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03 February 2023
Created in 1899, the watch known as the “Universelle” is one of the most complicated watches in the world. Its 1,168 components, including 316 screws, offer 26 functions, including 19 different complications.
Forming the centrepiece of the Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet, this timepiece delights visitors and remains a reference and a source of inspiration for watchmakers.
From the second half of the 19th century onwards, the movements of the most complicated watches in the world, sold under the brand names of the great international watchmakers, were for the most part designed and made by a handful of craftsmen in the Vallée de Joux. Examples include the “Merveilleuse” created by Charles Ami Lecoultre in 1878, the “Leroy 01” made in 1900 by Charles Emile Piguet for the Parisian watchmaker Louis Leroy, and the “Henry Graves” supercomplication designed by Victorin Piguet for the Geneva watchmaker Patek Philippe in 1933.
Crédit : Collection Musée international d'horlogerie
For two centuries, almost all of the world's most complicated calibres have been designed and manufactured in the Vallée de Joux by a handful of outstanding watchmakers. In 1899, Audemars Piguet was involved in the creation of three ultra-complex calibres, including the famous pocket watch known as the “Universelle”, which is currently on display at the Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet. 2023 marks Audemars Piguet's return to this ultra-exclusive field of excellence, with a masterpiece that combines extreme complexity and simplicity of use.
Director of AP Heritage and the Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet
At the end of the 19th century, Audemars Piguet was barely a quarter of a century old, but had already established itself as a specialist in complicated watches. No doubt stimulated by the competitiveness of the watchmaking microcosm of the Vallée de Joux, and by the exploits of their contemporaries, Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet launched the “Universelle” project.
This adventure would require the work and participation of many craftsmen and watchmakers of the the Vallée de Joux, as was the custom with the system known as “établissage”. This proto-industrial way of organising work divided the tasks between different watchmakers, each one a specialist in his field. Audemars Piguet, as the manufacturer, orchestrated this work from Le Brassus.
Thus, the ébauche of the future “Universelle” watch came from the great watchmaker Louis Elisée Piguet (1836-1924). Indeed, the accounts ledger from his workshop mentions three extra-complicated movements delivered to Audemars Piguet between 17 April and 8 July 1899. These three movements are found in the AP Manufacturing Ledger, a register in which ébauches are recorded with consecutive numbers. These three mechanisms offer similar functions, but their diameters are different. The ébauche of the “Universelle” bears the number 6074. At 22 lines (49.5 mm) in diameter, it is the smallest of the three.
Louis Elisée Piguet's archives mention the surnames of several craftsmen from the Vallée de Joux who worked behind the scenes, their first names often unknown, but whose talent gave life to this technical masterpiece. We learn in particular that Luc Rochat at l’Abbaye created the mechanism cage (bridges and mainplate). The craftsmen Ulysse Lecoultre and a certain G. Golay made the pinions, while François Golay worked on the cogs and a certain C.H. Guignard on the pivoting. Ami Piguet made the barrels to provide the energy necessary for the functioning of this mechanism.
Finally, the watchmakers Robert Piguet, William Reymond and a certain G-H Goy respectively realised the “cadrature” or underdial mechanisms, to ensure the correct functioning of the chiming systems, the various chronograph mechanisms and the calendar mechanism. The name Louis Elisée Piguet appears once again alongside Gustave Piguet for the manufacture of the winding mechanism.
In 1898, Audemars Piguet employed 11 craftsmen, including 6 “repasseur”, or finisher, watchmakers. The following year, 3 additional “repasseurs” were hired. It was also in 1899 that the Audemars Piguet records mention the future “Universelle” watch, which at the time was called the “Grande Sonnerie Compliquée 22”.
This increase in the workforce illustrates the need for additional manpower at the time of the arrival of the ébauches of the “Universelle”. These mechanisms were finished in the Audemars Piguet workshops.
Finishing is a very delicate job that involves adjusting the components until the mechanism works. The numbers that the Louis Elisée Piguet workshop attributed to the ébauches were replaced by Audemars Piguet numbers. Thus the 6074 ébauche became the 6142 movement.
With its 26 functions, including 19 classic complications, the “Universelle” was one of the most complicated watches in the world and the most complex piece made by Audemars Piguet in the 19th century.
Equipped with a Grande Sonnerie Carillon and a perpetual calendar, an alarm with minutes indicator, the mechanism also integrates a split-seconds chronograph with a “foudroyante” and deadbeat seconds (also called jumping seconds). This chronograph mechanism remains one of the most integrated in the history of watchmaking, with five chronograph hands controlled by a single pushpiece.
Its 22-line (49.5 mm) calibre contains 1,168 components including 316 screws. Cased-up, the watch weighs 605 grams!
Audemars Piguet delivered the “Universelle” movement to the German watchmaker Dürrstein & Co, Uhrenfabrik Union Glashütte in 1899 alongside two similar ultra-complex 23 and 24-line movements. These two additional mechanisms would be set aside, to be completed and cased-up decades later.
As for the “Universelle”, the work continued. After much concertation and improvements carried out conjointly by the two workshops in Le Brassus and Glashütte, the almost finished watch was presented for the first time on 12 August 1900 at the Leipzig Watch Fair (Die Leipziger Uhren-Austellung).
Already in the 19th century, due to its weight and extreme complexity, this watch was not made to be worn on a daily basis. It was more an object of pomp and curiosity to be exhibited in salons and dedicated spaces.
From 1901, the watch appeared in the German press under the name “Universal-Uhr”. Signed “Uhrenfabrik Union Glashütte”, it would remain in this brand’s catalogue until the 1920s. After that, the watch disappeared.
Several decades later, the “Universelle” made its comeback at a Sotheby's auction in 1993. It was acquired by a British collector of Audemars Piguet vintage watches. This particular timepiece underwent major changes in 2001: its movement was re-set in a platinum case and the dial was customised to the owner's taste.
Between 2012 and 2016, the watch was meticulously restored in the Audemars Piguet restoration workshop, located on the exact site of the workshop where the “Universelle” was first created in 1899. Two expert watchmaker-restorers Francisco Pasandin and Angelo Manzoni shared this high-precision work. The watch was restored to its original rose gold case.
At the end of this restoration, the ultra-complicated watch was acquired by Audemars Piguet and found its rightful place at the heart of the permanent exhibition of the Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet, where it is surrounded by eight Grande Complication timepieces that have punctuated the brand's history.
For more than a century, Audemars Piguet has not ventured into the world of ultra-complicated watches.But in 2023, the launch of the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Universelle brings this tradition into the 21st century, while paying tribute to its illustrious ancestor.
Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Universelle in 18-carat white gold. 42mm diameter. Model 26398BC.
In homage to the 1899 “Universelle” pocket watch, the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Universelle was born of the Audemars Piguet teams’ desire to create a mechanical wristwatch that is particularly complicated at its core, but very simple to use.
The Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Universelle seeks the perfect balance between technical complexity, ease of use and contemporary aesthetics. Designers, constructors, watchmakers and craftsmen have worked together to explore new horizons, going beyond the conventions of construction to push the boundaries of the art of watchmaking.
The Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Universelle concentrates all of the Manufacture's watchmaking knowledge and expertise in its self-winding movement with over 1,100 components. The Calibre 1000 brings together 40 functions, including 23 complications and 17 special technical devices around a single intuitive-use objective.
Weighing barely 180 grams, with a 42.4mm diameter and 15.5mm thick, the new Universelle is 4.5 times smaller than its ancestor, 3.5 times lighter, and has half as many pushpieces and correctors. It features a Grande Sonnerie Supersonnerie, a semi-gregorian perpetual calendar, a flyback chronograph with split-seconds and a flying tourbillon.
The “Universelle” is like the quest for the Holy Grail with so much expertise in such a small volume! We dreamed about it for 100 years, we thought about it for 20 years, and it took us 7 years to achieve.
Audemars Piguet CEO
As part of the Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet, the temporary exhibition Simply Complicated offers a playful, technical and poetic look at the new Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Universelle. It tells the story of the extraordinary human adventure that gave birth to one of the most complicated watches in the world. It reveals some of its secrets and highlights its amazing ease of use.
Simply Complicated can be seen at the Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet from 6 February to 1 December 2023.
Route de France 18
1348 Le Brassus, Suisse