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The Complete History of the Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar

Imagine for a moment you are invited to a dinner at a stately ancestral home. And there seated before you are the living, breathing personifications of the Holy Trinity of high Swiss watchmaking brands in dinner-suited human form. The first to greet you is Patek Philippe who in this family is the golden child. He’s the Anderson & Sheppard-tailored Fulbright scholar, matriculated from Harvard Law School and Trinity College, Cambridge, whose future is guided by divine inexorable perfection.

The second named Vacheron Constantin is darker, tall, lean and immaculate in Caraceni; introspective but fiercely brilliant, holding forth on the synergistic link between Euclidean geometry and Sufimysticism.

Then you hear the door slam. There with the paint-splattered trousers of his Cifonelli tuxedo stuffed into motorcycle boots, his shoulder-length hair in disarray from racing helmetless on his vintage Norton from the bucolic brookside cottage where he was initiating his mother’s freshly divorced friend into the art of Tantra, is the wild child.

He has hypnotic, movie-star looks. Think Jason Momoa channeling Byron. This is Audemars Piguet. Because while Audemars Piguet’s brand of Swiss high watchmaking is unassailable in its finish and elegance, the quality that I love most about the Le Brassus-based manufacture is its wild, iconoclastic, rebellious creativity which has yielded some of the greatest game-changing moments in horological history and shaped the entire concept of style combined with technical innovation in the 20th century and beyond.

Many of Audemars Piguet or AP’s most stalwart devotees credit the extraordinarily audacious Gérald Genta-conceived Royal Oak as rescuing the brand from the onslaught of the Quartz Crisis that laid low so many of its competitors. And without doubt the Royal Oak was a seismic act of watchmaking brilliance. But in fact the true heroes of Audemars Piguet, the men that came up with a brilliant tactical plan to combat the ravages of the cheap quartz invasion, had names that sounded like resistance-fighter aliases. They were Michel “Le Mic” Rochat, Jean-Daniel Golay and Wilfred Berney. For the purpose of this story, they shall forthwith be referred to as Team RGB.

And they would be aided by two extraordinary individuals: the first, Georges Golay, the boss of AP (known as “Uncle George” to the Bottinelli family, one of the families behind the brand) and a true brilliant leader during this seminal period; and the second, a design genius named Jacqueline Dimier, who was in some ways the protégé of the legendary Gérald Genta. How did they stave off the destruction of the Quartz Crisis that had other brands abandoning mechanical watchmaking, destroying their lathes and presses and selling off movements by weight? With the creation of the world’s thinnest automatic perpetual calendar, a movement that to this day resonates as one of the most significant acts in horological history.

Says Michael Friedman, AP’s beloved historian and head of complications, “Think about it in the context of 1978. No one was making complicated watches, let alone perpetual calendars. In fact the only other brand that has made a serially produced perpetual calendar wristwatch up until this point was Patek Philippe.

Their watch at the time is the reference 3448 (launched in 1961), a round ‘disco volante’ shaped watch that is 37mm in diameter and 11mm in thickness. Then we unveiled the reference 5548, that is so significantly thinner at 7mm.

It is such an audacious watch. Because it was saying to the world that’s being swept up by the quartz craze, ‘Hang on, look what we are capable of with mechanical watchmaking.’ In the size of a quartz watch, we’ve placed a mechanical supercomputer. And because of the lean elegant dimensions of the 5548, it becomes a symbol of modernity like the Royal Oak before it.”

What is important to understand in the context of the era is that while quartz watches had begun to dominate consumers with their unfailing accuracy and cheap price, there were no complicated quartz watches. Complications and in particular the perpetual calendar was the expressed realm of mechanical watchmaking. (A lesson not lost on a young Jean-Claude Biver who was working at Audemars Piguet at the time and would subsequently set up Blancpain specifically to champion complicated mechanical watchmaking). But of course, if we could time travel, the question to ask the trio of Rochat, Golay and Berney would be, “why the perpetual calendar?”

OK, let’s pause here to explain what a perpetual calendar is. The reason we have the four-year leap-year cycle is that the 365-day year is actually shorter than the true solar year (365.25 days approximately). Which means each year we build up a small debt, which is accommodated for every four years with an additional day that is February 29th.

If you want to get even more technical, every 100 years, the leap year is omitted because the leap day creates a slight time overage. Anyway, a perpetual calendar is an extraordinary watch that displays the full calendar information of day, date, month, usually phase of the moon. Now perpetual calendars are smart. Like Asian mothers, they are always right. If they were dogs, they would be MENSA-qualified border collies capable of solving complex algorithms, while composing haiku poetry, singing Verdi’s operas in pitch-perfect phonetically flawless Italian while herding sheep. Why?

Because they are capable of automatically compensating for the shifting 30/31 rhythm of the months as well as accounting for the 28 days in February, and even knowing when the extra day every leap year is.

The first watch with

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