It's 2023 and this is the second part of our story on vintage AP. As the conscious history of the brand seems to start only in 1972 we wanted to shed some more light on this is a manufacturer's long history. So what did actually happen before 1972? We already tapped into calendar watches and high-precision watchmaking but let's see what other traits AP stood and stands for?

January 17, 2023

The History of Audemars Piguet Wristwatches - The Early Days Part II

  


Marcus Siems     Marcus Siems @siemswatches
    Collector, Author, Data Analyst


 

It's 2023 So the year of the Royal Oak is over and we can finally start talking about other amazing pieces of the Maison from La Brassus. Importantly, the conscious history of the brand seems to start only in 1972 with the launch of the RO but of course this is a manufacturer with a far longer history. So what did actually happen before 1972? We already tapped into calendar watches and high-precision watchmaking but let's see what other traits AP stood and stands for? 

 

3) Ultra-Slim Watches

To prove that you are an expert watchmaker, one worthy to be in the realm of the "holy trinity", you do not only need to showcase complications and ultra-precise watches. The next chapter on mechanical expertise features the peculiar aspect of a watches' height.

 

vintage Audemars Piguet 5131 Disco Volante by TurlerAn interesting 1950s design - the "Disco Volante" - powered by the ultra-slim calibre 2003, introduced in 1953 and conceived in collaboration with Jaeger-LeCoultre and Vacheron Constantin. Photo Courtesy of Phillips.

 

At first glance this appears like a somewhat artificial area to highlight but in the early 20th Century a watches' size was a pretty big deal[8]. As wristwatches were the descendants of pocket watches - so quite large timekeeper - the urge to make something smaller, more delicate, to distinct from the ancestors was something embedded into early wristwatch making.

Audemars Piguet was no stranger to this trend and in 1938 introduced the slimmest manually wound movement at the time measuring only 1.64mm in height[9-10]! And only about 772 examples of these calibre 9ML were produced over a period of 15 years.

 

ultra-thin skeletonized Audemars Piguet 5293 with caliber 2003If you think finishing an ultra-thin movement is hard enough imagine how it must be for one of these uber-rare skeletonizing caliber 2003 wristwatches... A remarkable feat for this 1968 tonneau-shaped ref. 5293. Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva May 2016

 

Then in 1953 AP introduced the successor movement with the caliber 2003 with the same dimensions but increased robustness through combining the bridges. The 2003 was a collaboration with Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Up until 2003 (neat huh?) these slimmer than slim movements were in the AP catalogues[9,11-12] and still the slimmest movements around! And to top this off the cal. 2003 were at the heart of one of the most recognizable designs of its time - the "Disco Volante".

And I guess it goes without saying that another ultra-slim movement, this time automatic, was born out of this collaboration (and getting Patek Philippe onboard). In 1967 the Maison introduced the caliber 2120, the famous caliber that is the basis of the initial Royal Oak as well as for the ultra-thin perpetual calendar models of the 1970s-90s[9,11-12]. But as I promised: we otherwise won't speak about the Royal Oak this time...

 

vintage Audemars Piguet advertorial on ultra slim watchesYou gotta admire the balls the AP marketing department had back in the days. "Happily, there will always be a handful of people who demand all but impossible standards.It is for them that Audemars Piguet watches are made"! I mean that's a statement. Photo Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.

 

So why going so slim? Well it shows again how far you can push the boundaries of possible and practical watchmaking. It's a bit of peacocking if you will. But moreover it's an extremely special wrist presence to wear such a thin watch. It's something different that you need to try out!

 

4) Broader Appeal through Collaboration

I mentioned the caliber 2120 already but it was far from the first automatic movements from AP and also not the only one in collaboration with Jaeger-LeCoultre. AP was all about the highest quality. But this standard means that you can only produce a very limited amount of watches if you want to do everything by yourself.

Thus, these collaborations were absolutely pivotal to open the brand up to a broader audience. And approaching Jaeger-LeCoultre was one of the best moves in the companies history. JLC was an exquisite manufacturer of ebauche movements and their contribution to several of history's most important horological legends cannot be overstated.

 

vintage Audemars Piguet advertorial on slim and automatic watches"For those with the taste as well as the means"! AP didn't jus make the most exclusive watches they also targeted the most exclusive clientele. Seen here for a collection of early automatic pieces (cal. 2120) during the late 1960s. Advertorial extract Courtesy of AdPatina.

 

Let's take a look at the movements sourced from JLC, focusing on the period between 1953 and the early 1970s. During that period at least 7 different movements have been shared between the two manufacturers. An important side note to keep in mind here is that Rolex actually held the patent on full-rotor automatic movements up until 1951, which hindered the development of such calibers for other brands.

All in all we got: The P2498 (sub-second) and P2499 (center second) between 1953-58, the K2071 (center second) between 1959-65, the K2072 (center second, date) from 1961-69, the K2120 (ultra-slim, no seconds) from 1967 onwards and the K2121 (ultra-slim, no seconds, date) from 1970 onwards, all automatic[2]. And on top the manually wound caliber 2001 from the early 1950s on.

 

Distribution of movement production shared between Jaeger-LeCoultre and Audemars Piguet between 1953 to 1975Figure 2. Production numbers of Audemars Piguet movements provided by Jaeger-LeCoultre between 1953 and 1975. The top shows the distribution for automatic calibers and the bottom for the manually wound caliber 2001. The dark shaded area indicates the arrival of the Royal Oak in 1972[2].

 

In total this amasses for over 24,000 automatic watches over three evolutions between 1953 and 1975 and almost 20,000 manually wound watches - around 1000 watches per movement type over that period, yet substantially less during the 1950s and most of the 60s. Look closer and you'll see the quite drastic up-scaling in production with the arrival of the K2120, it is very preeminent. This is an obvious sign that AP was very invested attracting a broader audience starting in the late 60s.

From a design perspective these pieces are as classic as it gets. It introduced AP to more people, introduced it to customers looking outside the high-end complications and ultra-thin watches of the time and established the name in a new segment. In a sense some of these pieces were THE option when it comes to the most elegant dress watches - simple on first glance yet finished to the highest level. And that's the point: even though AP bought the ebauches from JLC, the finishing was still in-house!

 

view of a vintage 1960s Audemars Piguet K2072 movement in C-Shape caseView inside a K2072 (with date) movement from the mid 1960s - a 35mm ref. 5205. If the watch doesn't appear complex on the outside the inside can truly amaze with a level of almost unparalleled finishing. Photo Courtesy of Stetz & Co.

 

5) Conclusion

Let's put all these parts back together: We have a strong history of complicated watches, particularly calendars, high-precision time-only pieces, ultra-thin watches and collaborations to focus on the core principles... This is a brand that is truly aiming for mechanical excellence. Coming back to the 1950s advertorial: 

 

"Audemars Piguet creations are produced in small series and intended for the connoisseur of fine watches"

 

And what we shall not forget here is that the mechanical prowess was met with absurd finishing. Outer and inner beauty always aligned.

 

vintage Japanese Audemars Piguet ad with several automatic watchesA collection of stunningly finished and ultra-thin automatic (cal. 2120) timepieces from Audemars Piguet from 1969. From left to right: WG 5979 with diamond markers, WG 5272, YG 5279, YG 5272. Photo Courtesy of HIFI Archiv.

 

However, I'd argue that there's an additional point that shall not be overlooked: Audemars Piguet seems to have always been focused on the final product, the timepiece. It's between the lines so let me explain by again taking the example of the VZ powered time-only pieces:

The idea here was to create the most accurate and sturdy dress watch out there. Here, AP collaborated with Valjoux to get an ebauche and improved and refined on this base. Again not alone but with the help of highly-skilled contractors. Because the best watch is the best watch, and if it says AP on the dial it's a success for the brand.

 

vintage 1950s Audemars Piguet VZSSC 5072On first view it may not look like much... but that's probably what defines a pivotal dress watch; it's more than meets the eye. Here, it's an astonishing 1953 ref. 5072 VZSSC. Photo Courtesy of Stetz&Co.

 

Collaborations and the drive to optimize what was brought in made the company great. The in-house department responsible for movement and case finishing has always been a priority and as such is a defining factor of AP's history. If you know your strengths then you have to use them!

It's about precision, about slimness, about complications but for me the essence of Audemars Piguet is and has always been about how you treat the metal given to you. That is the core principle of the Maison from La Brassus then and now. And if you think about it, it's the root of the Royal Oak, too.

 

collection of vintage Audemars Piguet time-only watches of Roni MadhvaniBidding farewell with this illustrious collection of time-only APs from Roni Madhvani - a shot in the classic Roni fashion.

 

- You can find the full story here: Part I & Part II - or check out our inventory.

 

Update:

K2070 - Automatic caliber with small second provided by JLC in 1959 (n = 100) and 1961 (n = 40) -> Total production of 140 pieces. Source: Stetz&Co & Dr. Uwe Hahmann (@uwe1610).

 

 

References

[1] 2021 Watch Industry Results; Vittorino Loreto, Italian Watch Spotter;

https://italianwatchspotter.com/2021-watch-industry-results/?lang=en

[2] Precious Objects - vintage Audemars Piguet; Michael Mehltretter, WatchTime Magazine;

https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/30286629/wt-2005-05-vintage-audemars-piguet

[3] Before the Royal Oak - A Closer Look at Several Unforgettable Vintage Audemars Piguet Watches; Josh Rankin, Stetz&Co;

https://www.stetzcowatches.com/2018/07/12/before-the-royal-oak-a-look-at-four-distinctive-vintage-audemars-piguet-watches/

[4] Audemars Piguet 20th Century Complicated Wristwatches; Sebastian Vivas & Michael Friedman, Audemars Piguet, La Brassus, 2018;

[5] Audemars Piguet Chronographs Through The Years; Josh Rankin, Wristcheck;

https://wristcheck.com/discover/vintagecheck/audemars-piguet-chronographs-through-the-years

[6] The Curious Legacy of Audemars Piguet Calendar Watches; Jonathan Ho, Deployant;

https://deployant.com/the-curious-legacy-of-audemars-piguet-calendar-watches/

[7] Holding the Ligne - A Visual Evolution of the Audemars Piguet 13 Ligne VZ; Josh Rankin, Stetz&Co;

https://www.stetzcowatches.com/2022/05/16/holding-the-ligne-a-pictoral-evolution-of-the-audemars-piguet-13-ligne-vz/

[8] When Did Watches Start to Get So Big?; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;

https://goldammer.me/blogs/articles/history-watch-size

[9] Ultra-Slim: The Lesser Known Side of Audemars Piguet; Suan Futt Yeo, Revolution Watches;

https://revolutionwatch.com/ultra-slim-the-lesser-known-side-of-audemars-piguet/

[10] Brief History of Time: Audemars Piguet; Brandon Baines, Fratello;

https://www.fratellowatches.com/a-brief-history-of-time-audemars-piguets-complete-brand-history-part-one-1875-1967/

[11] Calibres 2120-2121; Audemars Piguet Chronicles, Audemars Piguet;

https://apchronicles.audemarspiguet.com/en/article/calibres-2120-2121

[12] Audemars Piguet - 125 ans d'audace; G. Brunner, C. Pfeiffer-Belli & M.K. Wehrli, Audemars Piguet, 2000;

 

And a special Thank You goes to Roni Madhvani, Dr. Uwe Hahmann and Charlie Dunne, for their extended knowledge and bringing more context to this story.

 

All rights on text and graphics reserved to the Author.

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