Giulio Papi and Audemars Piguet’s Universelle #RD4 at VO Vintage5 February 2024
Vicenzaoro and its gem VO Vintage started the new year with a bang. As far as the main event is concerned, ‘Vicenzaoro January 2024 – The Jewellery Boutique Show’ (this is the official name of one of the world’s biggest shows in the gold and jewellery field by the prestigious IEG – Italian Exhibition Group), it could not have been otherwise, given that this year’s 70th anniversary was celebrated with great pomp. And indeed, it was a record-breaking edition on all fronts, starting with attendance all the way to exhibitors. But even the VO Vintage salon was no less impressive in terms of exhibitors – both of watches and vintage jewellery – and as a meeting occasion for enthusiasts.
THE WATCH INSANITY TALK WITH GIULIO PAPI
About hands, the Vicenza show’s special feature is that it has long since become the meeting place for the enthusiasts’ community in Italy, including specialised media, different influencers, collectors, and aficionados of our wonderful industry from all over the world. And with the various talks that represent a true spectacle in terms of outreach (all talks were streamed live and can be rewatch on VO Vintage’s YouTube channel).
In this sense, our friend Giulio Papi, the legendary master watchmaker (proud owner of an Italian passport) who has been Audemars Piguet’s technical director for decades, returning to Vicenza was a significant event: he participated in a talk organised by Watch Insanity, with the pleasant participation of another long-standing friend, Enrico Zazzali, editor of Revolution Italia.
Giulio Papi, after his first appearance at Vicenzaoro at the September 2021 edition, came back to tell all the secrets about his latest dizzying creation, the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Ultra-Complication Universelle RD#4, which won – with the jurors’ great acclaim – the Geneva Grand Prix 2023 in the most prestigious category: the ‘Aiguille d’Or’. And among the secrets, there was also a very interesting account of his past masterpieces that, step by step, led him to imagine and build his latest marvel. Therefore, before talking about the Universelle, let us take a step back and summarise the main stages of a truly unrepeatable career.
A ‘COMPLICATED’ LIFE
Giulio, ever since he was a boy, has been extremely passionate about motors and micromechanics, and in 1984 he managed to get a job at Audemars Piguet thanks to the skeletonisation of a movement that he had done for fun. At Les Brassus, however, he soon realised that the path of the young master watchmaker in such an important (and traditional) company would require great patience because, due to the inflexible company hierarchies, a lot of time would have to pass before he could get his hands on his beloved complications. So in 1986, together with his friend Dominique Renaud, he decided to found Renaud & Papi. And here, he takes a leap ahead. First with the minute repeater module for IWC’s Grande Complication (also used by other brands such as Lemania and Audemars Piguet itself), then with the Imperial Tourbillon for Frank Muller.
Audemars Piguet, however, is inextricably tied to his destiny. So much so that, in 1992, the brand becomes Renaud & Papi’s majority shareholder. So Giulio is finally able to devote himself exclusively to the creation of incredible movements. To understand his obsession, suffice it to say that he himself developed a CAD programme for the development of new calibres, as nothing similar existed at the time. Thus came the Tourbillon ‘Pour le Mérite’ from A. Lange & Söhne in 1994, and, from the very beginning, the epoch-making partnership with Richard Mille with the RM001 (and all its high-end pieces to follow) which became one of the greatest phenomena – also commercial – in the history of watchmaking. To conclude these few lines on his story, it must at least be said that most of today’s great independent watchmakers (a handful of names among many: Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey, Andreas Strehler, the Grönefeld brothers, Peter Speake Marin and Christophe Claret) have worked at his manufacture in Le Locle. And many more brands have enjoyed his services, most of which are protected by industrial secrecy.
ALL ABOUT UNIVERSELLE RD#4: THE ULTRA-COMPLICATED AUDEMARS PIGUET
Speaking of numbers, one more incredible figure: Giulio has developed more than 145 complications for Audemars Piguet. Of these, the last one, the RD4, is the most important of all because not only is it the most complicated wristwatch ever made by the legendary Swiss manufacturer, but because it is the reasoned sum of all Giulio’s previous creations. Four versions exist, two of which are skeletonised. For a price that exceeds one and a half million euros (excluding tax) – price that has not prevented it to be sold out immediately!
But if Giulio’s story is one of complications, it is also true that he has always tried to make them simple: both in the display of the various functions and in their use, which must be as ergonomic as possible. And so the seven years of research and development that lead to the Universelle followed an unequivocal motto: ‘Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication’.
And again, the numbers reveal the exceptional nature of the Universelle: the automatic calibre has 1,100 components for 40 functions and 23 complications! Including grand and small chime, supersonnerie, minute repeater, perpetual calendar, split-seconds chrono and flying tourbillon. For a watch size that has some unimaginable: only 42 mm in diameter by 15 mm thick, which would already be excellent for a ‘simple’ automatic chronograph, let alone an ultra-complicated one with more than a thousand components inside.
The watch’s exceptionality is defined by other details that are always aimed at simplicity of use. For example, three pushers and three crowns with coaxial pushers are all that’s needed to operate the movement. These allow the perpetual calendar month to be corrected forwards and backwards (an aspect, as you know, that is rather rare in this specific complication), and the usual slide for starting the minute repeater can be replaced by a much more ergonomic pushpiece.
The watch is also water and shock resistant, and boasts one of the best sounds in the chime category, with its soundboard and double back allowing for the sound to spread far beyond the 35 centimetres distance envisioned by Giulio in the initial design.
In a nutshell, the Universelle is the world’s most ultra-complicated watch for everyday use, yet it projects itself into the eternity of watchmaking history with the simplicity so dear to its creator. Congratulations to Giulio Papi!
By Michele Mengoli