Women have always been at the heart of Audemars Piguet, says the brand’s head of complications, Anne-Gaëlle Quinet, as she spearheads the launch of its most complicated wristwatch ever.
Audemars Piguet’s spirit of rebellion and avant-gardism has enraptured us for so many generations and permeates through so many of the house’s collections. The Royal Oak is a story told many times over, so we won’t repeat it again. Less told – but of equally great significance – is the birth of the female version of the Royal Oak in 1976, a watch that sparked the first-ever conversation about gender in watchmaking. The female Royal Oak proved that women’s timepieces didn’t have to be minuscule, secret or dressed up in diamonds. It also proved the Royal Oak wasn’t hyper-masculine or reserved only for men. And to everyone’s surprise in the ’70s, the designer behind it all was a female watchmaker: Jacqueline Dimier.
Women in watchmaking is a subject broached from time to time, often ending with the same lament, “Why aren’t there more interesting ladies’ timepieces, more complications, and why aren’t there more women at the top in the watchmaking industry?”
I direct this question to Anne-Gaëlle Quinet, the new head of complications at Audemars Piguet, but not because AP’s female offerings were lacking. On the contrary, it was because Audemars Piguet was at the forefront of not only making complicated women’s watches but also appointing women leaders – and just really supportive of women in general.
“Not so much any more,” replies Quinet, at least in the context of AP. “We have a young lady in the restoration workshop and a few ladies working on grand complications. Our head of product and head of brand are also women.” And then, of course, Dimier – an eternal inspiration, who was head of watch design for the brand until 1999. Quinet counts both her mother and Dimier as her heroes.
As she was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the cradle of watchmaking in Switzerland, it was almost destined that Quinet would become a watchmaker – or at the very least, work in the watchmaking industry. It was her mother who persuaded her to enrol in watchmaking school where, Quinet recalls, she was the only woman at the time. She joined Audemars Piguet two years ago and was appointed head of complications at the end of last year. Before that, she spent her formative years at Breguet and more than 20 years at Patek Philippe. But she confides to me, “I’ll always have this feeling I’m part of Patek because I grew up there”; she also knew, however, that if she were ever to move away it would be for AP.
“At one point I was asking myself, ‘OK, would I want to spend the rest of my life at Patek, or would I like to see something else?’ I’m always curious of everything and I wanted to challenge myself. And I always thought that if I had to move from Patek, it was and would only be for Audemars Piguet,” Quinet says.
Touring the museum and the manufacture when she first joined gave her a real sense that AP was a complications manufacture. “Most of them are unique pieces because we didn’t produce in series. It really was our legacy, it’s not just brand marketing.
“And then you see or hear someone talking about this new ultra-complication that will launch in 2023 and I was like, ‘Let’s see how far we can take it and I think the result will be brilliant,’” she says. The watch in question is the RD#4, the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Universelle. It marks the birth of AP’s first ultra-complicated selfwinding wristwatch and is based on the ultra-complicated L’Universelle pocket watch the manufacture produced more than a 120 years ago, in 1899.
Quinet recalls pure joy when she saw the final product, which was seven years in the making. “I was so proud of the fact that we didn’t just produce a timepiece that had more complications or more components than others,” she says. “It was the way we wanted to innovate. We wanted to be creative in everything, from the design to the movement and yes, it was important to us that the watch could be wearable by a woman, a man, everybody.”
The Universelle is the fourth R&D innovation from AP. The first RD#1, a Supersonnerie, was released in 2015; the ultra-thin perpetual calendar movement (RD#2) was launched in 2018, and the flying tourbillon, two versions in the Royal Oak case, arrived in 2022 (RD#3). Built on the last three generations of R&D, at the heart of the Universelle is the selfwinding Calibre 1000, with 1,100 components and counting 40 functions and 23 complications, including a Grand Sonnerie Supersonnerie, a minute repeater, a perpetual calendar, a split-seconds flyback chronograph and a flying tourbillon.
And the grandest feat of all – at least to me and everyone else who has slim wrists – the watch measures only 42mm in diameter and 15.55mm in thickness. The Code 11.59 case size, normally at 41mm, only needed to be increased by 1mm to hold all the complexities and complications in the Universelle.
The complexity of the watch was always considered with equal thought to ergonomics and aesthetics. Highly complicated timepieces tend to come with highly complicated pushers and correctors, but AP has downsized this to just three crowns and three push pieces that make adjusting the indications and activating the chronographs and minute repeaters easy and intuitive, a development that’s still patent-pending.
The watch also features a secret caseback that opens to reveal the movement. The caseback not only improves on the chime of the watch, but also allows for bespoke engraving. In fact, the entirety of the watch could be bespoke, highlighting the Code 11.59 collection as one that offers myriad technical and aesthetic possibilities. Four variations of the model in white or pink gold are introduced this year with different dial options, including closed dials in opaline black galvanic gold or opaline beige PVD gold, and openworked versions that offer a glimpse of the hand-finished components of the Calibre 1000 on the dial side.
The Universelle was years in the making before Quinet came on board, but as the head of complications, there’s so much more she wants to achieve. “First, what I’ll do is to continue what’s been done before – maintaining the human connection between the different departments, the R&D and the product team, as we’re all very close. Then, I want to develop within the AP family, not just to bring new complications but really to innovate. There’s so much passion within the company, you’re not just part of the family here, you’re part of the evolution.”
Words by Stephanie Ip