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Demystifying the controversy around Audemars Piguet’s new collection

Code 11.59, Audemars Piguet’s first major new collection in a long while, drew considerable flak when it launched, but CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias isn’t fazed by the firestorm. Here’s why.

Demystifying the controversy around Audemars Piguet’s new collection

Audemars Piguet's Code 11.59 Tourbillon Openworked, in 18K pink gold, features a skeletonised movement. (Photo: Audemars Piguet)

It’s 11:59 pm. One minute to midnight. Sixty seconds before a new day begins. There’s excitement in the air, a palpable sense of anticipation. This was exactly the sentiment that Audemars Piguet's branding gurus were going for when they dreamt up the watchmaker’s latest collection, Code 11.59, a collection destined to be the next big pillar, alongside the wildly successful Royal Oak, Royal Oak Offshore and Millenary series.

Audemars Piguet (AP) debuted the collection on Instagram – as so many luxury brands are wont to do these days – a day ahead of the start of SIHH 2019, ensuring that it would be the talk of the town.

The backlash it faced in the ensuing minutes, hours and days of the launch was something else altogether. To call it a “s***storm” – as a few media outlets put it – might be a bit harsh. Many keyboard warriors/WIS (Watch Idiot Savants) were not bashful in telling the brand exactly how they felt about the Code.

On Twitter, Instagram and web forums, many felt that the Code 11.59 watches were disappointing. Some said the watches no longer had AP DNA left in its veins. Others criticised the Code for not eliciting the same level of excitement a Royal Oak would.

For the most part, the criticisms that were being levelled came from the same milieu where the watches were launched to begin with – the digital sphere. Many of these keyboard warriors/WIS hadn’t actually seen the watches in person.

The entry-level selfwinding model shows off a white lacquered dial. (Photo: Audemars Piguet)

On the flip side, many of the journalists who were on the ground at SIHH 2019 had quite a different verdict. One simple explanation for this online “s***storm” as it were, is the fact that maybe the photos didn’t do the watch justice.

READ> The timepieces debuting at SIHH 2019 that have the industry buzzing

According to Bloomberg, AP CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias said that when they released the Royal Oak Frosted Gold watches two years ago, it took them five months to get a picture that perfectly captured the effect.

One of the watch’s most attractive aspects is its double domed sapphire crystal, which generates an optical effect that enhances the appearance of the dial to the wearer. This, unfortunately, did not come across in the photos. Even a video wasn’t much help; the subtleties of the crystal architecture were lost.

Who in their right mind would buy a luxury stainless steel sports watch, was the overarching sentiment at the time. Well, a thousand people eventually did, although it took AP four years to do so. Ironic, considering how stainless steel watches routinely outperform their precious metal counterparts at auctions these days.

Despite all the controversy – or perhaps that was the intention all along – Bennahmias wasn’t/isn’t fazed. His confidence was apparent during an interview with watch blog Hodinkee's editors prior to the collection’s launch.

And this confidence manifests in the collection’s broad, comprehensive offering. While most brands might release entry-level models (three-hand automatics, maybe a modular chronograph) to test the waters with a new collection, AP decided to go the whole hog.

Code 11.59 comes with 13 references and offers brand new in-house movements including a flying tourbillon and an integrated chronograph movement, which many fans have been dying to see in the Royal Oak. The case, while appearing round when viewed front on, is actually more complex: Its midsection is octagonal and sports alternating brushed and polished finishes. And the bottom section of the lugs aren’t secured to the case; they rest gently against it. These details are best appreciated in person.

Testing the waters AP is not. No, the firm is certain that the collection will live on. In Bennahmias’ words, he wants to push 2,000 Code 11.59 watches in the first year and is aiming for the collection to make up 20 to 25 per cent of the brand’s global offering in the future. (This also means a reduction in the supply of Royal Oaks and Royal Oak Offshores, but that’s another story for another day).

His faith in the collection is not unfounded; just before the official unveiling of Code 11.59, AP held a private event in Le Brassus (the brand’s headquarters and spiritual home in the Swiss Jura) for 125 clients and many of them, he says, put down orders for watches.

Whether or not Code 11.59 will catch on, we'll have to wait and see. But if we were to put our money on how things will play out, we’d bet on the man who propelled AP to cross the US$1 billion (S$1.35 billion) sales mark in 2018.

Source: CNA/ds