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Review: Audemars Piguet Code 11.59

If you’re familiar with the Swiss watch industry, you’ll know that when a brand—particularly a big, old traditional one—does something small, it’s a pretty big deal. So when a brand does something big, its positively monumental. At the beginning of 2019, Audemars Piguet did something big by releasing the Code 11.59, with the intention of ending its reliance on the iconic Royal Oak. The response, however, was not quite the one they expected.

Let’s rewind a little to see how we got to now. The best place to start is the early seventies, when Audemars Piguet was nearing its centennial year. But unfortunately it was not looking like a time to celebrate; since the great depression of the 1930s, the brand’s fortunes had suffered a slow, but inevitable decline. People just weren’t buying the intricate, complicated and expensive gold watches that were once the world’s best—and the rise of the cheap quartz watch wasn’t helping, either.

The company and its near hundred years of business were doomed. In the face of utter desperation, there was a chance for a last hail Mary, a do-or-die shot at not just reinventing the brand, but the watch as well. All hope rested in the mind of upcoming designer Gérald Genta, who was celebrating a milestone of his own—his fortieth birthday. The brief was deceptively simple: design an exceptional steel watch. Where Audemars Piguet had always upheld tradition, now it was chasing style.

The result was astonishing. It’s hard to describe just how outrageous and unexpected the Royal Oak was when it was released in 1972. This ancient, old-fashioned brand that made thin gold watches dressed in delicate dials had released a monster, the likes of which had not only never been seen before, but would dictate the style of a generation. Patek Philippe , Vacheron Constantin , Rolex , IWC , Bulova and even quartz troublemaker Seiko would inevitably copy this totem of the new school of watchmaking.

The Code 11.59 is the newest watch in the Audemars Piguet line-up

The Code 11.59 is the newest watch in the Audemars Piguet line-up

But the Royal Oak wasn’t just a new watch—it was a new attitude. In a new world of technology where the mechanical watch had become extinct, it made it desirable again. The bold, angular, aggressive look of the Royal Oak coupled with the tradition of mechanical watchmaking and hand finishing made for a timepiece that sold like, well—the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. The brand only intended to make 1,000 pieces—and ended up taking orders for that in France and Italy alone.

And the story doesn’t stop there. Fast-forward to the early 1990s, and despite the success of the Royal Oak, the industry as a whole was still in decline. Fearing that the interest in mechanical watches was waning once again, Audemars Piguet now turned its attention to designer Emmanuel Gueit, who was tasked with a different, albeit equally tricky challenge: reinvent the Royal Oak for a modern audience.

For the second time, Audemars Piguet pulled it out the bag. Gueit’s design was both progressive and sympathetic, swelling the original in all the right places to make it feel new and exciting, whilst also remaining faithful to the 1972 classic where it needed to. Once again it was a shock, earning criticism from industry bigwigs, including Genta himself, and once again it defined a generation, sparking the trend for oversized watches like the Hublot Big Bang and the Richard Mille RM001.

But another twenty-five years later and the Royal Oak’s success is starting to show a downside; it’s easy to consider Audemars Piguet a one-trick pony, especially in the light of a full and rich collection from the likes of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, and so the watchmaker that charted a course for the entire industry for half a century has got to do it all over again.

The Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 was first introduced at SIHH watch fair in 2019

The Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 was first introduced at SIHH watch fair in 2019

It’s no wonder that the Code 11.59 was placed under such a strong spotlight. The Offshore came out a quarter-century after the Royal Oak, and it had been a quarter-century again. The public was getting restless. Could Audemars Piguet pull it out of the bag for a third time? It was the biggest challenge the company had ever faced. In 1972, it was all or nothing, but in 2019, the brand had to take its hugely successful—but one-dimensional—product line and add something just as good if not better. When there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain, the risk is low. With the Code 11.59, it’s a high stakes game.

So here it is, the Code 11.59, and when it was first announced—well, it’s no secret that it didn’t fare well. But then neither did the Offshore, or the Royal Oak for that matter. Where the industry laughed and scoffed, the cash-paying buyers told a different story. Is it the same case here? It’s too early to tell. One thing that’s clear, though, is that the public’s contention comes from a different place this time. Where the pair of Royal Oaks caused uproar for their incredible daring, the Code 11.59 does the opposite. If people were expecting something dramatic, it’s no wonder they were disappointed.

What the Code 11.59 is supposed to be is an amalgamation of the two personalities of the Audemars Piguet brand. You’ve got the classic side, the traditional side, the one that came before 1972; and you’ve got the modern side, the audacious side that comes post-Royal Oak. These two opposing dispositions couldn’t be more polarised, and that’s the bulk of the reason why the Royal Oak was such a shock back in the last millennium. And so the Code 11.59 attempts to bring these two personas together in some sort of ying meets yang peace treaty.

Thanks to the overwhelming success of the Royal Oak, and perhaps the reliance upon it, Audemars Piguet has struggled to revitalise its heritage to the levels of Patek Philippe, despite such similar provenance. And so the Code 11.59 attempts to ween people off the Royal Oak and onto the broader spectrum of the Le Brassus watchmaker by incorporating small Royal Oak-esque details like the octagonal case section and hexagonal strap screws.

The Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 starts at just over £20,000 for the automatic and goes all the way up to £220,000 for the complicated supersonnerie minute repeater

The Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 starts at just over £20,000 for the automatic and goes all the way up to £220,000 for the complicated supersonnerie minute repeater

But those are just details; before you see that, you see the watch as a whole, and it’s the whole watch that people have a bone to pick with. The dial is simple and expansive, a crystal curved on both sides stretching and distorting the skinny hands and uncomplicated markers as the viewing angle shifts. That’s all very classic Audemars Piguet. The 41mm diameter, 10.7mm thick case, however, gets skeletonised lugs and bands of brushing and polishing that are much more reminiscent of modern Audemars Piguet. This is that dichotomy in action.

There’s another ingredient here as well, one so subtle you’d only notice it if it were gone. I mentioned that the Royal Oak was a big hit amongst the Italians, which, being such an epicentre of style and fashion, helped proliferate the Royal Oak’s popularity around the world. The Royal Oak’s style, and indeed the style of all Genta’s design, was most likely drawn from his connection to Italy through his Italian father. If the Code 11.59 could be branded as stylish by the nation that makes style what it is, it could be a success. Perhaps, then, that’s why it borrows so heavily from an Italian flair favourite, the Bvlgari Bvlgari—a watch designed by, you guessed it, Gérald Genta.

It’s a lot to take in. Does it deserve the hate? The watch is plain and uninteresting at first glance, yet there’s so much going on behind the scenes that I think it’s all going to take a while to digest. I’m a firm believer of your opinion being your own with a matter as subjective as this, but with the Code 11.59, it’s hard to even say what that might be. I do know that a picture online or a brief experience isn’t nearly enough to come to terms with it. As the name suggests, its design is a code, one it takes the mind a while to crack. It’s like a complex flavour that needs time for the brain to interpret, or an image seen out of context that seems familiar but can’t quite be placed. The real irony is that where Audemars Piguet has found shock in the outrageous for the better part of half a century, now it does it with simplicity—and I suppose that means it’s worked.

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