(Bloomberg) -- The majority of sales of Swiss juggernaut Audemars Piguet are from its Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore lines, watches that were originally designed in the 1970s and 1990s.
Now, the watchmaker wants to bring heat to another model.
The Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet line, which was introduced in 2019, accounts for close to 15% of revenue, Francois-Henry Bennahmias, the outgoing chief executive officer, told Bloomberg News last month. He expects that percentage to rise to 20% by 2025. To achieve that goal, the company this year unveiled several timepieces, with prices ranging from $23,000 to $1.7 million.
The message? Code 11.59 isn’t going anywhere and is getting better with time.
On October 2, Audemars Piguet announced it was releasing two Code 11.59 models, a pair of 38mm timepieces aimed at women. They will retail for $33,200 and be in stores in early October.
When the Code 11.59 line first came out, the reaction was mixed, at best. “This was the first time in my memory that people really panned a new model,” says Mike Manjos, chief sales officer at online retailer WatchBox. “You had a few people go negative, and the next thing you knew, everybody was piling on.”
Audemars Piguet is known for its bold octagonal Royal Oak cases, created by the legendary designer Gérald Genta. But at first glance, the Code 11.59 looks like a plain round watch. It didn’t matter that the complex case construction has interesting elements, such as an octagonal midcase between the round top and bottom. It also doesn’t have an external bezel, which creates more space for the dial.
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James Kong, a watch collector and photographer, recalls being at an industry event where Bennahmias said the release would be the most important launch for the brand since the Royal Oak. “I think that really raised expectations very high, and probably was also one of the things that led to the reception, because it kind of created a mismatch between what people were expecting and what they got,” he says.
Watch collector Rich Chiang thinks the Code 11.59 case requires a certain type of design to work well. It’s complex, “so you need a dial that is equally as complex or has some complications to match how special that case is,” he says. “I really liked the higher-end models, whereas the more affordable models like the time-only and chronograph were a little plain, a little uninspired. The overall comments online from the watch community, and obviously these days you have a lot of internet trolls, they kind of mock the lower-end models for being a little bit boring.”
Many disliked the placement of the date at the 4:30 position. Audemars Piguet has moved to the more traditional 3 o’clock position in some models this year, including the new ones being introduced October 2. “I think that’s been universally applauded by most collectors,” Chiang says.
Code 11.59 watches still haven’t gained significant traction in the secondary market, Manjos says. “They have certainly underperformed,” he says, “even though Audemars Piguet has done some really nice variations of it nowadays, especially the new models.”
In some ways, this is an effect of the runaway success of the Royal Oak, which is synonymous with Audemars Piguet. “AP collectors have always gone toward the iconic style for AP,” Manjos says. “From across the room, you see a Royal Oak, and you know it’s an AP. The traditional round style has never been that iconic piece.” Collectors of high complications in round cases typically lean toward the other two members of horology’s holy trinity: Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin.
Until 2019, Audemars Piguet had housed most of its complicated watches within the Royal Oak family, putting the rarest chiming movements, tourbillons, and perpetual calendars inside the sports watch.
The brand has lately used Code 11.59 to do this sort of thing. Last year’s spinning Starwheel watch introduced unique timekeeping mechanisms with its wandering hours and retrograde minute hands. And this year, Audemars Piguet unveiled the most complicated automatic wristwatch the brand has ever created: the Code 11.59 Universelle RD#4.
The Universelle has more than 1,100 components and 23 complications (functions beyond basic timekeeping). It has several Audemars Piguet hallmarks, such as three chiming complications, including a Grande Sonnerie that strikes the hours, quarter hours, and minutes on demand and automatically strikes the hours and quarter hours; a perpetual calendar that accurately tells the date until the year 2400; a split-second flyback chronograph that allows you to track the duration of two events simultaneously; and a flying tourbillon that hypnotically spins while protecting against the forces of gravity.
A watch with just one of these complications can command six figures. With all of them? It’s priced at $1.6 million for the closed dial and $1.7 million for the skeletonized version.
“It’s no surprise that Audemars Piguet created such a groundbreaking, ultra-complicated wristwatch that combines usability, wearability, and ultimate complexity in something that could be worn daily,” says Paul Boutros, head of watches, Americas, at Phillips auction house. “This is AP going back to its long-time historic roots as a master of high complications.”
Most ultra-complicated watches are exercises in what’s possible from a manufacturing standpoint and are not truly meant to be worn—they’re either too big or aren’t water resistant.
The Universelle, however, is meant for daily life. Its built-in shock resistance and slim case mean it can be worn without worry. “Clients feel very comfortable wearing it with anything from a three-piece suit to T-shirts and blue jeans,” says Audemars Piguet Americas CEO Ginny Wright. “This is where we push the limits of horology to be able to deliver all this complexity in a really simple format.”
The brand reached $2.2 billion in revenue for the first time in 2022, according to a report by Morgan Stanley and LuxeConsult. It’s now the fourth- highest-grossing Swiss watchmaker—behind Rolex, Cartier, and Omega—but it produces only about 50,000 watches annually. Each of the other brands makes more than half a million timepieces each year.
With its round case and elegant aesthetics, Code 11.59 is expected to attract new clients, especially women, a market that’s a priority. Audemars Piguet wants to increase the percentage of its women clientele to 40% by 2030 from 16% in 2021.
Achieving that is the goal of the new 38mm watches. They feel significantly smaller than the current 41 and 42mm models, but a 38mm watch is not tiny—it’s still solidly in the unisex size range. At a press preview for the watch at AP House New York, Wright noted that many of her male clients were interested in smaller watch, too, so it’s not technically a ladies’ watch.
Kong might be one of them. “I have extremely small wrists, so there are only one or two Royal Oaks that I feel comfortable wearing,” he says. “I very much appreciate the focus on more reasonably sized watches in AP’s catalog, whether or not they’re explicitly targeted toward women.”
The new watches also come in two unusual colors in the watch world. One has a bold purple dial with a matching alligator strap. The other is a more muted ivory dial and strap. Both have the collection’s new dial design, which Audemars Piguet created with Yann von Kaenel, a sought-after Swiss guilloché artisan. It’s embossed with a circular motif created by hundreds of small holes that form a hypnotic swirling pattern and seems to radiate out from the center.
(Corrects the year in the 21st paragraph by which Audemars Piguet wants to grow its female clientele to 40%)
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