Audemars Piguet is not the oldest manufacturer of luxury watches in Switzerland—at less than 200 years old, the company is more a middle-aged but respectable citizen than a distinguished old buffer. But it is the oldest family-run watchmaker. Since its inception in 1875, Audemars Piguet has continuously manufactured fine watches in the Vallée de Joux, a Swiss region legendary for its association with haute horlogerie. And it has always done so under the direction of members of the Audemars and Piguet families.
Look through the exhibition caseback of your Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, and you’ll see two coats of arms lovingly engraved on the fine gold rotor. On the left, next to the ‘AP’, is the Audemars coat of arms: a bird, flying above three stars, and a ‘donjon’ (tower) with flag. To the right of the ‘AP’ is the Piguet crest: a crowned horse, rampant, with a sword, and three stars. The detail in these engravings is spectacular, right down to the individual feathers of the bird’s wings and the rippling muscles of the horse. Indeed, the whole movement is liable to be beautifully finished, with hand-polished bridges and delicately-tooled moving parts.
This, in a nutshell (or rather a movement case), is the personality of Audemars Piguet. Pride in the unbroken family lineage of the brand. Pride in the detail and perfection of the calibre. And pride in the finished concept of the watch. You see, Audemars Piguet is something of an anomaly in the modern world of luxury watchmaking. Its continuous relationship with its founding families has given it an independence not many fine watchmakers can claim. Many of the world’s most recognisable luxury watch brands are enmeshed in a behind-the-scenes web of interconnecting companies and ownerships. Audemars Piguet is different. It is master of its own destiny: and this has led it down two spectacularly different horological paths. To some, Audemars Piguet is the manufacturer of ultra-high-end dress watches, which employ novel technology to create ever-more-sophisticated horological statements. To others, it’s the brand that invented the boldest, brashest concept watch in history, and completely reinvented the idea of the sports watch.
The official 1875 birth date of the Audemars Piguetbrand reflects the moment at which two watchmaking families joined forces. The actual watchmaking roots of the company can be traced back much further, to the origins of fine watch manufacture in the Vallée de Joux itself. 18th-century farmers subsisting in the valley began to make watches as a way to expand their income during long, unforgiving winters. The raw materials for the work - iron oxide, and the wood to burn for smelting it - existed on their doorstep. And so Le Brassus, and the Vallée de Joux region as a whole, became a cradle of early watchmaking.
Independently, the Audemars and Piguet families mastered the craft (an 18th-century pocket watch bearing the signature of Joseph Piguet still exists today). And then, in the 19th century, the founding fathers of Audemars Piguet, Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet, created their company to manufacture complicated watch movements. A complicated movement is a calibre that performs functions other than simply telling the time—keeping track of the date, for example, or ringing a minute repeater. This obsession with complications has lasted throughout Audemars Piguet’s unbroken family history, whether it is evident in the simple jumping date of the Royal Oak, or the ‘quadriannual' calendar of the Millenary Quadriennium.
It’s almost ironic, then, that a luxury watch brand so devoted to the inner workings of fine watchmaking should have made its biggest public splash with a case design. In 1972, Audemars Piguet unveiled a new kind of luxury sports watch at the Basel watch fair. This legendary timepiece was designed by Gerald Genta, the polymath creator who was also responsible for Patek Philippe’s Nautilus and IWC’s Ingenieur. Its impact was immediate. The Royal Oak’s octagonal bezel, revealed screws and integrated stainless-steel bracelet created a sports watch that was powerful, arresting, and utterly different. It is the look that still defines all modern sports watches. So strong is the Royal Oak’s personality that 21st-century sports watches either resemble it, or spend so much time trying not to look like it that their appearance is still defined by Genta’s design.
The Royal Oak’s anatomy is part of the history of luxury watchdesign. Its bezel, brushed on the face and highly polished on its edges, is a masterclass in the creation of depth and weight. Its tapisseried dial adds texture and variation. Its precisely-angled case, which mixes infinitesimal curves and sharp lines to perfection, is the last word in blending case with bracelet. And the hexagonal crown and chrono pushers, echoing the shape of the screws that fix the bezel to the case, add a final element of balance. It’s a design that cannot be improved upon in any way—which is why, barring the slight updates of the Royal Oak Offshore and Royal Oak Concept watches, this timeless sports watch has remained unchanged since the day it was born.
In 1972 Audemars Piguet was a company that had been successfully producing delicate, complex timepieces for nearly 100 years. The Royal Oak, which was about as delicate as a punch in the face, must have created a question for the business, and the members of the Audemars and Piguet families sitting on its board. Carry on manufacturing powerful-looking sports watches, or go back to the brand’s more traditional roots of sedately polished gold cases and leather straps?
The answer was to continue producing both, but with a heavy emphasis on the Royal Oak. In 1992, the Royal Oak Offshore was added to the Audemars Piguet luxury sports watch family. This oversized version of the Royal Oak was the first 42 mm sports watch. Nicknamed ‘The Beast’, the Royal Oak Offshore became an instant classic, and would go on to become Audemars Piguet’s best-selling watch.
10 years later, in 2002, the Royal Oak Concept was added to the family. Combining Audemars Piguet’s longstanding fascination with high complications (the most difficult and impressive extra features that can be added to a calibre) with the iconic Royal Oak design, these concept watches brought the brand full circle. Models like the Supersonnerie, which adds the clear sound of a minute repeater to the legendary sports watch, and the Tourbillon Chronograph, which incorporates the delicate tourbillon in the tough Royal Oak case, re-inject the original Le Brassus DNA into the brand’s biggest hit.
Major success the Royal Oak undoubtedly is, but it isn’t the only watch Audemars Piguet has been manufacturing since the 1970s. The spirit of Jules Louis Audemars lives on in the Jules Audemars family of luxury watches, which celebrates the traditional Audemars Piguet values of decoration, spectacular case-making, and setting and finishing. Dual time, perpetual calendar, and grand complication Jules Audemars models are modern versions of classic haute horlogerie.
Audemars Piguet has also included its complications in many of its Royal Oak iterations. Standard Royal Oak models may incorporate chronographs or perpetual calendars, and have also seen extra finicking in the movements, for example with the double balance wheel of the 41 mm openworked (skeletonised) models. And the Royal Oak Offshore, while focusing on heavy-duty performance (and some pretty wild colour schemes) has occasionally added a tourbillon to its chronograph calibre.
Audemars Piguet manufactures its luxury watches in its twin facilities in Le Brassus: one, like the company itself, dates from 1875. The other is brand spanking new, opened in 2008. In a way, the two facilities mirror the dual elements of the Audemars Piguet personality: the historic manufacture contains a museum, a restoration workshop (Audemars Piguet will repair its own pieces indefinitely, even if they date from 200 years ago), and a tourbillon manufactory. The modern manufacture is where the rest of the watch components are created and assembled.
Audemars Piguet’s modern manufacture is environmentally-friendly, airy, and full of extremely talented watchmakers. Many of them have a single specialisation and work on one vital element of the manufacturing process. The manufactory has a room dedicated to skeletonisation, for example, in which each Audemars Piguet calibre is delicately freed from all excess metal until only the functional elements remain. And even here, there are specialists who specialise within the specialisation: like the watchmaker whose job it is to affix the floating barrel into Calibre 5122 (which you’ll find in the hyper-successful Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked).
Once again, we return to the key element of the Audemars Piguet brand. Pride. In every room of the manufacture, and in every beat of the finished movement, there’s an unmistakable joy. This is the satisfaction that comes from knowing you’re the best at what you do: and that comes from being an unbroken family business able to stay true to its watchmaking roots. Not the oldest, then, but perhaps the truest of the ‘classical’ luxury watch brands, Audemars Piguet is a watchmaker that deserves your attention.
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