Audemars Piguet 5516: don’t forget the leap year!

The flourishing of complications within the manufactures between the 1930s and the end of the 1950s allowed the study and implementation of increasingly refined calibres of the same size.
Statistically, in the most common complications, i.e. chronograph and triple calendar, most of the brands of the time took up the challenge, a number that is dramatically reduced if one considers the ‘grand complications’, so called precisely because they presuppose a technical expertise that is uncommon even today, let alone at the time.

The spread of the perpetual calendar

More precisely, we are considering the perpetual calendar, a calendar capable of taking into account leap years and minute repeating, which allows the time to be told through the chime of hammers in the movement and which, at a time when electricity had not yet reached full penetration, was of no small practical use, whereas today it represents a mere technical virtuosity. Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet: these are the only three maisons, not by chance considered part of the so-called ‘holy trinity’, that have been able to implement mass production (albeit of very few examples) for such mechanisms.

Audemars Piguet ref. 5516. CC: Phillips

The perpetual calendar in particular is firmly rooted in the identity of Patek Philippe since the Geneva-based maison holds a double record in this respect. On the one hand the introduction of the first wristwatch with a perpetual calendar in 1925, and on the other the first mass-produced, available in the catalogue, in 1941. Since that date, Patek Philippe has never stopped enhancing this complication, through the continuous evolution of both the calibres and the case and dial.

The first leap year indicator

As mentioned, the difference between a simple calendar and a perpetual calendar lies in the latter’s ability to take leap year into account, an indication which, contrary to what one might think, was not included in the dial from the outset.
In fact, until 1955, no brand had ever given the user the possibility of seeing in advance whether the year was a leap year or not. It was Audemars Piguet, a company infinitely smaller than Patek Philippe also for geographical reasons, which, to coincide with the launch of its first perpetual calendar, introduced this novelty.

The model, reference 5516, constitutes a unique project that has no precedent for the maison. Nor even, in a sense, followed on from it since until the 1970s, it would no longer produce any perpetual calendars. The 5516 gives us a perfect portrait of the company’s structure of the time: a small, totally artisanal maison nestled in the Vallée de Joux, capable of producing an extremely small number of pieces per year.

CC: Phillips

In fact, only nine watches left the factory between 1955 and 1957, a number that makes one almost smile not only when compared to those of today, but even to those of the time. In addition to the leap year record, which we will return to later, it is extremely interesting to analyse the production stages that led to the making of the 5516, namely an assembly line known as an établisseur. Indeed, the production of every single component was contracted out to third companies, microscopic entities that boasted vast expertise in the manufacture of a single detail of the watch, from the case to the crown, from the plate to the dial. This structure confirms and once again testifies how Audemars Piguet was a totally different reality from what we know today, which nevertheless nurtured an ecosystem of micro-realities that aimed to excel in their field.

CC: Phillips

As for the movement, the nerve centre of the timepiece, it is manifested on the dial by the hands and, especially in this case, is of fundamental importance since it contains the real novelty brought by reference 5516, namely the visual leap year display. The calibre, borrowed from the famous Raymond Freres manufacture, is a Valjoux 13 VZSSQP, where the last two letters stand for “perpetual calendar” in French. The movement was subsequently assembled by Audemars Piguet’s watchmakers, who proceeded to decorate the bridges and the main plate. The nine Audemars Piguet 5516s that left the factory in Les Brassus were sold between 1963 and 1969 and, in the past few years, almost all of them have been bought back by the company in order to enrich its heritage department and exhibit them in the newly created museum adjacent to the manufacture.

written by Lorenzo Rabbiosi

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