To understand why the new Code 11:59 Universelle by Audemars Piguet, aka the RD#4, is such a massive leap forward in the realms of usability, reliability and ease of setting, let me paint a picture for you.
A client — OK, let’s face it, a very, very rich client — goes to pick up his traditional grande complication, a watch he’s been told is the be-all-end-all of horological badassitude, technical innovation and artisan craftsmanship (to be clear, we are talking about any watch before the introduction of the RD4). Let’s say it’s got a similar spec sheet, meaning: a) a grande et petite sonnerie that plays time in passing like a wristworn cuckoo clock; b) a split-seconds chronograph that has got two chronograph hands to show lap times; c) a perpetual calendar that automatically compensates for the shifting 28/30/31-day pattern of the months. It even knows when to add an extra day on leap years and is so frickin’ smart it also knows to omit the leap year every century; d) a tourbillon that places all of the watch’s regulating organs in a cage that rotates once on its own axis every minute to compensate for errors caused by gravity.
So, let me pause here to ask you a question: what do you think is the net worth of someone who is able to afford a $1.6 million watch? I would estimate it to be somewhere between 160 million to 1.6 billion. Now when a guy is worth that kind of money, what do you think is the likelihood that he will sit down and ingest a phonebook-sized, PHD-level discourse on how to operate his watch correctly without irreparably damaging it? Pretty much every billionaire I’ve ever met thinks he knows everything about everything. Coupled with the impatience cultivated by being able to do or have anything at the snap of a finger, the answer to the question is, zero. I mean there is zip, nada chance of him regressing to his college-student days to learn how to work a watch. I mean, damn, he dropped out of school to start that dating app or crypto network that put him in the very position to drop major coin on his watch, so he’s going to want to just strap it in and go. After all, when he bought his Bugatti Chiron, he just jumped in and gunned it before the sales guy had time to thank him and pass him his complimentary fruit basket. So, why should his watch be any different?
Let me now illustrate to you the series of disasters related to his grande complication ownership. First, he explains that his watch plays time in passing and on demand; he illustrates this by pressing the repeater button, but then realizes that he should have set the watch to 11:59 for maximum sonic dopeness. So, he pulls out the crown when the strike train has been activated. Bad idea. The watch is now broken and needs to go back to the workshop for a lengthy, painful and costly repair. He gets it back and arrives in New York after spending the weekend in Sydney. He realizes that the time is now too early and turns the hands of his watch backwards, causing all the perpetual calendar indications to jam. The watch is now broken and needs to go back for a lengthy, painful and costly repair. He gets it back a few months later. This time, he tries to set the calendar information during the midnight blackout zone when the watch is changing over all date indicators. The watch is now broken and needs to go back for a lengthy, painful and costly repair. He gets it back six months later and decides to operate the split-seconds chronograph to record his Koenigsegg’s lap times at the Nürburgring, but he activates the split and chronograph buttons in the wrong sequence. The watch is now broken and needs to go back for a lengthy, painful and costly repair. He finally gets it back a year later and has decided not to set the time or use any of its functions anymore, but instead just wear it as an elaborate ornament. He leaves it on when he goes to play golf with his boy Mark Wahlberg whom he knows is a watch nerd. Just as he’s teeing off, he hears Wahlberg say, “Bro, are you really going to keep that on while you’re playing?” The watch is now broken and needs to go back for a lengthy, painful and costly repair. He finally gives up on wearing it altogether, and for the rest of its life, it remains in his safe an object that represents so much frustration to him that he can’t even look at it anymore.
Watch legend and APR&P’s technical genius Giulio Papi says, “I know you are joking, but this is very close to the experience of many people who buy grande complications. Seven years ago, in 2016, we at Audemars Piguet became determined to totally transform the very concept of a grande complication. What was previously considered to be fragile, we wanted to make incredibly robust. What was confusing to set, we wanted to be so intuitive you would never need an instruction manual. What was considered huge and cumbersome to wear, we wanted to make ergonomic and comfortable. And what would break if subjected to the slightest shock, we wanted to make so resilient you could play golf with it on.” And that, my friends, is the significance of the new Code 11:59 Universelle.
The watch takes its name from a pocket watch in AP’s museum that at its time was the world’s most complicated timepiece. But to me, the RD#4 is destined to be one of horology’s most seismic achievements. At 42mm in diameter and just over 15mm in thickness, it’s about the same size as the classic Royal Oak Offshore created in 1993, so it’s extremely wearable and comfortable. Much of this has to do with the movement’s construction, which features the split-seconds mechanism recessed into the bearing assembly for the semi-peripheral rotor. It has built into it a safety mechanism that prevents you from making mistakes such as pulling out the crown when the watch is chiming, and has the most extraordinary and intuitive perpetual-calendar system I’ve ever used. To set it, you simply pull the crown out to position 2 to adjust the grande date backwards or forwards. You set the day of the week with the WD pusher on the left side. You turn the pusher at four o’clock to set the month backwards or forwards, and the two-digit year indicator will follow backwards and forwards as well. Another pusher on the left sets the moonphase.
I cannot overstate how incredibly easy it is to set all the indications. To set the sonnerie to grande, petite or silent, you simply turn the pusher at two o’clock. The flyback split-seconds chronograph is operated with the two pushers and the split button recessed into the crown. Interestingly, APR&P’s old coiled reset lever spring has been replaced with a traditional spring bar. There is no need for an isolator because the underlying torque of the movement is adequate to overcome any potential rattrapante drag (drop in amplitude when the split-seconds brake is deployed).
On the subject of power, I asked Papi, “What if it’s midnight at the end of the year, when all calendar information is changing and the grande sonnerie is striking, and I activate the split-seconds brake then?” His reply was, “Good question. The watch has sufficient power to ensure full operation of all functions even in that scenario. The secret is the high-amplitude flying tourbillon we brought over from the RD#3. A normal balance has an amplitude of 330 degrees. Here our balance has an amplitude of over 360 degrees. We accomplished this by designing a new escapement. The result is perfect stability even in this extreme scenario. The watch simply works”
“We decided on a grande sonnerie because this would allow us to use a pusher to activate the minute repeater instead of a slide,” added Papi. “This meant we could waterproof the button and the whole watch. Because of our Supersonnerie technology with our soundboard, even through the watch is water resistant to 20 meters, sound is not affected in any way. This is really a grande complication you can swim in and even play golf with, because we’ve optimized the stability and robustness of every detail.”
Olivia Crouan, AP’s Chief Brand Officer, says, “This is really the future for all complicated watches at Audemars Piguet. We want to continue to create the most extraordinary complications, but also have them be the most user-friendly, reliable and comfortable watches in the world.”
With the creation of the Code 11:59 Universelle, it appears that the Le Brassus manufacture is already well on the way to achieving this very admirable goal.