Last week at the annual Art Basel Miami Beach fair, Audemars Piguet unveiled its latest addition to the Code 11.59 collection, the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Starwheel (US$57,900).
This fresh interpretation of the brand’s enigmatic 1990s-era Star Wheel adapts to Code 11.59’s contemporary aesthetic in sleek black ceramic and 18-karat white gold with a sparkly aventurine dial underneath the Starwheel’s hands-free wandering-hours time display.
The original Star Wheel made its debut in 1991 at a time when elite mechanical watchmakers were creatively redefining themselves in the wake of the quartz crisis, which had decimated the industry in the 1970s and ’80s.
In 1989, a watchmaker at Audemars Piguet rediscovered the wandering hours system in an article in the Journal suisse d’horlogerie. After 18 months of development, the brand unveiled its first wandering hours watch, the Ref. 25720, dubbed “Star Wheel”—a likely reference to the eight-toothed star wheels that support the sapphire hour discs fixed to the large central wheel.
Audemars Piguet produced about 30 Star Wheel models in different collections between 1991 and 2003, after which production ceased.
The dynamic Starwheel used a mesmerizing hands-free time display that employed a system of three sapphire discs, each marked with four numbers designating hours. These discs were fixed to a central rotor wheel that completes a revolution every three hours, while the hour discs turn 90-degrees each hour to align along an arc-shaped minute scale at the top of the dial to display the time.
Today’s 41mm Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Starwheel is powered by the self-winding Calibre 4310, a next-generation hour, minute and seconds movement directly derived from the Calibre 4309, which has been adapted with a new module.
Shimmering aventurine glass, evoking the starry night sky, serves as the backdrop for the orbiting time display with the central rotor completing a full revolution in three hours. Appointed with bold white Arabic numerals, the three slightly domed hour discs, which turn on their own axes each hour, are made of aluminum treated with black PVD followed by an opaline sandblasted finishing touch.
As each hour begins, a pointer on the designated hour disc aligns to the minute scale along the top of the dial and sweeps across as the hour progresses. An 18-karat white gold seconds hand, slightly curved at the tip to follow the contours of the discs, displays elapsing seconds like a traditional watch.
With a power reserve of 70 hours and water-resistance to 30 meters, this next-gen Starwheel is built for today’s active lifestyles and comes fitted with a textured black rubber-coated strap.
The wandering hours time display has a rich historical legacy, tracing its roots back to 1655, when Pope Alexander VII, who complained about the ticking clock in his bedroom, requested a silent “night clock” that could be read in the dark.
The Campani brothers, Roman watchmakers, were dispatched to devise a cabinet clock, which was illuminated from within by an oil lamp that served as a backlight to project the hour onto the wall. For the mechanism, they reportedly took inspiration from Johannes Kepler’s theory of planetary motion, published earlier that century. That papal clock is the earliest-known ancestor of the wandering hours system.
In the 19th century, wandering hours watches evolved, but their popularity ultimately waned as they were gradually replaced by jumping hour watches, which surged in the Art Deco era.
From the 17th to the 20th century, watchmakers concealed the mechanics behind the mysterious wandering hours system underneath the dial. But in 1991, Audemars Piguet showcased the mechanism front and center on the face of the watch, casting a spotlight on the kinetic beauty of a finely made mechanical watch movement.
The wandering hours complication “combines history, technical challenges, design and poetry,” said Sébastian Vivas, heritage and museum director at Audemars Piguet, in a news release.
This year’s Starwheel writes the next chapter with contemporary flair, blending materials that are hand-finished with an interplay of polished bevels and satin-finished surfaces to enhance light play off the case’s complex angles, while playing up the multi-level architecture with overlapping geometric shapes, including a round bezel, case back, and Starwheel discs, combined with the rounded octagonal case middle.