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.
Each of these complications is a technological marvel in its own right. To combine them in one watch, as Audemars Piguet first did in 1882, marked a watershed in the history of technology. Not surprisingly, there aren’t many in existence. Each the sole creation of one watchmaker, they cost over a half-million dollars apiece. This is a process that can’t be rushed, so Audemars Piguet makes only a few “grand comps” a year. The Grande Complication workshop at Le Brassus is a temple of watchmaking, and the five men and women who work there—among the world’s finest watchmakers—have never given interviews.
I couldn’t turn down such an invitation. But before I meet the watchmakers, the team at Audemars Piguet suggested that I explore the valley. That way, they said, I could better appreciate the critical role the physical environment plays in their watchmaking.
I was skeptical—how could a sense of place shape the culture of a watchmaker? But as my English-born Swiss guide talked about the valley’s history—settled by monks in the Middle Ages, then peasants and farmers; an abundance of lumber led to steelmaking, which led to toolmaking, which led to watchmaking–I started to get it. There was purity and serenity in this isolation. In thousands of years, the Vallée de Joux had barely changed. What better place to create something both temporal and timeless?
Richard Bradley is Chief Content Officer at Worth. This is part one of a four-part series.