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The Most Important Audemars Piguet Watches Ever Created: Part I

The Most Important Audemars Piguet Watches Ever Created: Part I

By Randy Lai
17 Nov 2023
9 min read

In the first of a two-part feature to wrap-up our ICONS series for 2023, we look at a handful of the most mechanically and culturally significant watches released by AP in the previous century 

After years spent handling its watches and cataloging its myriad personalities, I’ve come to see Audemars Piguet—that most famous of luxury watchmakers from the Vallée de Joux—as a brand made up of dual identities.

The first of these is a creature of pure modernity: dominant across social media and deeply entrenched in popular culture, this is the version of AP that even garners recognition from an artist on the level of Kendrick Lamar.

Occasionally in conflict with that glossy, unobtainium image is the company’s (arguably longer-lived) reputation as a bedrock for classically understated horology. Still a family-run business four generations on, many of the watches created by AP over its 148-year history have flown below the zeitgeist’s radar.

In the first of two stories dedicated to the brand, we aim to correct this—naturally, with an obligatory mention of the original Royal Oak—by exploring a number of highly influential Audemars Piguet models. While some predate the introduction of reference numbers, all were released at least 30 years ago; and have, at various times throughout history, warranted a place in the brand’s private Museum collection.

Our discussion of the most important ‘modern’ models continues in Part II…

The Louis Brandt Wrist-Worn Minute Repeater (1892)

The ‘Louis Brandt’ pocket watch, manufactured just before the turn of the 20th century, exemplifies just how rich (and indeed influential) Audemars Piguet’s legacy of complicated watchmaking is.

Just one year after it completed a minute repeater measuring 18mm in diameter, the company was tasked with producing a similar complication on behalf of watch merchants, Louis Brandt & Frère. Beyond the obvious technical challenge associated with such chiming mechanisms - doubly so, in the 1890s - Louis Brandt requested that its commission be made for wristwear.

Thus, the world’s first minute-repeating wristwatch was born.

The Louis Brandt Wrist-Worn Minute Repeater, circa 1892 Photo: Omega
The Louis Brandt Wrist-Worn Minute Repeater, circa 1892 Photo: Omega

Over 100 years later, the company established by the Brandt family, now known as OMEGA, is in possession of the original watch. Naturally, most of OMEGA’s marketing material credits it as the driving force behind history’s first wrist-worn minute repeater. Yet that claim wouldn’t be possible, were it not for AP’s expertise in the field of miniaturization; and the unique custom of etablissage, practiced among Swiss watchmakers in the 19th century.

In decades since, AP has gone on to prove that what it achieved back then was no mere fluke. In 1992, (exactly 100 years after the Louis Brandt minute repeater) the company unveiled the world’s first automatic minute repeater wristwatch: this time around, with a chronograph and perpetual calendar.

The First Wristwatch With ‘Jumping’ Hour Display (1921)

Referred to - somewhat confusingly - as “digital watches”, jumping hour complications (a.k.a heures sautantes) have virtually nothing to do with the battery-powered, quartz-regulated mechanisms that are endemic of modern watchmaking. 

The First Wristwatch With ‘Jumping’ Hour Display, circa 1921 Photo: Phillips
The First Wristwatch With ‘Jumping’ Hour Display, circa 1921 Photo: Phillips

Rather, the ‘digital’ aspect of a mechanical jump-hour has to do with the manner in which time is displayed. Unlike a conventional wristwatch with an ‘analogue’ display (where time is measured by tracking a set of hands as they travel across a fixed scale) the jumping mechanism reflects changes in the hour instantaneously.

That effect is achieved by enclosing an hour disc inside its own separate aperture on the dial; which then must jump forward one position on the hour, every hour with absolute precision.

In spite of the huge demands placed upon a watch’s power supply and rate of oscillation by the jumping hour mechanism, numerous watchmakers (e.g. Austrian inventor Josef Pallweber) had already begun successfully incorporating it into pocket watches during the 1880s. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century, amidst the groundbreaking new cultural modes of the Art-Deco, that Audemars Piguet would craft the first ever jumping-hour wristwatch.

Pocket watch with a Pallweber III movement, circa 1887 Photo: IWC
Pocket watch with a Pallweber III movement, circa 1887 Photo: IWC

Unveiled in 1921 - initially, as both a pocket watch and wrist watch - this original design, powered by the calibre HPVM10, offers us a glimpse into what must have felt like a complete break with the then-popular way in which we tell and express time.

In conjunction with the case’s rectangular shape and simple uninterrupted geometry; it’s unsurprising that so many of these minute repeaters - manufactured during the interwar period known as the “Roaring Twenties” - were sought after in the US.

Fun fact: At the Musée Atelier, visitors can see at least two rectangular jump-hours, made within three years of one another (1926-1929), supplied to the Metric Watch Co in New York - AP’s exclusive American distributor at the time.

The First Perpetual Calendar With A Leap-Year Indication (1955)

Right from the very inception of their business, Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet were already supplying roughly 12 perpetual calendars to clients every year.

Historians widely cite the 1940s as the decade when Audemars Piguet “perfected” its mastery over the technical aspects of this very useful complication; and enthusiasts can certainly see this in the creation of the brand’s Valjoux-derived calendar-chronographs in 1945.

Still, Patek Philippe had managed to miniaturize the perpetual calendar for wrists 20 years earlier. But in 1955, AP finally managed to outdo its longtime rival - by becoming the first watchmaker to invent a perpetual calendar with a leap-year indication.

Audemars Piguet Ref. 5516 from 1950 Photo: Audemars Piguet
Audemars Piguet Ref. 5516 from 1950 Photo: Audemars Piguet

Designated the Ref. 5516, these were the first Swiss calendar watches capable of illustrating the difference between years in which February has 28 versus 29 days. Depending on when the relevant 5516 was produced, this was indicated to the wearer in subtly different ways.

Audemars Piguet's Ref. 5516 perpetual calendar wristwatch from the 1950s Photo: Audemars Piguet
Audemars Piguet's Ref. 5516 perpetual calendar wristwatch from the 1950s Photo: Audemars Piguet

For the first series, the leap-year indicator was contained within the sub-dial that displays 48 months. Then, in 1957, AP did away with that system in favor of a simpler, eminently more elegant display - in which the leap year had its own sub-dial (located at 12 o’clock).

The technical genius of this achievement is something that watch writers have and shall continue to gush over for years to come. For yours truly however, the bigger piece of the puzzle is the impact that the Ref. 5516 has had (as a total package) on the way that other watch brands design their perpetual calendars. 

For instance: it’s endless fun to speculate about whether, in later decades, Philippe Stern, Patek’s then-commander-in-chief, had these watches in mind whilst he was developing the Ref. 3940.

More than likely, that’s a question we shall never get a definitive answer to. But when you really consider the 5516’s wearability (the case is a near-perfect 36.5mm) and the genius way in which it simplifies so much information, you’d have to be insane not to follow its example.

The Royal Oak, A Progenitor Of The Luxury Sports Watch (1972)

Try as one might, no seriously credible list of the most “important” watches Audemars Piguet has ever produced could stand the omission of the Ref. 5402 Royal Oak.

Sketch of the original Royal Oak Photo: Gérald Genta Heritage
Sketch of the original Royal Oak Photo: Gérald Genta Heritage

Arguably the apotheosis—even 50 years later—of collaborative engineering, singular creativity, and visionary leadership (the kind marketing executives at other brands pray daily for) it’s one of the few steel sports watches we might dispassionately describe as an “icon”. Less compliment, more statement of fact.

Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak A Series Ref. 5402
Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak A Series Ref. 5402

Today, watches derived (in one way or another) from the original Royal Oak lineage account for around 90% of AP’s annual sales - a testament to that design’s timelessness and near-universal popularity.

There are, of course, no shortage of anecdotes about the creation myth of the 5402 worth retelling. There’s the watch’s symbolic connection to a tree beloved by English royals or the fact that its shape (designed at the last minute by gun-for-hire Gerald Genta) was inspired by portholes you’d find aboard Royal Navy warships.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 15202IP
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Ref. 15202IP

Unsurprisingly, among budding enthusiasts, these are all fun tales to spin. Yet time and time again, I’ve found my attention returning to the business-end of the 5402’s origin - and the ramifications that greenlighting such a product continues to have for AP.

According to author François Chaille, the first run of 5402s presented an unprecedented “industrial challenge” to the watchmakers and management of Audemars Piguet. The now-iconic, tapering bracelet alone required 154 different components (many of them steel). For the dial, Genta managed to convince Roland Tille, Head of Design at Stern Frères, to create an entirely new style of lozenge-like engraving known as tapisserie.

Suffice to say, originality brought with it a host of original problems. “Not only had the firm never produced more than [6,000] watches per year,” says Chaille, “its watchmakers had never worked in steel”. But in seeing the inaugural series of 1,000 Royal Oaks to market, AP was also able to make the leap into the 21st century.

As Chaille so succinctly puts:

[The company] had to revitalize its traditional methods on a grand new scale…in which rigor, precision, and quality control were required at every stage of production.

The First Self-Winding Wristwatch With A Tourbillon (1986)

The tourbillon, first patented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1801, is widely considered to be one of those lodestones of complicated watchmaking. Beautiful, elaborate, somewhat superfluous in the 21st century - and all the better for it.

Yet despite the notorious difficulty associated with creating such complex regulating mechanisms, experts estimate that Audemars Piguet has made several hundred watches that incorporate tourbillons over the course of its history.

Latterly, among a certain kind of weapons-grade horology geek, the Ref. 25643 is considered a high watermark for AP’s work in the category. Even with a cursory explanation (such as the one I’m about to give) you’ll quickly see why.

Audemars Piguet's Ref. 25643 Photo: Christie's
Audemars Piguet's Ref. 25643 Photo: Christie's

When the 25643 was unveiled in 1986, it was the first tourbillon wristwatch from a Swiss marque to incorporate a self-winding movement. In part, the brand’s watchmakers were able to achieve this mechanical synthesis because the complication itself was frighteningly light—weighing, cage and all, a total of just 0.134g.

The significance with which AP’s top brass regarded these achievements is borne out by the watch’s unusual design. To cement its uniqueness, the brand tapped Jacqueline Dimier (already well-known for her work on the Ref. 5548) to craft a case and dial inspired by solar rays.

Even in the modern era, what Dimier came up with (earning the 25643 the nickname “Sun God” in the process) feels utterly singular. The dial’s engraved ridges, combined with the rotor and tourbillon - positioned at 6 and 10 o’clock respectively - give this watch an appropriately mythic quality.

In addition, the 25643 is just one more brilliant illustration of how AP’s engineers and designers are able to convey complex thematic ideas through watchmaking’s physical aspect. For instance: the crown used to wind the movement was intentionally hidden on the caseback (which also doubles as the watch’s mainplate). Why? Because Dimier and her cohorts wanted to celebrate the hands-off nature of this new invention. Fiendishly clever.