I am standing at the top of La Dent de Vaulion, the 5,000-foot high mountain that marks the northern end of Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux. It’s a chilly day, and because I was not expecting to climb a mountain, I’m inappropriately dressed, in lace-up dress shoes and a borrowed parka. But the view makes my discomfort worthwhile. To the north is a dramatic expanse of rugged hills; to the west are the Jura Mountains marking the border with France; to the east lie Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps. And to the south, the Vallée de Joux—the cradle of the Swiss watchmaking industry.
I’ve come here at the invitation of Audemars Piguet, one of the most renowned Swiss watchmakers. Audemars Piguet is, compared to the more mass-market Swiss brands, a small company. Best known for its now iconic Royal Oak watches, first introduced in 1972, Audemars Piguet makes only about 40,000 watches a year, and for most of its 141-year history that number has been much smaller. Audemar Piguet’s reputation for innovative technology and original design, however, have made the company extremely influential in the watch world.
But Audemars Piguet has offered me the chance to visit its headquarters in the tiny village of Le Brassus, one of 10 villages in the valley, and talk to its top watchmakers about the Audemars Piguet Grande Complications. These rare watches are defined by their three complications: 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 a slide; and a split-second chronograph, essentially a stopwatch within the watch that can operate without affecting timekeeping.