Audemars Piguet is the oldest Haute Horlogerie manufacturer still in the hands of its founding families (Audemars and Piguet).
Since 1875, the company has written some of the finest chapters in the history of watchmaking, including a number of world firsts. In the Vallée de Joux, at the heart of the Swiss Jura, numerous masterpieces are created in limited series embodying a remarkable degree of horological perfection, including daring sporty models, classic and traditional timepieces, splendid ladies’ jewellery-watches, as well as one-of-a-kind creations.
Home for Audemars Piguet is, and always has been, the Vallée de Joux in the Jura Mountains. Known as the cradle of complicated watches, this rugged, isolated place bred people with the skills to create exquisitely hand-crafted timepieces destined for a world of comfort and luxury. It was human ingenuity and creative spirit that brought these two very different worlds together.
The winters are long, but there are natural resources, including iron ore, along with running water and timber for the energy to transform it. And most significantly, time. Over several generations, people from the Vallée became expert metal workers, mastering materials and their forges. They began with knives and tools, then more advanced mechanical components, developing their skills as time passed until they could respond to the growing demand for fine watches. These soon became by far the most valuable of all the Vallée’s exports.
The watchmakers worked surrounded by nature, subject to the weather and the passing seasons. They were inspired to contain all this in timepieces that could track not just hours, minutes and seconds, but other natural cycles like days, months and phases of the moon. And so, an industry grew and flourished.
By the time Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet came onto the scene in
1875, watchmaking was changing. Even in the Vallée, where most watchmakers still held on to traditional techniques, the first industrial machinery had appeared, with the prospect of large volume production. There was a fast-growing market in the new middle classes, eager for the status of a personal timepiece. But from the start, Jules Louis and Edward Auguste turned their backs on the lure of mass markets. As fourth and fifth generation watchmakers, they set their hearts and sights on producing one-off complicated watches.
They did not choose the easy way. In 1889, the company was already 14 years old when Audemars Piguet’s participation, featuring a Grande Complication, won a medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition. The place of origin was proudly displayed – as it is to this day.
Still firmly rooted in Le Brassus in the Vallée de Joux, Audemars Piguet continues to search for new ideas and inspiration in the wider world, most particularly the world of contemporary art where the insights of a widening circle of artists enriches the company’s vision of complexity, precision and the nature of time.
When Jules Louis Audemars (1851-1918) and Edward Auguste Piguet (1853-1919) set up business together in 1875, they were in their early twenties and respectively fourth and fifth generation watchmakers. Even though newly qualified, watchmaking was in their blood. To begin with, they worked as établisseurs, making movements for Geneva-based watch companies. Later on, true to their entrepreneurial heritage, they made the decision to do things their way, assembling under one roof all the necessary skills to create and market their own complicated watches. They were well matched to make a success of things, combining technical skills and creativity with a flair for business.
They established the specialties of chiming mechanisms, chronographs and astronomical complications that are still being perfected and produced by Audemars Piguet today.
Of the approximately 1,500 watches produced by the company between 1882 and 1892, 80% included at least one complication, if not more ledgers show that over 80% of them included at least one complication, and in many instances, several. Sales took off in Europe and the United States. Since then, another three generations of Audemars and Piguets have carried on through good times and bad with the same passionate dedication to pure watchmaking based on craftsmanship and creativity.
The founding values endure to the present; strongest of all is the spirit of independence.
Audemars Piguet is the oldest Swiss watch manufacturer still in the hands of its founding families, with the freedom to invest in the future. As a priority, the company invests in skills training. Many traditional techniques have been rescued from the brink of extinction and repurposed for modern designs.
Audemars Piguet’s independence today means it can think in terms of generations, not quarterly results. It has consistently championed mechanical watchmaking, striving to maintain this age-old industry in the Vallée de Joux, even during times of crisis. When traditional watchmaking skills were being threatened by the onslaught of quartz mechanisms, Audemars Piguet made a couple of bold decisions that were both risky and prescient. Having faith in its own skills, and trusting there would always be clients to appreciate them, the company struck out on a path that soon led to growth in new and unexpected places.
The first decision was to invest in the development of the game-changing Royal Oak. Its radical design effectively overturned watchmaking codes and many industry insiders predicted such defiance would be the death of the company. The second big decision was to create the world’s thinnest self-winding perpetual calendar. This record-breaking achievement led to the rebirth of complications at Audemars Piguet, forever changing the industry. Today Audemars Piguet is arguably one of the most resilient Haute Horlogerie watch brands, the Royal Oak one of its greatest successes and complications a never ending source of the company’s creative energy.
In the history of watchmaking, there is a handful of watches that have acquired the status of icons. Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak is one of those. The story started when Audemars Piguet opted for a radical response to the global takeover by quartz watches. The company approached designer Gérald Genta to imagine the watch for a new generation of clients. The aim was to create a luxury sports model with ultra contemporary design that could be worn every day, anywhere, a watch for a new, more active lifestyle emerging in the 1970s when extreme sports started becoming popular. Genta’s idea was to protect the precious movement with tough armour, hence his specification of stainless steel. An unconventional material for a luxury watch, and much harder to work than gold, it called for investment in new tools and techniques to get the required finishes.
As the first luxury steel watch, it revolutionized watchmaking design codes with its outsized octagonal bezel, brazenly secured to the 39mm case (nicknamed “Jumbo” at the time) with exposed hexagonal screws while housing the world’s thinnest selfwinding movement (3.05mm).
Nearly fifty years on, it is difficult to recall the initial shock of a big, bold, stainless steel luxury watch with the look of a diving suit faceplate. But in 1972, it broke the mould. At the time, there was a uniform look to fine Swiss watches. They were round, extra thin, classic in design and made of precious metals. These timepieces were not suitable for sports or outdoor activities. Then the Royal Oak’s ground-breaking design burst onto the scene. It ennobled steel by raising it to the same status as gold, and the design has since had many followers. It captured the zeitgeist with unapologetic muscle apparent in the beautifully executed, made-for-action case and bracelet. It showcased impeccable horological credentials, complex finishing and artistry. In 1976, Audemars Piguet’s head of design Jacqueline Dimier developed a version for women. In parallel, the company developed the world’s thinnest perpetual calendar movement that appeared in 1978.
Within a couple of years, the company had revitalised demand for traditionally made mechanical watches. In 1993, the Royal Oak was joined by the even bigger (42mm) and thicker Royal Oak Offshore which set the trend for larger watches across the industry. An unexpected offshoot was the Royal Oak Concept collection, born in 2002, which started when Audemars Piguet, taking a leaf from the automotive industry’s book, introduced a one-off concept model. Demand turned these single pieces into limited editions before leading to a collection.
Since 1972, many more models of Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore have been released. Horological advances have led to the adoption of a huge range of materials. While stainless steel remains the standard, it has been joined by gold, platinum, titanium, forged carbon, tantalum and ceramic – an even harder material to work with than stainless steel. They come in sizes from 33mm to a mammoth 54mm (including push-pieces). There are Grande Complication, Perpetual Calendar, Supersonnerie and Open-worked models, to name but a few. The Royal Oak has proved to be an infinitely fertile platform for creativity and innovation.
Audemars Piguet has never aspired to be the biggest Haute Horlogerie producer, but its unwavering commitment to complications since 1875 makes it one of the most interesting Manufactures for collectors.
Right up until the 1950s, Audemars Piguet had a small, highly specialised workforce of barely more than 30 people. They worked at the heart of a tightly-knit network of small workshops in the remote Vallée de Joux, cut off from the rest of the world for much of the year. They bought in blanks, cases, dials, bracelets and sent out pieces for gem-setting and other finishing skills. But the ultimate skills of miniaturisation and designing, assembling and regulating movements were all in-house.
Even in the busiest years, only a few hundred watches were produced. From 1895, movements were made in batches, but it was not until the mid-20th century that designs and processes were documented. There was no concept of collections or series. Watchmakers were free to go with the moment and every timepiece was a one-off.
Most of the timepieces produced before 1900 were pocket and pendant watches, eighty per cent of them with one or more complications. Wristwatches with complications were much rarer. In the vintage years between 1892, when the first minute repeater wristwatch was sold, and 1965, the company ledgers count a grand total of 550 complicated wristwatches. Today, they are the joy of collectors around the world for their rarity, design diversity, beautiful workmanship and horological expertise.
Audemars Piguet established their credentials as masters of complicated timepieces with pocket watches like the ultra-complicated Universelle of 1899 which features a splitsecond chronograph, jumping and deadbeat seconds, Grande et Petite Sonnerie, minute repeater, alarm and perpetual calendar. Wristwatches on the other hand, were principally seen as another form of ladies’ jewellery; they were rare and difficult to produce because of the need to miniaturise existing mechanical movements.
Chronologically, minute repeating wristwatches were the first preoccupation, with
35 movements made between 1882 and 1930. These were cased as wristwatches and sold between 1892 and 1960. Next came 188 calendar movements made from 1921 to 1930 and again from 1945 to 1950. These were cased and sold from 1924 to 1967. The third generation of complication was the chronograph, with 307 movements produced from 1930 to 1946 to be cased and sold as wristwatches between 1930 and 1962.
Finally, 20 double complication movements (chronograph and calendar combination) dating from 1941 to 1943 were cased and sold between 1942 and 1959. There were also 12 perpetual calendars (nine of them with a leap year indication) made relatively late between 1955 and 1957 and sold between 1959 and 1969.
Each of the 550 wristwatches was engraved with a serial number, recorded in the fabrication registers. Collectively, they are the foundation of Audemars Piguet’s creative talent for experimentation in form and function. A talent that has continued to drive horological innovation ever since.
In Audemars Piguet’s 143-year history, the Manufacture’s watchmakers have a habit of responding to adversity with their best work. The period when they developed new horological solutions to incorporate complications in wristwatches coincided with the most economically challenging times the company had ever experienced. From 1929 to 1945, fabrication of complicated watches was a clever, tactical response to economic crisis, a way to occupy the craftsmen’s time, transmit traditional knowledge and work on new solutions and designs, such as elaborate openwork.
When the Swiss watch industry went through seismic upheaval and restructuring in the face of the quartz crisis in the 1970s and 80s, Audemars Piguet took the long view. The Swiss watch industry shrank: before quartz, in 1970, it employed around 100,000 people but within a couple of decades, fewer than 30,000 were left. Audemars Piguet is one of very few Swiss watchmaking companies that not only continued to produce complications, but was bold enough to continue innovating in defiance of quartz.
The company’s secret weapon was, and always will be, the ingenuity of its employees. When the going got tough, Audemars Piguet made the conscious decision to focus on its core Haute Horlogerie competence, which explains why today, it is one of the few Manufactures with an uninterrupted history in complications.
The great revival began in 1978 with the 2120/2800 calibre, the world’s thinnest self-winding perpetual calendar movement. Like so many developments at Audemars Piguet, this was brought about by the Manufacture’s experienced watchmakers working on an idea, developing “what ifs” into brilliant horological innovation. The new perpetual calendar calibre represented a new era of business development and growth: 7,000 movements were produced, cased and sold in 15 years. It kicked off the revival and reinvention of other classic complications, all enhanced and improved by new techniques and technology.
In 1980, the first open-worked chronograph appeared, with a fresh, clean take on openwork design to expose the intricate mechanism. In 1986, came the first selfwinding wristwatch to incorporate a tourbillon. In 1994, the first Audemars Piguet Grande Sonnerie wristwatch was born, followed two years later by the Grande Complication that, for the first time, combined minute repeater, perpetual calendar, chronograph and split seconds chronograph functions in a wristwatch. In 1997, complications went mainstream with the launch of a Royal Oak Tourbillon and Royal Oak Grande Complication.
Complications have continued to evolve at Audemars Piguet with the addition of the Royal Oak Concept Laptimer in 2015. It was the first mechanical chronograph that could measure and record an extended series of consecutive lap times. Then, in 2016, came the Royal Oak Concept RD#1 Supersonnerie, a radical rethink of modern wristwatch repeaters.
And in 2018, the Royal Oak RD#2 Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin, breaking yet another record. It is a further illustration of the extraordinary determination of Audemars Piguet’s watchmakers who keep pushing the limits of horological innovation.
Official website: https://www.audemarspiguet.com/en/