When the Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Automatic collection launched back in January of 2019, it was as if we’d gone to a restaurant called Le Controverse, sat down, and ordered the Controverse appetizer, with the Controverse Flambé main course, extra la sauce Controverse Grand-Mère Ancienne Gérald Genta on the side, and to drink, naturellement, a couple of magnums of Le Grand Vin De Audemars Piguet Premier Grande Controverse 2019.
I wouldn’t exactly say cooler heads have prevailed since then – a conflagration that is still smoldering to the tune of 500+ comments is no more likely to go out overnight than the Centralia coal fire – but there has been enough water under the bridge for the notion that there might be a more considered perspective to seem slightly more plausible than it might have seemed two years ago.
While the time-only versions of Code came in for the worst lambasting out of the gate, the complicated watches in the collection had the onslaught softened, to some degree, by their complexity and by the undeniable sophistication in their mechanical execution. The watches were, after all, a deliberate provocation – Francois-Henry Bennahmias was certainly not trying to epater la bourgeoisie but he certainly seemed to be trying to epater somebody, even if it was just the legion of AP fans who had begun, more and more vocally, to wonder if AP hadn’t become a one-trick pony.
At least from a technical perspective, the company’s answer to the last question was a resounding Non. The 13 watches at launch came with six, count ’em six, new movements. We got a new perpetual calendar, a new Supersonnerie repeater, a new automatic tourbillon, a new automatic movement, and perhaps most impressive, a new self-winding three-register chronograph.
Many years ago, I was in La-Chaux-de-Fonds when Cartier was launching its then-new series of high complications in the Fine Watchmaking Collection, and I had a chance to meet the formidable Carole Forestier, who over the course of her professional life has been involved in many of the most interesting tourbillons of the last 20 years and who came up with the design that would eventually become the Ulysse Nardin Freak. I asked her whether she thought a tourbillon was harder to design than a chronograph, and she snorted in a way that made it instantly clear that I had basically asked Robert Parker if it’s ok to put ice in an oaky Chardonnay.
“A chronograph,” she said, “is much harder. A tourbillon, it is nothing compared to the challenge of a chronograph.” She didn’t actually say imbecile, but she didn’t have to.
This is all by way of saying that while the conversation about Code quickly took a hard left turn into pejorative, there’s an awful lot of watchmaking content behind the divisive designs and moreover, a lot of it is in the intersection of solid functional watchmaking and haute horlogerie. New workhorse movements are rare, especially at the haute horlogerie level (Patek Philippe’s new hand-wound caliber 30-255 is an example of a new high end hand-wound time-only movement, which is very unusual – its predecessor had been around since the 1970s, and the AP caliber 2020/21 in the Royal Oak Jumbo was born in the 1960s). The caliber 4401 in the new Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Automatic Chronograph – which has just recently been released in two new models, with a ceramic case middle – is a very modern take on a classic complication, with both very modern engineering and a very non-traditional aesthetic to back it up.
While a complete technical analysis of the movement is outside the scope of this article, for those interested in really going deep I highly recommend the tear-down over at The Naked Watchmaker. In brief, however, what we’ve got is a vertical clutch, three-register movement designed as much as possible for trouble-free operation, from everything through the automatic winding system, to the chronograph, to the basic going train and escapement.
It’s quite interesting to see the various layers come off as the movement gets stripped down to the mainplate. A selfwinding chronograph is built on several levels. On top, you have the rotor and the automatic winding bridge, including the reverser wheels which allow the rotor to wind the mainspring in both directions. The rotor runs in ceramic ball bearings.
If you get as far as the chronograph reset-to-zero hammers and springs, you’ll see that all three hammers and their operating springs are identical, and all activated by a single lever – again, a reliable system that also reduces the potentially troublesome variability in components usually found in a more traditionally engineered chronograph. The control system is a classic column-wheel design although, even here, the tooth profiles of the column wheel appear to have been engineered not so much to provide an aesthetic experience as to optimize reliability and reduce friction.
The finish is not quite as elaborately executed as you would find in a simpler high-end movement where decoration is taken as an end in itself. A Dufour Simplicity, for instance, or an Eichi II, are both simple watches in which it is important that the movement function as a showcase for anglage, polished countersinks, meticulously finished screws, and so on, as well as a showcase for the mechanism per se. The Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Automatic chronograph however, isn’t going for a classic haute horlogerie feel, but rather, for something that emphasizes the geometry and angularity of the movement. And the movement decoration in the Code 11.59 Chronograph does dazzle for its thoroughness – hardly a surface or bevel has gone untouched – and, style-wise, it’s of a piece with the design of the case and the dial.
The case is a massive construction, thick-walled, and held together by screws which run from the back of the watch, straight through the case middle and into the bezel, to hold the whole thing together. AP is proud of the fact that the hand-finishing applied to the case is every bit as elaborate as the finish applied to the movement and, in fact, the eye easily flows from the sharp edges of the winding rotor to the crisp geometry of the lugs and the brushed and polished flanks of the upper case. You feel as if you are walking, not through the layered centuries of complexity that you find in some castle and palace complexes, but through a single structure designed to work as a singular and striking experience – the Taj Mahal, versus the slow accretion of structures at Windsor Palace.
However you feel about the Code 11.59 case design in general, I think it’s hard to deny that the ceramic case middle makes for a very attractive update to the original design. It makes the whole thing a bit lighter and more graceful visually, while at the same time actually emphasizing the level of finish, and intricate geometry, of the case as a whole.
This is a strange watch to have on the wrist, and I’m not entirely sure I’d ever get used to it, but it doesn’t seem like a watch whose designers had that in mind in the first place. It has the property of looking very different at different angles. Look at it from the front and it seems almost too restrained and minimalist for its own good, but as you rotate it, and the double curved sapphire crystal starts to generate visual illusions of flying buttresses, and the case structure becomes more visible, you almost feel as if someone’s switched watches on you by some horological sleight of hand.
It’s a contradictory piece. The case and movement finishing draw on the classic Genevan finishing vocabulary. The geometry has the harsh angularity of the original Royal Oak (as well as echoing some of its geometry) but taken to an extreme Gérald Genta never dreamt of and which I’m sure he would have hated on sight – his devotion to the purity of his original design is well known, and even the comparatively mild evolution of it, represented by the Offshore, aroused his indignation. That the DNA of the Royal Oak has allowed a new species to evolve is, however, something we long since should have expected; it hasn’t been 1972 for a long time.
The Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Automatic Chronograph is, however, an interesting watch. The Code collection is not easy. You have to spend a lot of time with the watches to start to get what AP was going for, and I’m not convinced even now that they succeeded unequivocally in connecting all the dots they wanted to connect.
But I find them fascinating. Are they a failed experiment? I don’t think so. An experiment is, by definition, neither a success or failure. What it should be, is interesting – it should show us something we maybe didn’t know before. After Code, I don’t think the Royal Oak will ever look the same; it’s a cool design and a classic, but it’s also almost fifty years old, and AP was long overdue to try something new. The company took as its motto that to break the rules, you must first master them. The institutional knowledge of every aspect of fine watchmaking at AP matches the knowledge of any other fine watchmaking brand in the world, and they don’t use it to recreate the past. They use it to build a bridge to the future, and where that bridge ends is not yet clear.
I think in building a new future, the company has sometimes rejected too much of its past. But I’m sentimental. You don’t get to where AP is today by just trotting out respectful upgrades to the Jules Audemars Equation Of Time. I feel about Code 11.59 the way earthlings might feel in a 1950s sci-fi movie, seeing the first vanguard of the saucers from the stars appearing in the night sky. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know it’s going to be different – and that the world, or at least, the AP watch world, is never going to be the same.