Let’s get a couple of things about Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Starwheel collection out of the way up front. It was introduced in 2019 as a clear commercial effort by AP to be something more than the Royal Oak. Second, that initial time-only Code 11.59 was a relatively uninspired way to introduce a collection that was supposed to represent “the future of AP.”
Today, Audemars Piguet announced the latest addition to the Code 11.59 collection, the “Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Starwheel.” More than three years since that initial Code 11.59 release – and more than 30 Code 11.59 models into the collection – we’re far enough removed from that initial launch to evaluate new Code 11.59 models on their own terms. Not every release needs to be a referendum on Audemars Piguet or the Code 11.59.
That said, this might be the most interesting Code 11.59 yet.
Yes, it’s an inherently weird watch, with a complication originally designed by a couple of Roman clockmakers for a pope in the 17th century, and a brash case construction that’s as technically fascinating as it is confounding to wear. No, this particular watch isn’t the “next Royal Oak,” or even “the future of AP” – it’s just a watch, and that’s just fine.
This new Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Starwheel has a wandering hours complication inside an 18-karat white gold Code 11.59 case with a black ceramic midcase. It’s a time-only watch. The 12 wandering hour disks “wander” across the dial, with the current hour pointing to the current minute along the 120-degree minute track at the top of the dial. For example, the time in the image above is about 10:36. The next hour disk reaches the minute track at the turn of the hour. It’s actually a somewhat intuitive, elegant way of telling the time. The rotating disks are fixed on the central rotor wheel, each attaching to the rotor by a star wheel at the center of the disk. Hence the name.
It’s a little trite to call anything in watchmaking “romantic” nowadays, but I guess it’s fitting here: Not only is the wandering hour complication itself anachronistic, but so is the effect on the wearer. One could, if one wanted, wax poetic about watching each hour rise and set as it works its way across the dial, like a (just slightly) more practical moonphase. The implementation is fairly simple, too. The central rotor completes a revolution every three hours, while the hour disks make a quarter turn (90 degrees) every hour.
At $57,900, the price isn’t outlandish (well, not any more outlandish than, say, Cartier asking $44,000 for its new Pebble). Sure, it’s a lot of money, but it’s not a lot more than you’d pay for an original Audemars Piguet Starwheel from the 1990s, and there’s a hell of a lot more modern watchmaking to unpack here.
To achieve this, Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Starwheel added a wandering-hour module to its time-only caliber 4309. On the dial, black opaline disks rotate above a blue aventurine dial and a black inner bezel. The font on the hour disks and minute track is decidedly modern, and a white gold center seconds sweeps atop the whole apparatus. Meanwhile, the white gold case, with its black ceramic midcase (which we’ve seen AP use a few times now), is the type of complicated construction AP promised when it first introduced the Code 11.59, beveled edges and all.
The Starwheel complication is a callback to the Starwheel AP introduced in 1991, which is itself an implementation of the wandering hours complication that Roman clockmakers the Campani Brothers developed for a pope in the 17th century (here’s an example of the complication in one of their clocks in the British Museum). The original Starwheel had a traditional, 36mm case, a dressy watch that had more in common with AP’s ultra-thin perpetual calendar than with the Royal Oak. A wandering hours complication in a traditional profile wasn’t intended to rival the Royal Oak in 1991, nor is it in 2022.
AP produced the Starwheel in a number of variations through the early ’90s, typically in yellow gold or platinum (and eventually, in rose gold), with guilloche or Arabesque engraved dials. Rarer are gem-set examples: last year, Antiquorum sold a pair of unique Starwheels with ruby- and emerald-set bezels for more than $100,000. Like the entire made-up category of neo-vintage, appreciation for Starwheels of all types has grown: While a standard yellow-gold Starwheel could be found selling for $8,000 just four years ago, today they might sell for $30,000 to $40,000.
In 1996, Audemars Piguet discontinued this first generation of the Starwheel, along with the rest of its classic model lineup (goodbye, Starwheel; goodbye ultra-thin perpetual calendar; hello, The Beast!). But AP wasn’t finished with the Starwheel altogether: it’d bring back the complication in its short-lived John Shaeffer Collection, and then in the Millenary. The John Schaeffer Collection was inspired by a single cushion-shaped minute repeater watch from the early 1900s, commissioned by American industrialist (and watch collector) John Schaeffer.
In the 1990s, AP used the watch as inspiration to introduce a small line of mostly complicated watches. Among these were limited runs of the Starwheel, paired in a cushion case along with a minute repeater – production of these is counted in the dozens, with most variations having been produced in limited runs of ten, five, or three. Nowadays, these John Schaeffer Starwheels are some of the most coveted: The last example to publicly surface sold for $100,000 more than two years ago. Finally, in 2000, to celebrate its 125th anniversary AP introduced a limited edition of the Starwheel in the Millenary.
While AP was finished with the Starwheel by 2000, its impact on the watch industry remained: most notably, Urwerk has used the wandering hours complication in dizzying varieties since its launch in 1997. Not only that, but hardcore collectors – and even staffers inside AP, by its own admission – immediately lamented the departure of the Starwheel. To many, the original Starwheel represents an example of a large Swiss brand innovating its way beyond the Quartz Crisis.
Sure, it’s not an icon like the Royal Oak. Nor is it as important to Audemars Piguet as its ultra-thin perpetual calendar. But the Starwheel is a niche that collectors have come to enjoy, not only for its unique aesthetic and way of displaying time but also for the era of watchmaking it represents. For serious collectors, the Starwheel is something to collect in its own right. And in a world where collectors love “firsts,” the Starwheel will always have a following as the first modern wandering hours watch.
Today, the Starwheel is back where it started, with AP. Only time will tell if this new Starwheel – or really, Code 11.59 more broadly – will mean something similar to this era.
Enough of the history lesson. Let’s talk about this Code 11.59 Starwheel and how it wears. Take a look at most comment sections of our Code 11.59 coverage, and you’ll see a common sentiment shared (okay, you’ll see a few common sentiments): One is reflexive snark dating back to the original release, which by now is a tired joke. A more constructive take is that the Code 11.59 needs to be seen in person to be really understood, if not appreciated. Honestly, I think the Starwheel photographs as well as any Code 11.59 yet (maybe that’s just thanks to this ace photography from Mark Kauzlarich, though), but yes – it’s still a better experience in person.
I was chatting with an artist the other day (I know, sick brag, Tony), who explained to me how every painting, no matter how simple or how busy, needs an “entry point,” a place that pulls your eyes in first before they work their way across the rest of the painting. Now, I’m not one of those people who argues that watchmaking is art or anything like that, but I couldn’t help but think of this artist’s idea as the wandering hour disk indicating the current time naturally caught my eyes before they, well, wandered across the other disks and caught a glimpse of the aventurine underneath, before then trying to figure out what the hell was going on with that case. It made me think that maybe all the stuff going on with the Code 11.59 Starwheel actually does work together.
As Logan hypothesized after the last round of (complicated) Code 11.59 releases, perhaps this is the best use of the Code 11.59: as a home for complications. Not just complications in the traditional, mechanical watchmaking sense (after all, wandering hours aren’t that complicated, as far as such things go), but also in case making, in materials, in throwing a bunch of things together and seeing what sticks.
I already mentioned AP’s John Shaeffer Collection from the 1990s – back then, it was “innovative” for AP to stick its complicated, modern watchmaking in those traditional, cushion cases. But would it be today? Sure, it’d be a hit – just look at what Cartier’s done with its Privé collection the last few years. So-called purists gush over it, hardly mentioning the (ahem) aggressive pricing of that limited-edition Pebble. But what AP’s trying with the Code 11.59 is more challenging – more challenging to itself as a manufacturer and to us as so-called collectors. More, well, complicated.
Is the Code 11.59 Starwheel the future of AP beyond the Royal Oak? Of course not, nor does it claim to be. But if AP is to find such a future, it’s not going to be in superheroes or soundboards. It’ll be in the type of watchmaking that the Starwheel represents.