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 CODE 11.59 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 Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Chronograph 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 CODE 11.59 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 Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Chronograph Selfwinding 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.
The crystal of a watch is, as a rule, something that is expected to disappear – we generally judge the quality of a crystal by the degree to which it is invisible and lets us experience the dial unobstructed. The exceptions to this are mostly watches in which the crystal is an extension of the case – watches with sapphire cases are the most obvious example. I can’t think of another modern watch in which the creation of a specific optical effect, with what at first glance seems a conventional round crystal, is part of the design of the watch, and the double curved crystal in the CODE 11.59 collection is a bit disturbing at first. Its unusual geometry is invisible when you look at the watch straight on, but viewed from an angle you get a very striking tiered effect – one thinks of the rows of seating in a Roman or Greek amphitheater.
The effect is somewhat muted, in the entry-level models, by the flatness of the dials, but in the new lacquer gradient models, you get a much greater sense of depth and three-dimensionality. This, in turn, means that there is a better sense of continuity across all the various aspects of the watch – dial, case, and movement finishing all seem much more of a piece. This extends even to a greater sense of connection between the case finishing and movement finishing – in fact, of all the new models, the two-tone ones are, I think, the most compelling. The new movements are very much, in their general visual effects, a good partner to the collection overall. I think they mate especially well with the white-gold and rose-gold combination cases – you have, of course, the rotors of both the chronograph and time only models, but you also have the combination of mirror polished and brushed surfaces in both the case and the mechanism, and they seem to connect with each other, and with other aspects of the design, much better with the new gradient dial models. Small changes can make big differences. The new CODE 11.59 dials have, in my view, thrown the virtues of the designs into high relief, and they also create a bridge between case, movement, dial – and crystal, which is just as much a part of the design in its optical effects as any other part of the watch – which was perhaps a bit undermined by the understated dials of the launch models (again, in the Selfwinding and Selfwinding Chronograph models only; the high complications are another story and should be discussed separately).
It would be extremely premature to judge the Audemars Piguet CODE 11.59 Chronograph Selfwinding collection a success. However, I think it would also be premature to judge it a failure. In the larger context of design at Audemars Piguet, the collection sits in a long and very complex tradition of innovation in cases; in the larger context of movement manufacturing, the collection also sits in a very long and complex tradition of both simple and complicated watchmaking. These latest versions of the CODE 11.59 collection have not done all that much in terms of design or technical innovation relative to the launch models, but the new lacquer gradient dials are like a plug pushed into a socket – the mechanisms on either side are where the real action is, but without the spark of connection, nothing comes to life. It will be most interesting to see where AP goes next with the collection – it obviously represents not only the expenditure of considerable capital resources, but also considerable creative energy as well. The simpler launch models may not have quite stuck the landing, but then, neither did the first SpaceX reusable boosters, and we all know that today they’re pretty much not only hitting their marks, but exceeding expectations in every way. Sometimes big ideas take a while to deliver on their promise, especially if they’re living their lives in public; it’ll be intriguing to see where AP takes the collection next.