened corridor sliced through with neon lights in pink and purple led to a foyer exhibiting a selection of heritage timepieces by Audemars Piguet. As the watchmaker was founded in 1875 in Le Brassus, Switzerland, there was a trove of material to mine.

Included in the display were replicas of the Circular and Rectangular Asymmetric Wristwatches from the early 1960s and an original 1929 Streamline Jumping Hour Wristwatch with the hour and minute windows cut into a solid case, featuring a movement made in the same year.

The breadth of imagination and skill evinced by the collection paved the path of appreciation for Code 11.59, contextualising the imagination of the watchmaker, who has become interlinked with the Royal Oak series. In fact, no other luxury manu­facturer is as associated with a single design as Audemars Piguet is with the Royal Oak.

The finer details

We were introduced to the new series over dinner, an immersive experience as wraparound high-definition projections in the all-black dining hall conjured images of mountains, greenery and vast open skies, transporting us to La Brassus. Here, surrounded by the scenes of its conceptualisation, we were walked through the ambition behind this new branch of the Audemars Piguet family.

“Code” is an acronym that evokes its mission to Challenge (the limits of craftsmanship), Own (its roots and legacy), Dare (to follow firm convictions) and Evolve (to never stand still). The numbers 11.59 refer to the minute before midnight, the cusp of a new day — apt, given how this marks a new chapter for the brand.

It is not its first collection to embrace fluid cases — the Millenary timepieces are characterised by elliptical cases and off-centre dials while the now-defunct Jules Audemars series similarly played with the inherent grace of curves.

But there was a need for a collection that bridged the classic and the contemporary, taking a staple form and imbuing it with intensely modern cues for younger customers while still upholding the manufacture’s history and design languages. It would be a pillar that would stand alongside the Royal Oak, Royal Oak Offshore, Royal Oak Concept and Millenary, and after 46 years of riding on the fame of its octa­gonal bezel, the timing felt right. Code 11.59 would be a viable alternative to the sporty yet dressy Royal Oak while showcasing the exceptional savoir-faire it had amassed over 144 years — which might explain the magnitude of this debut.

New collections typically unveil no more than a handful, if even that, of timepieces to depict the intended style and direction while testing the market’s reaction. Audemars Piguet, meanwhile, came out with guns blazing: 13 references featuring six calibres — three entirely new — and six complications, comprising date and time, chronograph, perpetual calendar, open-work and flying tourbillons and supersonnerie minute repeater. Talk about go big or go home.

The case, made solely from rose or white gold, is the first to arrest one’s attention. Described as a classic round with a twist, it features an extra-thin bezel and caseback sandwiching an octagonal middle case, whose angles are emphasised with a mix of brushed and polished finishes. Flowing from the bezel are open-work lugs melded to the caseback, creating visual tension. The casual observer might credit the excellent readability to the generously sized dials — 41mm across the unisex collection — but this is actually the work of the sapphire crystal. The protective glass employs an unusual double-curved profile, curved vertically from 12’o clock to six o’clock and then spherically domed beneath that. The concave/convex design is completed with polished chamfered edges, adding to the rich architectural details.

Dials are mostly lacquered, which most watchmakers attempt in small quantities because of the eight to 12 layers each timepiece requires to develop thickness and depth. Exceptions to the lacquer include one in glittery aventurine glass to recall a starry night sky and three in black or smoked blue grand feu enamel. Aventurine is created by the introduction of black copper oxide and cobalt during the cooling phase of the glass, the latter infusing the blue colour and elements producing a constellation of mineral particles that shimmer. Grand feu enamelling is a demanding and time-consuming craft that involves coating a disc of precious metal with enamel powders in desired hues and firing it in a kiln, repeating the process to build the necessary layers.

A new application technique for the logo was experimented with too, featuring the brand fully spelt out in raised letters like a three-dimensional signature. The electrochemical method known as galvanic growth allows for precise manipulation of thin layers of 24-carat gold. Some strokes and bridges in the logo — such as the left leg of the letter A — are too delicate even for manual handling and the application process required two years to master.

Three new self-winding calibres were developed specifically for Code 11.59: Calibre 4302 with date function; the chronograph Calibre 4401 with flyback function and 70 hours of power reserve; and the Calibre 2950, the first automatic movement by Audemars Piguet to incorporate a flying tourbillon and central rotor.

Mixed reviews

Any drastic departure from the norm is bound to attract criticism, as Code 11.59 did in spades. Bloomberg described the collective outcry as “akin to Ferrari deciding to branch out into camper vans or Chanel opening a pop-up store in a discount supermarket”. Reviewer Zach Pina of popular website, A Blog to Watch, said, “At best, the dial on the new three-hander is sleek and modern. At worst, neither dial design really challenges the viewer — they feel safe and trendy, and not the type of disruptive stuff that solidified AP in the pantheon on modern luxury watchmaking.”

Criticism was centred on the opinion that Code 11.59 looked too much like typical fashion watches with little thought given to harmony or sophistication. Others found the categorisation as both dressy and sporty confusing; although that was the same premise of the Royal Oak (and pundits questioned creating another family that directly met the design matrix of an existing collection instead of playing in a new field altogether), the expressions in Code 11.59 were deemed to be neither dressy nor sporty enough to strongly identify with either character. In a forum discussing the new collection, someone concluded their analysis on the poor reception by comparing it with the Royal Oak and asking whether Audemars Piguet built the Royal Oak or whether it was the Royal Oak that made Audemars Piguet.

It might be precisely sentiments such as the latter that spurred the development of Code 11.59 in the first place. The Royal Oak is a product of 40-something years of cultivation, but Audemars Piguet has a legacy that spans centuries and it was time to remind customers of this fact — that the brand is capable of more and has a history of successfully doing far more. To go in a completely different direction was a gamble but as the dust settled months later, reviews have balanced out and the collection has its fans. Whether it will enjoy similar following and longevity as the Royal Oak remains to be seen but, for now, the virulent hate hurled towards it seems to have been tempered into acceptance, at least, if not (yet) affection.

Credit has to be given to the manufacture for holding its ground against the tempest, living up to the Daring component of the Code acronym as though its naming were a self-fulfilling prophecy. And say what you like about Code 11.59 as a whole or the move to roll out 13 models in one go, standout pieces — such as the aventurine dial or the skeletonised tourbillon — affirm that Audemars Piguet knows its stuff.

Although family-owned, some trust on the part of stakeholders would not be misplaced. One does not survive a century and a half without learning quite a few things along the way, after all.

Petrina Fernandez is a senior writer with Options at The Edge Malaysia

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