The watchmaking ateliers in Audemars Piguet’s headquarters in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux are focused places. There is no piped-in Spotify, no ping-pong table, no snack bins for hungry millennials. The largest is a big, bright room, filled with windows and sunlight and impeccably clean—you have to wear paper booties and a lab coat to enter. At dozens of wooden worktables, watchmakers diligently craft timepieces. You can see the watches, in different phases of creation, on tables across the room, presided over by men and women concentrating intensely, looking through magnifying loupes at watch parts too tiny to be clearly seen by the unassisted eye, wielding tools so small and precise that it’s hard to believe they can be manipulated by human hands. I would have thought that this level of exactitude could come only from machines.
But as impressive as this scene is, it is not the apex of Audemars Piguet watchmaking. That sits at the far end of this room in a cozy rectangular space perhaps 500 feet square. A glass wall separates this rectangle from the larger workshop, and two of its other three walls are also mostly glass. Here, in this small, unpretentious room, is where a handful of women and men painstakingly create remarkable Grande Complication watches.
Timepiece aficionados will know the Grande Complications, of course—they’re renowned within the global community of watch connoisseurs and collectors. For those new to that world, a Grande Complication by Audemars Piguet is a watch that combines the following: a perpetual calendar, which keeps the watch accurate regardless of the number of days in a month or a leap year; a minute repeater, which chimes the hours, quarter hours and minutes when the wearer pushes a button or slide; and a split-second chronograph, essentially two stopwatches within the watch.
Technologically, these Grande Complications are extremely sophisticated. What makes the watches even more memorable is that they are almost entirely fashioned by hand. Two hands, actually—each Grande Complication is the work of a single watchmaker. “It is,” one of them told me, “one of the most challenging jobs in watchmaking.”
Grande Complications buyers may be collectors ready to acquire the pinnacle of the Swiss company’s watchmaking—Grande Complications cost over half a million dollars—or they may be watch aficionados who collect the finest pieces from the world’s most exclusive brands. But each Grande Complication is designed to be consistent with the brand’s aesthetics yet allowing for considerable input from the client. At any point in the process, which takes six months to a year, the client can visit the watchmaker here to see his or her timepiece as it comes together. The end result: a watch that reflects not only Audemars Piguet’s renowned design tradition but also the individual taste of its owner.
This fascinating room is worth the trip. Here, some of the world’s finest craftspeople work within feet of each other, but separated by the fact that each is dedicated to a single project so small that you wear it on your wrist. When I asked them what kind of a person becomes a watchmaker at such a high level, they paused and pushed their chairs back from their tables.
“You have to be patient, maybe a little bit crazy,” joked one.
“Each of us has a strong personality,” said another. “You have to have the power to do a perfect job from beginning to end.”
A passion for watchmaking is, they agreed, a hard thing to explain; the increments of watchmaking are not the kind of thing you can share with friends at the pub. “The respect we really get,” said one, “comes from people who know the brand and dream of owning what we produce best.”
As these watchmakers, so gifted with their hands, struggled to articulate their passion, what did become clear was the depth of that passion. They are modest, but they are very, very good at their craft, and their pride in their work was palpable.
I asked if they had favorite watches. Several quickly shook their heads no. “Every piece is different,” said one.
Was it difficult to work on something so intimate, so, well, personal—only to have a customer take it away? Again, heads shook no. “The true satisfaction,” said one man, “is to make a great product and then know that someone will show it, someone will wear it who understands what it took to make it.”
And a piece of art will have both an owner and an audience.
Richard Bradley is Chief Content Officer at the Worth Group. This is part three of a four-part series.