Undoubtedly one of the most technically innovative watchmakers of the 20th century, Audemars Piguet is also one of its major creative forces. With the Royal Oak, they did with watches what Apple and Nike were able to do with computers and sneakers – that is, to subtly alter the usual lines of a standard product, and turn it into an icon.
In fact, Audemars Piguet has been able to create not one, but two of the most recognizable timepieces of the modern era – the Royal Oak and the Millenary. The Royal Oak’s design is widely lauded as a stroke of genius today, but at its launch many found it either disturbing or implausible or both. The Millenary, on the other hand, is just as instantly recognizable, but has had to follow an even longer road to acceptance and appreciation. We feel it definitely has the potential to rise to the status of a design icon for AP; after all, it’s as visually distinctive as the Royal Oak. It is true, though, that the two watches may appeal to very different sensibilities and tastes.
The Royal Oak is widely regarded as the most disruptive and virile of the two, while the sensual curves of the Millenary are reminiscent of much more traditional wristwatch case shapes. But for that very reason, the latter has sometimes been regarded (by men who prefer the Royal Oak and its Offshore derivatives) as something of an alternative offering to the Royal Oak, rather than a strong design statement in its own right. And certainly, off the wrist it’s easy to see why it might give that impression.
The oval shape of the Millenary is – in comparison to the Royal Oak at least – at first glance, indisputably less overtly assertive. On the wrist, however, at 47 mm, this is clearly a watch whose actual physical presence strongly refutes the notion that it was designed as, and intended to be, a more sedate alternative to the Royal Oak. The challenge, for AP, has been actually getting on the wrists of those who doubt its its ability to have an equal, if definitely different, impact.
And Audemars Piguet certainly haven’t treated it as a second-class citizen. Around since the mid-1990s, the Millenary has housed multiple high-end complications and introduced new ones, but still it has been overshadowed by the sheer popularity of its brethren. On the wrist however, there’s no doubting that the Millenary, like the Royal Oak, has a powerful and dynamic architecture and presence all its own. The challenge, for AP, has been getting it on those who hesitate at its somewhat unusual case shape.
Enter the Openworked Millenary: a highly skeletonized, timepiece that rather than attempting to compete with anything else in the AP stable, stakes a claim to its own strong design language. Audemars Piguet have a history of stripping timepieces down to the bone through the art of openworking, starting in 1921 with one of their pocket watches, and since then they’ve become famous for the excellence of their openworking in many, many different wristwatches as well, up to and including members of the Royal Oak family (see for instance the Extra-Thin and Tourbillon Extra-Thin openworked models).
But none of them have been quite so dramatically exposed as the new Millenary Openworked. Based on the Millenary 4101, it is in in essence the same watch but minus every microgram of non-essential metal. Everything has been reduced to the barest minimum, including the bridge and rotor. The result is an elliptical watch defined by its edges, both inside and out.
The three-dimensional architecture of the non-openworked model already revealed a great deal, since the balance could be seen on the dial side of the watch – the movement in the 4101 took elements from Audemars Piguet’s in-house movement, caliber 3120 (such as the distinctive balance bridge) and reconfigured them in order to place the regulating elements next to the dial and make them more visible. That dynamic layout is back, with off-centered hours and minutes, and a small seconds register between 6 and 9 o’clock, although now openworked – which provides an even better view of the movement.
One of the greatest challenges in openworking is to skeletonize the movement without compromising legibility (or at least, minimizing the impact on legibility). So often in the skeletonization process, the first part of the word “timepiece” disappears with the rest of the dial; telling time because secondary to aesthetics.
Here, Audemars Piguet uses contrasting materials to highlight the time-telling elements of the watch. Hours, minutes, and seconds are displayed in pink gold above a darker NAC (NanoAmorphous Carbon) treated movement and a black sub-seconds dial.
Like most contemporary AP watches, the Millenary is a commanding presence on the wrist, with its elongated case stretching all the way across. At its widest point (what in geometry is called the major axis of an ellipse) it measures 47 mm, rivaling some of the biggest watches on the market – think Panerai – but the smaller diameter (minor axis) of the oval, which is the one that potentially provides the most discomfort on the wrist, is 42 mm, explaining why it wears much more comfortably than the 47mm major axis would make you think. Presented on a hand-stitched “large square scale” brown alligator strap with 18-carat, pink-gold folding clasp, it is in fact, remarkably comfortable to wear, and we should add, noticeably lighter than a stainless steel Royal Oak with its integrated bracelet.
In addition to being a high-craft evolution of the original 4101, the Millenary Openworked is a lesson in harmonious design. Every decision Audemars Piguet had to consider in openworking and redesigning this watch was – I am told – an incredibly tough one, but it is clear they have stuck to the principle that form must follow, if not function in the strictest sense of the word, then the necessities dictated by the openworking process. A case in point is the AP logo; it’s found on the dial of the non-openworked version of the Millenary (the Millenary 4101) but in the openworked model, it’s been placed on the far left – in such a logical place given the rest of the design that it might as well have been the logo’s original position. It is legible, symmetrical, and brings balance to the watch with a touch of gold directly opposite the large Roman numerals – where in fact, it actually used to be painted in black on a white dial.
The movement finishing, it needs to be said, is phenomenal – not only is it very tastefully done from a design standpoint, but it has the wonderful contrast of sharp and rounded transitions that are only afforded by hand-finished, sharp inner corners.
And it is because of such details that Audemars Piguet have succeeded where so many fail, finding space where there is apparently none, and giving us an almost unobstructed view of Calibre 4105. The two primary criteria for evaluating an openworked watch are transparency, and the degree to which the openworking underscores the inherent beauty of the movement, and here we think AP has succeeded extremely well.
This uniquely oval-shaped and partly inverted automatic movement features a lever escapement and ceramic ball bearings. Self-winding, it beats at 4 Hz, with a power reserve of 60 hours.
A final word on the shape of this movement: as most HODINKEE readers will be aware, not all cases are shaped after their movement. Many square watches house round calibers, and certainly it would have been possible for Audemars Piguet to build an oval shaped watch the same way. However, it speaks volumes that they have chosen a more creative path – building the case after its movement – and their Openworked model highlights the reason AP has stuck so closely by it.
The Millenary is a watch that – had it been signed by anyone other than the name behind the Royal Oak – could easily have been the flagship of their men’s collection. As it is, it’s a very beautifully done example of the impact that the extremely conservative craft of movement openworking can have when it’s married to a distinctively shaped movement, in a dynamically proportioned timepiece – showing very clearly how the Millenary ultimately rises above any considerations of comparisons with the Royal Oak, and succeeds, both in general and in this particular instance, purely on its own merits.
The Millenary Openworked: case, 18k pink gold, sapphire crystals front and back with antireflective coating. 47 mm at widest diameter; 13 mm thick; water resistance, 20 m; black off-centered openworked dial with pink gold hands. Movement, openworked caliber 4105, variable inertia balance, 28,800 vph, running in 34 jewels, “inverted” movement architecture to place the regulating components on the front of the watch. Hand-stitched alligator strap with 18k pink gold folding clasp. More from Audemars Piguet right here.
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