For some, gazing upon the segmented outlines of the mythical figures and symbols our ancestors assembled, albeit loosely, by connecting the stars in the night sky — preserving their folklore and navigating the ancient world — instantly leads to memories of constructing toothpick-and-marshmallow parallels in fourth-grade science class.
The keyword there being “some”, not everyone.
For Audemars Piguet’s artisans, however, the stars have historically evoked thoughts decidedly more profound. The wide, majestic views of the cosmos from the Vallée de Joux have long served as a fount of inspiration for the brand, and continue to spur its watchmakers to craft pieces of inspired beauty today.
From ancient sundials and shadow clocks to the drafting of our modern calendar, such observation of the heavens has been integral to the development and refinement of our concept of time and its measurement. And perhaps no complication in horology exemplifies this appreciation of the stars and the evolution of our time-telling instruments quite like the perpetual calendar.
Audemars Piguet has a long history of perpetual-calendar proficiency, traceable to the day its founders, Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet, established the maison, and to the Vallée de Joux itself. Along with spectacular celestial views, the region has historically possessed a wealth of metal ore, the processing of which facilitated its growth into a hotbed for technically outstanding components.
The proper craft of perpetual calendars required watchmakers with access to such components, and who also possessed similarly outstanding skill, and few outside of the Vallée de Joux initially proved up to the task. Believed to have been developed around 1800 or so, perpetual calendars are, at their heart, reflective of the timekeepers mankind relied upon for centuries — graduating from early, rudimentary designs to some of the most complicated in horology today.
Perpetual calendars, for the uninitiated, are the ultimate “set it and forget it” pieces. They generally indicate the date, day of the week, month, and (leap) year in near perpetuity, automatically adjusting to compensate for variations in the number of days in each month and, when necessary, the occurrence of leap years. It’s no surprise that technically, perpetual-calendar movements are some of the most difficult to craft in all of horology.
But technically, they aren’t perpetual. Generally, such watches will eventually require correction on 28 February 2100. This is because, to make up for the slightest of discrepancies between mankind and Mother Nature’s respective calendars, one leap year is subtracted every 100 years — except for centuries that are divisible by 400.
The complexity of this scale-balancing exception only magnifies the complexity of the complication itself and the fervor it generates in collectors today. As mentioned, however, for Audemars Piguet, perpetual-calendar watches have become more than simply opportunities to showcase mechanical excellence, but something of legacy pieces.
In the mid-19th century, long before Jules-Louis founded the family brand, his great-uncle Louis-Benjamin Audemars produced a string of iconic watches, including a dual-perpetual-calendar pocket watch that displayed both the Julian and Gregorian calendars.
And his great-nephew followed suit. Jules-Louis, who continuously upgraded his pink-gold pocket watch from his school days with rare complications, outfitted the piece to eventually include the requisite perpetual calendar. What’s more, he completed that watch before co-founding the Le Brassus manufacture in 1875.
By the early 20th century, Audemars Piguet had started to cultivate a singularly refined aesthetic in their perpetual-calendar pocket watches, highlighted by an exquisite platinum and yellow-gold Art Deco edition in 1921. Manufactures would eventually transition the complication to collectors’ wrists, but cramming the intricate mechanism into those first wristwatches came at the sacrifice of a key component: a leap-year indication. That is, however, until Audemars Piguet addressed the issue, in 1955, with a series of nine two-tone watches that were the first to execute such an indication.
Flash forward to the 1970s, the heart of the Quartz Crisis, when many manufactures were facing sink-or-swim realities. Succumb to a crippled market, or respond with inventive and reverberating mechanical pieces to buoy the brand. One of Audemars Piguet’s most resounding responses to the challenge was a self-winding perpetual calendar, the world’s thinnest, introduced in 1978.
Development of the 3.95mm-thick watch was conducted in secret, and led by master watchmaker Michel Rochat. Its unveiling was met with great renown, and further distinguished Audemars Piguet’s exceptional vision with regard to the complication.
In 1981, the already-iconic Royal Oak line was given its own take on the complication, and the result was an instant classic. It was followed by another Royal Oak perpetual calendar (this time extra-thin and self-winding) in 1984, as well as subsequent visionary takes in the Royal Oak Offshore (notably 2013’s Perpetual Calendar Chronograph), Tradition and Jules Audemars collections.
It was that blockbuster original debut, however — one of the most highly regarded complications meets the brand’s most exemplary line — that truly resonated and cemented the brand’s legacy in the eyes of collectors. The Royal Oak Perpetual Calendars that have followed have only served to strengthen that reputation.
Last year’s additions to the line channel key elements of that 1981 edition, widely regarded as one of the most timeless takes on the perpetual calendar. Far from a simple retread, however, the new watches marry the better qualities of that signature edition with an updated design that both incorporates the Royal Oak’s recent, expanded case sizing — cutting a more contemporary form — and emphasizes the cues that originally made it a classic.
Retained on the dial are indications for the month and leap year at 12 o’clock, the date at three, moonphase at six, and day of the week at nine — all nicely displayed. Though perpetual calendars are inherently tasked with displaying a glut of information, the layout and framing on the Royal Oak’s dial have historically managed to achieve supreme balance in the face of such chaos, resulting in optimal visibility.
The new editions have added to the would-be madness in the form of the brand’s signature, textured Grande Tapisserie-guilloché dial treatment, as well as a new numbered week indication displayed via a central hand and an outer chapter ring. The aventurine astronomical moonphase indication is exquisite, and thanks to a powerful new movement, it’s exceedingly accurate, requiring correction at a lifetime-besting clip of every 125 years and 317 days.
That movement, visible through the sapphire-crystal caseback, is the line’s most accurate to date. The self-winding cal. 5134 is an update of the cal. 2120, designed in 1967 and critical to the earliest editions’ success. To better fit the new editions’ expanded and distinguishing case, the brand artisans reworked the movement’s design, tightening the powerful caliber’s belt to cut a svelte 4.31mm frame.
The four Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Reference 26574s are available in stainless steel and rose gold, and stand as the latest examples of a manufacture upholding its storied history. Whenever you come from “a long line of” anything, there’s a certain level of respect to be accorded, but also considerable weight to be borne in terms of expectations.
Audemars Piguet’s artisans know this full well. Fortunately, the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar is one collection with which they’ve managed to perpetually exceed them.