Wandering star: Audemars Piguet’s new Code 11.59 Starwheel watch

Engmatic and alluring, this timepiece has a suitably spiritual backstory

The Starwheel is back as part of the watchmaker’s Code 11.59 collection
The Starwheel is back as part of the watchmaker’s Code 11.59 collection
(Image credit: Audemars Piguet )

Audemars Piguet’s new code 11.59 Starwheel watch has papal provenance. The movement is a modern interpretation of a wandering hours complication first devised for Pope Alexander VII in the 17th century by Giuseppe, Pietro Tomasso and Matteo Campani – otherwise known as the Campani Brothers – who were the clockmaking maestros of the Renaissance.

For the record, Pope Alexander VII was not a power thirsty character, but he was a big spender, especially when it came to his passion for art and architecture. During his 12-year rule, the pontiff struck up a close friendship with the Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, becoming one of his greatest patrons. He commissioned the artist to design The Throne of Saint Peter in St Peter’s Basilica and to enclose St Peter’s Square with its majestic colonnade.

At the age of 80, Bernini also designed the tomb of Pope Alexander VII in St Peter’s, which shows him peacefully absorbed in prayer. In truth, the pope was often deeply preoccupied by Rome’s political upheavals, not least because he and King Louis XIV of France were often at odds with each other, with the latter often undermining his authority. This couldn’t have helped his chronic insomnia, which he claimed was exacerbated by the incessant ticking of a clock in his room.

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With a taste for luxury, a love of craftsmanship and a longing for some decent shut-eye, he requested that the Campani Brothers create a new clock for him with a silent escapement and a display that could be read at night. They came up with the goods in the form of a mechanism that used two apertures (one for odd numbers, the other for even numbers) over a moving disc that took two hours to fully rotate. This quiet and continual movement allowed one numeral to appear every hour, with the passage of time marking itself across a top arc, which was also decorated with the quarter hours and lit by an oil lamp.

Today, the pope’s ornately decorated Campani clock, inscribed with the date 1683, is on display at the British Museum along with a slightly later model from 1700 by John Bushman decorated with a portrait of King William III in gold repoussé.

The Starwheel is back as part of the watchmaker’s Code 11.59 collection

(Image credit: Audemars Piguet)

A sleek, astronomical look

So where does Audemars Piguet fit into this story? The answer is much earlier than you may think, since an ultra-precise wandering hours system was reintroduced by Audemars Piguet in 1991 after one of the marque’s expert technicians read about the 400-year-old mechanism in the Journal Suisse D’horlogerie.

As such, around 30 Starwheel models were produced by the manufacturer between 1991 and 2003 in several different collections, and each one has become highly collectible, with many fetching more than double their reserve price at auction. Indeed, a millennium steel model, made to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Audemars Piguet, sold for more than £36,000 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Important Watches sale in 2021, trebling its asking price.

This year, the Starwheel is back, boasting a sleek, almost astronomical look as part of the watchmaker’s elegant Code 11.59 collection which made its debut in 2019. But why explore such a novel complication now, 20 years on from its last iteration? According to Sébastian Vivas, head of heritage and museum director at Audemars Piguet, the complexity of the display required a strong geometrical reframing. “The shape and structure of the 11.59 lends itself perfectly to this very complex system,” he said. “Architecturally speaking, the starwheel needs space, which it gets from this design’s multiple geometries, and particularly its uniquely shaped octagonal middle case. In fact, when we first launched the 11.59, many watch lovers and experts anticipated this release. We received many requests for it”

Presenting time as a kind of theatre

Certainly, it has gone down well in watch circles and is just the kind of release to boost Audemars Piguet’s allure, which in turn adds prestige to all existing collections. Is the Code 11.59 Starwheel “the future of AP” beyond the iconic Royal Oak timepiece, asked Mark Kauzlarich on Hodinkee. “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.”

Die hard Royal Oak fans may be happily surprised by this complicated newcomer, said Zach Kazan on Worn & Wound. “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.”

Vivas has his own reasons for loving the new Code 11.59 Starwheel which he describes as “retro-futuristic”. It has to do with the way that it presents time as a kind of theatre. “It’s so very well-balanced. For the first time, the dial has a central seconds hand which gives the timepiece a sense of dynamism as it sweeps across the dial,” he said. “A sense of movement and depth is accentuated by the contrasting colours of the black middle case, inner bezel and the little spheres against the shimmering blue of a blue aventurine backdrop. Of course, it is a very technical time-telling device, but to me the dial is like a vision of the cosmos set against a star-studded sky. C’est de la magie, as they say in French.”

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