Great watchmaking combines a profound respect for history with a passion for innovation. The most exciting timepieces are those that demonstrate a watchmaker’s willingness to take risks, to try new things—not just to incorporate, but to create. This creative energy is what I have come to admire so much about Audemars Piguet’s Grande Complications and all that they represent. They are infused with an almost spiritual reverence for the continued history of watchmaking, while continuing to break new ground both aesthetically and technically.
This is the fourth and final piece in a series of articles I’ve written about the Swiss watchmaker’s Grande Complications. By now, you know that these watches are defined by the following features: 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 hour, quarter hour and minute when the wearer activates a slide; and a split-second chronograph, essentially two stopwatches within the watch. That framework is both specific and expansive; it means that while Grande Complications share a common technological DNA, they are a launching pad for innovation.
My journey to understand these remarkable timepieces began with a trip to Audemars Piguet’s home in the Vallée de Joux, Switzerland. There, I came to know the story of Swiss watchmaking: how farmers in this beautiful but isolated valley turned to watchmaking as a means of supporting themselves during long, cold winters; working in second-story workshops that maximized the available natural light; and launching a culture of craftsmanship that still defines the region. At the brand’s headquarters in Le Brassus, a small village at the valley’s southern end, I learned the story of the company itself. Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875 by a partnership between watchmakers Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet. It is among the last of the Swiss watch companies still in the hands of its founding families, and entirely independent—a fact that has helped nurture and protect the manufacturer’s tradition of strikingly original design.
saw firsthand that coalescence of history and innovation at the company’s headquarters. In Audemars Piguet’s restoration workshop, I met two brilliant men who masterfully restore and repair the watches, fashioning new parts by hand for timepieces for which there are no spare parts available. Nearby, at the Manufacture des Forges, I saw dozens of craftsmen working intensely over watches in different stages of creation. This modern atelier is on the second floor of a building and is flooded with natural light. Visitors must don a watchmaker coat and booties to protect the integrity of this work space.
I met five men and women who make Grande Complications. Each artisan works on one watch a time, and each Grande Complication takes about six months to make. It is then assembled and disassembled three times for testing. These were humble people who recognize that they are part of a centuries-old tradition, and they did not easily make small talk about their work. But as they gradually opened up, it became clear that they were immensely passionate and very proud of what they do—and very generous with their gift. I asked if it was hard to work on a watch for six months and then have to say farewell when it was time for delivery to a customer. Not at all, they told me. They knew that their work was going to be worn by someone who truly appreciated it—and would show it to the world.
I’ve tried to do something similar in these four articles: to explain not just the technological achievement contained within every Grande Complication timepiece, but to communicate the human tradition they each reflect. With their origins in individual craftsmanship, they embody the past, signify the present and suggest the future. They are time, and timeless.
Richard Bradley is chief content officer at the Worth Group. This is part four of a four-part series.
A VISION OF HERITAGE
A quarter-century ago, Audemars Piguet opened its first museum in the company’s original headquarters. It houses a wide selection of watches from the Audemars Piguet collection and includes some prominent firsts in watchmaking history—the thinnest pocket watch caliber (a 1932 watch), the first Audemars Piguet wristwatch with perpetual calendar and leap year indication (1955), and a series showing the evolution of the minute repeater. But about two years ago, the company announced plans for a beautiful and futuristic new museum that would both house the collection and contain active workshops; construction began this past summer.
Designed by BIG, a widely respected architectural firm based in Copenhagen and New York, the new Maison des Fondateurs is an invitation for visitors to come and see both the past and the future of Audemars Piguet. The 25,800-square-foot building (shown above in architectural renderings) emerges in loops from the ground in a way suggestive of a watch spring, representing both the brand’s connection to its origins and its innovative style. The design is both a technological feat and a deliberate reminder of the prominent windows of Audemars Piguet’s watchmaking atelier, and indeed the 19th-century workshops of the Vallée de Joux’s earliest watchmakers. The Maison des Fondateurs invokes a respect for tradition while emphatically declaring a willingness to move forward, two qualities that are the hallmark of Audemars Piguet.