OF THE MOMENT
Tradition lies at the heart of heritage watchmaker Audemars Piguet, but a renewed focus on the art world is inspiring a wave of innovation that keeps the company ticking boldly in the now. By Cushla Chauhan.
Tradition lies at the heart of heritage Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet, but a renewed focus on the art world is inspiring a wave of innovation that keeps the company ticking boldly in the now.
Amisty rain is falling in the storybook surrounds of Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux. Just an hour’s drive from Geneva, this lush landscape – a journey through forests, cobbled streets and pitched-roof houses with painted shutters – is the heart of Swiss horology, where for more than two centuries generations have honed their watchmaking skills. It’s here that Audemars Piguet, one of the world’s most respected and enduring luxury watchmakers, resides. Located on a quiet street filled with birdsong and the earthy aroma of wet soil and grass, the company’s manufacture and bucolic setting is not some might imagine for an illustrious brand, but for the fourthgeneration owners, the provenance of the location is still relevant today.
Founded in 1875 by Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet, the company set down roots in the valley due to its rich iron ore supply and inspiring beauty, while its isolation and cold climate nurtured patience in the pursuit of perfection and groundbreaking mechanisms or designs.
Almost 150 years on and those tenets still hold true, as evidenced inside the manufacture’s light-flooded workshops, where men and women sit with calm, meditative focus. Wearing white lab coats, headband magnifiers and with workspaces an orderly display of tools, they appear like surgeons at task. Which in a way, they are. Each expert has a specific role in constructing the hand-assembled pieces, from polishing inner workings to positioning hands, while a team of masters is dedicated to the brand’s famed ‘grande complications’
– those intricate features of a mechanical timepiece that require unfathomable precision. One screw, for example, invisible to the naked eye, is so tiny it can float on water.
While a strong sense of place and history is crucial to this heritage company, staying relevant in a fast, tech-obsessed world has also meant balancing tradition with innovation and, more recently, forging closer ties to the art world.
“We decided to build a link between the world of art and our watch history and watch characteristics, because we think what we make at Audemars Piguet is a kind of art,” says Jasmine Audemars, greatgranddaughter of Jules Louis Audemars and current president of the board of directors. “With watchmaking there is science and mathematics, but also creativity and innovation. These artists see our valley, our world and where are roots are differently, and for us it’s a new way to discover our world and inspires us.”
As such, Audemars Piguet has been a global partner of Art Basel since 2013, inviting artists to visit its habitat and atelier and through their work, explore the themes of complexity and precision inherent in watchmaking.
For this year’s Art Basel, Chilean-born, New York-based artist and designer Sebastian Errazuriz realised his third concept lounge for Audemars Piguet. Entitled, Foundations, the delicate installation, made up of hundreds of pieces of 3D-printed scanned and hand-moulded rocks, pays homage to the iron ore sourced in the Vallée de Joux. Errazuriz says the parallels between the art of watchmaking and artists lie in the physical and mental endurance involved in work – an all-consuming concentration justified by love, passion and obsession.
For his hyper-realistic work Remains, London-based Italian visual artist Davide Quayola visited the forests of the Vallée de Joux to “capture a moment in time” in a way that references traditional landscape painters of the past. The eight large-scale, high-definition 3D digital prints are haunting and ethereal, and explore the idea of “different types of seeing”.
Physics and human experience, meanwhile, combine in Halo, an immersive installation by British artist duo Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt of Semiconductor. Dramatic, surreal and sublime ( the experience feels like lying under the stars at night while floating on mystical soundscape), the visual and acoustic work explores the human experience of nature, framing it through science and technology. Despite the complexity of the artwork’s concept – the moment when two bunches of protons travelling close to the speed of light collide – Jarman stresses that an audience doesn’t need to know anything about the science behind it to feel moved. “Lots of things exist beyond the limits of our perception – such as particles colliding at the speed of light – so we use scientific tools to reveal those things. We want to try to create an experience that’s a bit like when you go into nature and have that feeling of the sublime – something that’s very intangible and overwhelming.”
The power of nature and emotional enrichment is key to the appeal of Audemars Piguet’s timepieces too, speaking of the very human need to find meaningful connections in our increasingly virtual world.
“What we make is a product that is alive; you can see the heart of the watch beating,” says Jasmine Audemars. “On your wrist you have a beautiful object with a very high level of craftsmanship that is a mixture of tradition and innovation. It’s an object with soul.”
It’s a sentiment affirmed by Olivier Audemars, vice-chairman of the board of directors and the great-grandson of Edward Auguste Piguet. “As technology moves exponentially, we might see ourselves retreating to areas of safety of emotional tranquillity,” he ponders. “Objects that we keep, that we can touch, such as a beautiful watch, we cherish; there is a stronger emotional component.”
Vanessa Bardet, a master of grande complications, has worked at Audemars Piguet for 21 years. Creating things of beauty with meaning and soul is seemingly part of her manifesto. “I like the small scale of everything I get to work on – giving every component its beauty, giving your best so they perform as they have to,” she explains.
A beautiful convergence of science and art, then. And the reason the art of watchmaking, the human hand that goes into the creation of a thing of magnificence born from dedication and passion, is valued now more than ever.
“WHAT WE MAKE IS A PRODUCT THAT IS ALIVE … IT’S AN OBJECT WITH SOUL”