Lead­ing by ex­am­ple

A visit to Aude­mars Piguet at Le Bras­sus, from its his­tor­i­cal ar­chives to its cut­ting edge man­u­fac­ture, shows us how the fa­mously in­de­pen­dent brand has evolved into one of the lead­ers of to­day’s watch­mak­ing in­dus­try

Revolution (Hong Kong) - - WATCH CULTUR E - Sean Li (text)

Acom­mon de­bate amongst watch col­lec­tors cen­ters around which man­u­fac­tures are con­sid­ered the best, and can be cited as the shin­ing ex­am­ples for the in­dus­try, based on their his­toric, artis­tic, and tech­ni­cal mer­its. It must be said that there are very few brands that are sys­tem­at­i­cally part of such a con­ver­sa­tion, one of them be­ing Aude­mars Piguet. Of course, this can be a highly sub­jec­tive and po­lar­iz­ing dis­cus­sion, where per­sonal pref­er­ences will un­de­ni­ably cause some­one to pre­fer one brand over another, but the fact is that Aude­mars Piguet, more of­ten than not, will be men­tioned by a wide spec­trum of watch en­thu­si­asts – from the most ar­dent col­lec­tors, to those who are just start­ing on the slip­pery slope to horo­log­i­cal ob­ses­sion. What is it though about Aude­mars Piguet that makes it one of the ex­cep­tional stars of to­day’s watch­mak­ing cos­mos? It doesn’t have the long­est his­tory, or the most com­pli­cated watch; the brand doesn’t have a bou­tique on ev­ery cor­ner, nor does it trot out a bevvy of celebrity brand am­bas­sadors at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity (although it does have its share of su­per­star brand am­bas­sadors, such as Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger and LeBron James). What it does have is a tremen­dous tech­ni­cal depth, one that’s been built, in con­ti­nu­ity, over the course of a nearly 140-year his­tory. It hasn’t stood still though, and uses its his­tory as a pil­lar to­wards fu­ture de­vel­op­ments. It can pro­duce not only beau­ti­fully clas­si­cal pieces and in­cred­i­ble grand com­pli­ca­tions, but also res­o­lutely mod­ern watches us­ing the lat­est ma­te­ri­als. It’s this com­plete pack­age that makes Aude­mars Piguet such a revered man­u­fac­ture. Aude­mars Piguet takes con­sid­er­able pride in hav­ing its his­tor­i­cal base in the same build­ing that saw the start of its his­tor­i­cal jour­ney. We start our visit, how­ever, in a dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tion, in Le Lo­cle, where Aude­mars Piguet Re­naud & Papi (APRP) is based. This is where Gi­ulio Papi and his team put their con­sid­er­able skills to work on de­vel­op­ing some of the most com­plex move­ments, not only for Aude­mars Piguet, but for a num­ber of other brands as well, such as Richard Mille and HYT. This fact in it­self isn’t un­usual; in fact, it’s only re­cently that the in­dus­try’s trend has moved to a less co­op­er­a­tive model, with a strong em­pha­sis on pro­duc­ing as much as pos­si­ble in­ter­nally. What’s re­fresh­ing is that APRP makes no se­cret of this, with good rea­son; the move­ments they de­velop are at the fore­front of watch­mak­ing tech­nol­ogy. Whether it’s find­ing a way to re­duce the height of a tour­bil­lon move­ment by a few

tenths of mil­lime­ters – as we saw in Aude­mars Piguet’s Royal Oak 40th An­niver­sary Tour­bil­lon watch – or sus­pend­ing a move­ment within its case with metal­lic ca­bles, as in Richard Mille’s RM 027 Tour­bil­lon Rafael Nadal, APRP is called upon. The APRP man­u­fac­ture was es­tab­lished in Le Lo­cle in 1986, when Gi­ulio Papi and Do­minique Re­naud, two of Aude­mars Piguet’s watch­mak­ers, left Le Bras­sus to es­tab­lish their own work­shop; it’s in 1992 that Aude­mars Piguet in­vested in the company, and the part­ner­ship has grown ever since. The APRP build­ing is very much func­tional, bear­ing an in­dus­trial de­sign that be­lies the ad­vanced re­search and man­u­fac­tur­ing work that takes place inside. Gi­ulio Papi is very much in­volved at the man­age­ment level, but like­wise in the de­vel­op­ment work. While APRP is in­volved in the lead­ing edge of horol­ogy, Papi main­tains a strong foothold in tra­di­tional val­ues, and be­lieves deeply in the value of us­ing as much as pos­si­ble, proven method­olo­gies and ma­te­ri­als. An en­tire sec­tion of the APRP man­u­fac­ture is set aside for test­ing of new ma­chin­ery, both for APRP and for Aude­mars Piguet, to de­ter­mine whether it’s suit­able for their pro­duc­tion meth­ods and their qual­ity re­quire­ments. At the other end of the spec­trum is Aude­mars Piguet’s mu­seum, in Le Bras­sus. This is where Sébastien Vi­vas, the company’s Her­itage and Mu­seum Di­rec­tor, care­fully guards not only the brand’s most sig­nif­i­cant time­pieces from its en­tire his­tory, but also the doc­u­ments and records that they’ve been able to re­trieve. Some of the ledgers date back to the company’s found­ing, but are still in re­mark­able con­di­tion, no doubt be­cause Vi­vas is highly pro­tec­tive of them and only al­lows a se­lect few to open them. The build­ing it­self is where the man­u­fac­ture’s founders, Jules Aude­mars and Edouard Piguet, first es­tab­lished their work­shops, as al­ways at the top floor, where they get the best light­ing and min­i­mal dust, as there would not be a floor above from which dust could de­scend on the work­benches. The build­ing also houses Aude­mars Piguet’s restora­tion work­shop, where two watch­mak­ers are tasked with main­tain­ing not only the man­u­fac­ture’s mu­seum col­lec­tion, but also with cus­tomer’s restora­tion or­ders. They main­tain an inventory of orig­i­nal parts, still con­tained in hand la­beled stor­age boxes, and when­ever pos­si­ble in the course of a restora­tion, they ob­tain the very same parts that were used at the pro­duc­tion of the orig­i­nal piece. In those cases where the parts are no longer avail­able, the restora­tion work­shop will make a new one. You might ar­gue that the time­piece then loses some of its his­tor­i­cal value, but that would be ig­nor­ing the fact that the parts are made on the very same tools that are just as metic­u­lously main­tained as the time­pieces, and us­ing the same tech­niques and ma­te­ri­als. The restora­tion work­shop is tasked with doc­u­ment­ing th­ese pro­cesses as well, even if it re­quires painstak­ing re­search into long lost me­tal­lur­gi­cal pro­cesses to en­sure that the pieces there are main­tain their authenticity. Within the same build­ing, another work­shop pro­duces some of Aude­mars Piguet’s mod­ern clas­sics: watches with high com­pli­ca­tions such as a tour­bil­lon or a minute re­peater. The ex­cep­tion is the Grande Com­pli­ca­tion

– which has its own work­shop – in Aude­mars Piguet’s mod­ern fa­cil­ity, just a few min­utes’ walk down the road in Le Bras­sus. The Man­u­fac­ture des Forges was com­pleted in 2009, and was built to state-of-the-art spec­i­fi­ca­tions, while main­tain­ing a very con­scious fo­cus on be­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly. It fully as­cribes to the Min­ergie-Eco stan­dards, whereby a build­ing must not only pro­vide a bal­anced, com­fort­able en­vi­ron­ment for its work­ers, with max­i­mum use of nat­u­ral light and clean air, but also be very re­spect­ful of its im­pact – both im­me­di­ate and in the long term – to the lo­cal ecol­ogy. Com­pared with the more ur­ban en­vi­ron­ment at APRP in Le Lo­cle, the Man­u­fac­ture des Forges has a very peace­ful, almost tran­quil en­vi­ron­ment, with wide ex­panses of the fields and moun­tains in Le Bras­sus as a back­ground, and a run­ning stream at its en­trance. The watch­mak­ers inside are given am­ple space to op­er­ate in an op­ti­mized work­flow, de­signed to give each of them the best pos­si­ble en­vi­ron­ment to con­cen­trate on the task at hand, be it the crafts­men who are work­ing on Aude­mars Piguet’s highly prized skele­tonized watches, or those as­sem­bling and reg­u­lat­ing their Grande Com­pli­ca­tions, the most chal­leng­ing watches to build. Each watch­maker is re­spon­si­ble for a com­plete move­ment, as the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween the dif­fer­ent com­pli­ca­tions needs very del­i­cate fine-tun­ing. Each piece that is be­ing worked on takes on an in­di­vid­ual per­son­al­ity, and is an achieve­ment in it­self for the watch­maker who com­pletes it. For all this his­tor­i­cally an­chored, mod­ern man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pa­bil­ity, Aude­mars Piguet is not stand­ing still. Plans have been un­veiled for an amaz­ing new build­ing called the Mai­son des Fon­da­teurs. The am­bi­tious plan was drawn up with the Bjarke In­gels Group (BIG), an ar­chi­tec­tural firm with bases in Copen­hagen and New York, after five in­ter­na­tional firms sub­mit­ted their pro­pos­als. Again with an em­pha­sis on the en­vi­ron­ment, the Mai­son des Fon­da­teurs will be built within the ad­join­ing hill­side to the ex­ist­ing his­toric build­ings. Tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from one of the main com­po­nent’s me­chan­i­cal move­ment, the build­ing is de­signed as in­ter­lock­ing spi­rals, and much of the struc­ture will tech­ni­cally be un­der­ground. The 2,400 square me­ters will house a much ex­panded ex­hi­bi­tion space, so that 400 of the 1,300 time­pieces Aude­mars Piguet has in their mu­seum col­lec­tion can be dis­played at any one time. The ar­chives will see ad­di­tional space ded­i­cated to their con­ser­va­tion, and new work­shops will be built as well. The spi­ral struc­ture will en­sure that vis­i­tors not only see the mu­seum ex­hibit in the best pos­si­ble con­text, but that the pro­duc­tion flow of the work­shops is also op­ti­mized, and not im­pacted when the mu­seum is con­duct­ing tours. Aude­mars Piguet cer­tainly has a unique project un­der way with the Mai­son des Fon­da­teurs, one that we very much look for­ward to vis­it­ing upon its com­ple­tion. Aude­mars Piguet con­tin­ues to im­press, not only with its time­pieces, but also with the way it puts a tremen­dous im­por­tance on its her­itage, and mak­ing it par­tic­u­larly ac­ces­si­ble. It goes a long way to ex­plain the fascination that peo­ple have with the brand, as there is a per­cep­ti­ble sense of his­tory, all while the watch­mak­ers are work­ing on the fu­ture pil­lars of the brand.

Aude­mars Piguet’s state-of-the-art Man­u­fac­ture des Forges was com­pleted in 2009, and built with its lo­cal sur­round­ings in mind

FROM LEFT Aude­mars Piguet con­tin­ues to use the same his­tor­i­cal build­ings where Jules Aude­mars and Edouard Piguet first es­tab­lished their work­shops; Aude­mars Piguet Re­naud & Papi (APRP) in Le Lo­cle is where some of the most com­plex move­ments are de­vel­oped, not only for Aude­mars Piguet, but for other brands as well

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