When we talk about Audemars Piguet, the conversation almost always centers on the Royal Oak. It’s almost a cliche at this point to critique AP as a brand that focuses on a single product line, but it also speaks to the enduring popularity of the Royal Oak that the press, collector community, and those who simply admire the watch that they can’t stop talking about. The Royal Oak is impressive, to be sure, but as someone who doesn’t really have eyes on owning one and spends his workday considering the place of brands like AP in the larger context of the watch community, I have to admit that I find myself wishing that the brand would make a concerted effort to leverage the Royal Oak’s popularity into creating something new and different. The brand, after all, has existed since 1875. It had almost 100 years of history under its belt before the first Royal Oak left the manufacture. It goes without saying that they’re capable of making all kinds of incredible watches that don’t have octagonal cases or integrated bracelets.
Like many, I was excited when AP debuted the Code 11.59 line in 2019. Finally, it seemed like the brand realized that being a one-trick Royal Oak pony wasn’t the best look for a house in the so-called “Holy Trinity” of watchmaking. Unfortunately, the reaction to the Code fell rather flat. While the watches have always had their supporters, they were met with a certain amount of derision by peanut galleries on every major watch website. To make matters somewhat worse, Royal Oak mania hadn’t even peaked by the time the Code hit boutique displays. Throughout 2020 and 2021, Royal Oaks of all stripes became harder and harder to come by. AP continued to tinker with and update the Code, releasing new references here and there, but the line never saw a bonafide “hit” watch make it to market.
Cut to last week, and a new surprise announcement from Audemars Piguet comes across the transom. Not only is it very much not a Royal Oak, it’s a Code 11.59 that actually seems to be gaining quick traction across social media and the broader watch community. The new Code 11.59 Starwheel is easily the most talked about Code to debut since the collection made its splashy debut nearly 4 years ago, and it’s largely a result of the return of the wandering hours complication that gives the watch its name.
The Starwheel watches are favorites among AP connoisseurs as they represent an era that the brand has long since passed, and the watches themselves are quirky while still being quite beautiful. The Starwheel is very much a product of the 1990s, with the first one being introduced in 1991 and production stretching through the remainder of the decade before it was (mostly) killed off. A variety of Starwheels were made in different precious metals and dial variants, but they all featured the same wandering hours complication employing a trio of rotating discs that indicate the hours, with minutes read via a pointer on one such disc as it crosses a 60 minute scale laced across the top of the dial.
And now the Starwheel is back via the Code 11.59, linking much loved but niche AP product with one that is similarly niche but perhaps not as much loved. Some of the early reaction, though, might indicate that the tide could be shifting on the code. The watch is quite striking, rendering those three rotating hour discs in black against an aventurine dial. An interior bezel in black circles the entire dial and provides a readout of the seconds and minutes across the top of the dial (Starwheels from the 90s didn’t include a running seconds hand, but this one does, and it’s centrally mounted). The black and blue color palette gives this watch a somewhat casual feel, even with the traditionally more formal aventurine.
As cool as it is to see the return of the Starwheel, any Code 11.59 watch is truly defined by its complex case architecture. It’s a three piece, 41mm case with hollow lugs connecting the circular bezel and caseback sections with a separate octagonal midcase in between. In this particular example, the case itself is white gold, and the midcase is black ceramic. I haven’t handled the new Starwheel yet, but case finishing on other 11.59 references is exactly what you’d expect from AP, so there’s quite a bit of drama in the profile view of one of these cases. I’m personally a pretty big fan of the visual impression left by the Code 11.59, and have come to feel that those early releases were a bit unfairly maligned. If you appreciate the complex geometry of a Royal Oak, there’s an awful lot of that to be found in the Code as well.
The new Starwheel is powered by AP’s in-house caliber 4310, which uses their time only 4309 caliber as a base, but with a module attached for the wandering hours complication. Given that the movement architecture isn’t integrated, it’s impressive that AP was able to keep the case height to just 10.7mm. Then again, Audemars Piguet knows a thing or two about thin movements. The caliber can be viewed through a sapphire glass caseback and it looks to have the type of decoration you’d expect on a watch at this price point (just shy $60,000) including a solid gold, skeletonized winding rotor.
Whereas Starwheels from the 90s feel like Audemars Piguet working within a classical watchmaking tradition (the designs are quite dressy and somewhat old fashioned, even with a complication that was novel in its time), the new Starwheel aboard the Code 11.59 strikes me as being quite contemporary. That’s partly due to the nature of the Code case, which is an entirely original design that doesn’t have much of a precedent, but AP has created something entirely modern with this watch thanks to thinking through small details like the typeface used throughout the dial, the use of ceramic in the case and crown, and the use of a bolstered rubber strap that has a more utilitarian appearance than the exotic leather you’d find on a 90s Starwheel. It’s an update in every sense, using a platform that Audemars Piguet, at least at one point not too long ago, genuinely thought of as the future of the brand.
The retail price on the Code 11.59 Starwheel is $57,900. Check out the Audemars Piguet website for more information.