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History of Time: Audemars Piguet’s audacious approach to haute horlogerie

Before the age of Facebook captions and 280 character tweets, a company’s tagline had to articulate its entire raison d’être, but when Audemars Piguet adopted its newest slogan in 2012 (“to break the rules, you must first master them”) even they couldn’t predict how apt their chosen marketing line would prove. In a few succinct words, that slogan encapsulates everything you need to know about the fascinating paradox of Audemars Piguet: a 143 years young watchmaker defined just as much by brazen modernity as its mastery over the art of haute horology.

Audemars Piguet
The Royal Oak, designed by Gerald Genta and originally launched in 1972, has inspired a veritable dynasty of offshoots. The most notable of these is the “Offshore” (pictured), introduced in 1993 by AP in-house designer Emmanuel Gueit.

Most famous for its legendary Royal Oak — a lineage of steel sport watches first released in 1972 — Audemars Piguet is amongst the so-called “Holy Trinity” of Swiss watchmakers (also including Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe). Operating from rustic Le Brassus in the Vallée de Joux — a cradle of traditional watchmaking since the 17th century — theirs is a heritage rich with accomplishment. In 1915, the manufacture produced the then-smallest five minute repeater calibre (15.8mm); before introducing collectors to the first ever skeleton watches just 13 years later. In more recent memory (i.e. 1986) the brand accomplished a notable double whammy with its Ref. 25643: the world’s first (and then-thinnest) automatic tourbillon calibre. Most would rest on the laurels wreathed by such technical achievements — not AP.

Audemars Piguet
To this day, the ancestral homeland of Audemars Piguet remains located in the Vallée de Joux (Canton of Vaud). The area has provided ample inspiration to the eponymous watchmaker: from the Jura Mountains’ snowcapped peaks to its rich thriving community of farmer-horologists.

In this instalment of History of Time, we examine how two facets of Audemars Piguet — namely, superlative manufacture and brash (even audacious) design — have made it into one of the most covetable names in Swiss horology today. From humble beginnings as a 50-man établisseur to the lightning-in-a-bottle genesis of the Royal Oak, few brands have written and then thrown out the rulebook quite like Audemars Piguet.

From Le Brassus with love (since 1875)

Like numerous heavyweights from the world of Swiss watchmaking, Audemars Piguet began life as a partnership between two individually formidable artisans. In 1875, childhood friends Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet joined hands as établisseurs: designing and manufacturing movements for other Geneva-based watch companies.

Audemars Piguet
A close friendship and shared background in mechanical watchmaking prompted Jules Louis Audemars (right) and Edward August Piguet (left) to establish the house of Audemars Piguet.

Both men had previously been independent watchmakers — not uncommon for inhabitants of the Vallée de Joux, professional farmers who spent their long winters up-skilling as metal workers — and their respective credentials enabled effective delegation of responsibility. Audemars, who’d shown a keen interest in horology from a young age, designed and produced the movements, whilst Piguet was tasked with ensuring all finished products — sold to companies like Tiffany & Co — were correctly regulated.

Audemars Piguet
A seminal point in the history of Audemars Piguet came in 1882, with the creation of the Grande Complication: a highly sophisticated pocket watch housing everything from a minute repeater to deadbeat seconds.

The duo’s first masterstroke came in 1882, with the introduction of the Grande Complication: a technically superlative pocket watch that (true to its name) housed no less than seven different feats of mechanical wizardry. The design proved to be formative and in the 10 years following the Grande Complication’s introduction, roughly 80 percent of AP watches echoed its sophistication through the inclusion of one or more complications.

Audemars Piguet
Despite the modern desirability of the Royal Oak, Audemars Piguet’s ultimate grail remains its chronograph. Between 1930 and 1946, less than 500 such models were produced. Pictured: a two register AP chronograph circa 1942.

Today, the company attributes the Grande Complication (and innumerable other watchmaking innovations) to its spirited commercial independence. For four generations, the AP board of directors has been populated by members from both namesake families: a passionate and closely knit bunch who are, in many cases, bound by blood. For Olivier Audemars (Vice Chairman and great grandson of Edward August Piguet), “Audemars Piguet is more than a company. It remains responsible for the transmission of knowledge and know-how to future generations”. This ethos — consumed with fine Swiss watchmaking’s survival and longevity — drove the manufacture to break new ground with projects like the leap year cycled perpetual calendar, Supersonnerie and more recently, the Maison des Fondateurs: an ambitious horological museum, located on the grounds of the manufacture, set to open in 2019.

Audemars Piguet
Audemars Piguet’s status as an independent family operated business has resulted in numerous ambitious projects. The latest of these is the Maison des Fondateurs: a spiral-like structure (designed by the Bjarke Ingels Group) housing the manufacture’s most storied achievements in watchmaking.

Indeed, historically, the independent spirit of Audemars Piguet has proved most indomitable in times of crisis; with the company’s top brass earning a reputation for daring (occasionally dangerous) big picture thinking during the watch industry’s most turbulent days. An obvious example of this dates back to the 1970s: during the early period of what watch nerds refer to as the Quartz Crisis. For Audemars Piguet, the decade would prove definitive.

Royal Oak: from avant-garde to all time classic

At a time when quartz watches — cheap, accurate, and widely available — were threatening to overshadow traditional Swiss manufacture, AP broke with convention to offer a product that ignored digital electronics in their entirety. Unfettered by the kind of internecine squabbling that plagues most luxury conglomerates, AP’s familial leadership embarked on a decisive course to address what has since become a dominant section of the market — sports watches.

Confident that the company would survive the Quartz Crisis by producing models that appealed to a new generation of younger more active consumers, AP’s directors approached Gerald Genta — legendary designer behind Patek Phillippe’s Golden Ellipse and the Omega Constellation — to will just such a game changer into existence. In hindsight, the task before him was unprecedented: necessitating the creation of a luxurious yet ultra modern sport watch that could be worn at any time in any place. Throughout the early 70s, almost all design codes in Swiss watchmaking favoured elegant dress watches made in precious metals (e.g. yellow gold); and it’s upon this blank canvas that Genta conceived of a worthy follow-up to what the company achieved in 1882.

W Kuala Lumpur
According to legend, in 1970 the Audemars Piguet board of directors gave Gerald Genta merely 24 hours to execute a proof of concept for the now-iconic “A Series” of Royal Oaks (pictured).

Difficult though it is to comprehend, everything we now take for granted about luxury sports watches was the result of Genta’s original and then-controversial design. When the inaugural Royal Oak reference (5402) was introduced in 1972, journalists were immediately divided. Measuring a brazen 39mm — modest by today’s standards — the Ref. 5402 combined avant-garde looks with AP’s superior quality of finishing. It introduced a radical new element in the form of stainless steel: offering superior protection to mechanical movements in a period when extreme sports were beginning to gain traction.

Throughout the 60s, a uniform aesthetic across Swiss watchmaking (i.e. round, small, thin) had also taken hold; and the arrival of the Ref. 5402 shattered that status quo in spectacular fashion. Its octagonal bezel, fitted with eight exposed screws, called to mind portholes found on Revenge class warships in the British Navy — Genta’s classic design is named for one of five such vessels — while the tapisserie dial (executed with an intricate engine turned motif) reflected a deep and sumptuous spectrum of light. It radiated strength and clarity of vision, and for nearly 50 years has been the benchmark against which other (equally acclaimed) watches are measured.

Audemars Piguet
Colloquially known as “Jumbos”, Ref. 5402 Royal Oaks are always a popular item at watch auctions around the world. Identifiable by the “AP” insignia stamped above the 6 o’clock position, they regularly fetch sums in excess of HK$400,000. (Image source: Phillips)

Perhaps the biggest compliment that can be paid to the inaugural Royal Oak reference is its longevity. Since 1972, dozens of variations on Genta’s original concept have been produced: including open worked models, ultra-thin experimental calendars, and in 1993 the equally celebrated Royal Oak Offshore collection. The latter — driven by design codes that hadn’t drastically changed for over 50 years — was another feather in AP’s annualised financial cap: with younger consumers, attenuated to 90s pop culture, favouring the Offshore’s 42mm case, chronograph function and use of silicon rubber.

All of this spawned from an experimental steel watch (with a retail price equivalent to US$20,000 in 2018) invented in the era of the Quartz Crisis? Now that’s ballsy.

For more stories from AP’s Le Brassus manufacture, visit Audemars Piguet online

Randy Lai
Having worked in the Australian digital media landscape for over 5 years, Randy has extensive experience in men's specialist categories such as classic clothing, watches and spirits. He is partial to mid-century chronographs and a nice chianti.
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