While the geometrical and avant garde case design of the octogonal Royal Oak might have captured our imaginations since the 70s, the legacy of Audemars Piguet’s watchmaking primacy goes beyond Genta’s winning design. Indeed, vintage Audemars Piguet Calendar watches have have long been recognized by collectors for their rarity, sometimes groundbreaking aesthetics and unquestionable quality.
Thus, it becomes verifiable fact that vintage Audemars Piguet Calendar watches transcend their modern inceptions as collector’s items but are in essence cultural symbols and stylistic icons that are of vital importance to both the Legacy of Audemars Piguet but also of the development of 20th century Swiss watchmaking in the field of the calendar complication.
Legacy of Audemars Piguet Calendar Watches
The Legacy of Audemars Piguet begins in 1875 with the partnership of two watchmakers, Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet, both scions of watchmaking families who specialised in complications and both fierce traditionalists of the hand-crafted Vallée de Joux production process during a period of ever increasing industrialisation. That said, this isn’t some “the hand of the artisan beats the machine any day” type argument, it’s more of a statement of fact to explain why some references of vintage Audemars Piguet Calendar watches differed in dimensions or sometimes even finishing at times and why they are of significant horological interest to serious collectors (even if they have been underrated by the larger community). It was in 1895, that the first step was taken towards the idea of producing models. After 20 years of crafting unique pieces, the founders decided to make batches of near identical movements to be fitted in various cases and with a diversity of dials. It was the beginning of the use of designated calibre numbers at Audemars Piguet.
A family run business all this time, one of watchmaking’s last independent watchmakers employed between 10 and 30 people until 1950, and it was only in the 1970s that the number of employees exceeded 100. But through good times and bad, production volumes weren’t voluminous – a few hundred per year and during the period after a Great Depression, a few dozen. It’s this practice of controlled production which continues today as assured by CEO Benhamias during his opening address at SIHH 2017 and why Audemars Piguet has achieved double digit growth figures during a bad year for the industry in general (well, that and healthier boutique sales).
The first Audemars Piguet calendar watches with pointer and window display mechanisms powered by the calibre 10GHSM
Traditionally referred to as “cadrature” or underdial mechanisms, the first Audemars Piguet calendar watches were powered by the calibre 10GHSM. 698 movements were produced from 1924 to 1931 with 108 of them fitted with calendar mechanisms. Just how rare are vintage Audemars Piguet calendar watches with the calibre 10GHSM? Of the 108 produced, 2 are in platinum, 2 in platinum and gold and another 35 in “green gold”. 62 watches of this series were made in white gold, forming the majority of the production run.
In keeping with Art Deco style of the era, 74 of these watches were designated as “rect” or “forme carrée long”. Another 63 were described as “tortue” or “turtle”, 4 of them termed as “coussin” or “cushion”, one as “half tonneau” and a piece unique with articulated or movable lugs. 10 remaining rectangular calendar watches from the era were eventually recased into round watches. That said, the image reference is only a rough guide due to the great variety of dial design and hands for any of the mentioned case shapes. Similarly, case proportions between two comparable case shapes would on occasion vary up to 2mm.
Another gorgeous, highly sought after Audemars Piguet triple calendars with moonphase is this unique offering with three-tone dial.. This example here is one of just four made, all between 1926 and 1930, but sold between 1942 and 1948. According to official sources, it’s not driven by the calibre 9/10RS.
Two of the four examples recorded in the archives are transformations carried out in the 1940s of watches made in the 1920s and sold in the following decade with Art DEco cases and dials. They were designated “ronde 31” or round 31 or “Eggly 31” – the numeral refers to the date indicator and in the case of Eggly, manufacturer of the watch case.
The Audemars Piguet Full Calendar Chronograph with the Calibre 13VZAQ
Though there were almost 2300 watches based on the Valjoux 13 lignes movement blanks, Audemars Piguet only produced 20 with combined chronograph and calendar functions between 1941 and 1943; and these watches were sold from 1942 to 1959, sold over a period of 17 years. Once more, the dials and cases almost always differ, either fundamentally or in minor details.
The earliest of the 10 examples of full calendar chronographs are recorded as being sold in 1942. Today, they are owned and on display at the Audemars Piguet Museum. This exquisite model is described as “having two-tone dial made of “vieil or vert 14 carats” or 14-carat green gold. The leaf hands are also gold in keeping with the company’s earliest traditions while the blue chronograph hand matches the colour of the blue tachymeter scale.
Post-War Audemars Piguet Calendar watches were powered by the Calibre 9/10RSQ
2,811 Audemars Piguet watches were fitted with the calibre 9/10RS movement but only 68 were produced with calendar functions. They were made in four different models from 1945 to 1950, all of which were sold between 1949 and 1967. They reflected Audemars Piguet’s design philosophy and spirit after the terrible second world war.
Looking for a replacement for the calibre 10GHSM, the watchmakers selected a recent movement chose the calibre 9/10RS and created a special cadrature to provide the calendar functions that the archives refer to intermittently by adding the letter Q for quantième (dates) to the calibre designation, which then became 9/10RSQ.
When Audemars Piguet presented the first watch in 1949, the workshops employed 33 watchmakers and technicians. By the time these dedicated and talented employees entered retirement, they had clocked up a total of 760 years of service.
The 5516: World’s First Perpetual Calendar with Leap Year indicator
The 5516 model is a landmark reference as it is the first ever perpetual-calendar wristwatch produced in a series to indicate the leap year cycle on the dial; but what makes it extra special? The rarity. Only 12 were ever produced. In terms of provenance, the vintage Audemars Piguet Calendar 5516 is also the only vintage perpetual calendar wristwatch from that period. No one, not even Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin or Omega made one.. Finally, the 5516 perpetual calendar with leap year indicator leap frogged Patek Philippe’s ref. 3450 by over 30 years.
More importantly, the 5516 is also an exemplar of why I’ve often been enamoured of the etablissage system established in the Vallee de Joux on the 18th century where hundreds of small, specialised and independent craftsmen and workshops worked together to supply Audemars Piguet with components and services. The movement ebauches were provided by Valjoux with independent artisan Alfred Aubert working on the cadrature and then they were assembled and finished and then marketed with prestigious retailers like Tiffany & Co.
Of the 12 ever produced, 9 of the 5516s shows leap year at 12 o’clock, while the moonphase is at 6 o’clock. This perpetual calendar dial configuration continues to exist today with AP’s latest Royal Oak perpetual calendar. Eventually, variations of the 5516 would be made by Audemars Piguet for other watchmakers Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin.
Aesthetically, what made the 5516 one of the most important reference pieces to Audemars Piguet’s provenance and design philosophy was the introduction of an off-white dial providing subtle contrast with a silvery stepped and textured sub-dials – making the two-tone dial super legible and setting the template for the modern perpetual calendar for other watchmakers to mimic. The 5516 is proof in pudding that Audemars Piguet did master the rules (at least for perpetual calendars) before eventually breaking them.
The last time a 5516 was up for auction by Christie’s, it was estimated to fetch between USD150,000 to USD300,000. Bidding closed at USD545,000. Stay tuned for Part 2.