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
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