Ami Louis Meylan arrives each day to the Audemars Piguet workshop in a suit, white shirt, tie, and black hat. Once stationed at his workbench, he replaces his jacket with a lab coat. He works as a repassuer, tasked with making the final adjustments to a movement’s mechanism. During the brief moments of respite from his horological handiwork, he gazes out of the window to the horizon beyond. The facility is bathed in light, enveloped by lush forests and emerald pastures amid the vast mountainous backdrop of the Vallée de Joux. Although a century lapsed between the founding of the Audemar Piguet Company and the moment Meylan first fixed his watchmaker’s loupe into his eye, the company, and the extensive pedigree of its master watchmakers, remain largely unchanged.
The villagers of Le Brassus possess the perfect alchemy for a thriving watchmaking industry – time, quiet, patience, and ingenuity. This small settlement in the Jura Mountains in western Switzerland with its harsh climate and poor soil became noted for ushering in the first wave of industrial activity in the Vallée de Joux. The village soon became known for its technical precision and transformed itself into the cradle of haute horlogerie. Geneva watchmakers came to depend on the complex movements manufactured here.
It was here, among the finest watchmakers in the world, that 22 year old Jules Louis Audemars and 24 year old Edward Auguste Piguet founded Audemars Piguet in 1875, with a workshop in the family home, a registered trademark, and a partnership contract valid for a decade. The partnership continues to this day, and Audemars Piguet is the oldest fine watchmaking manufacturer to remain in the hands of its founding families. Jasmine Audemars, the company’s current chairwoman, is the great granddaughter of Jules Louis, and several other members of the Audemars clan still sit on the board.
Combining traditional craft with modern technological exactitude, Audemars Piguet handcrafts each of its 32,000 watchers per year, with their most extensively produced models never exceeding 1,000 units each. As one of the three major Swiss watch producers, the brand finds itself in the rarefied company of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, while Tiffany & Co. and Cartier use Audemars Piguet movements to this day.
Although the company has acquired two additional production sites in Le Locle and Meyrin-Geneva, the vast majority of design, production, and assembly of Audemars Piguet timepieces still takes place at its 11,000 m² Le Brassus headquarters. The facility’s understated interiors and protective sound barriers allow for minimal disturbance as design and development teams work in concert over the course of three to five years to turn an idea into a functioning horological artwork. Cases, straps, dials, hands, and winding crowns all begin as sketches and are reworked over and again until the perfect blend of form and function is achieved. Computer designers and art directors then collaborate to evolve the sketch into a more concrete vision on screen, working with actual dimensions and specifications until a prototype can be produced.
The Le Brassus workshops, where master craftsmen sit meticulously polishing, bevelling, and decorating, feature huge two metre high windows looking out on an immaculate view of the Orbe River valley and letting in soft northern light. It is perhaps due to this well known harmony with nature that has led to conjecture that the quality of an Audemars Piguet chime was partly due to tempering steel gongs in horse urine, while their movements were lubricated with the purest drops of oil. Once the individual components of the movement have been scrupulously manufactured and finished, a single watchmaker is tasked with assembling the several hundred parts over the course of two to three months. With surgeon like precision, the watchmaker starts by putting certain components together, testing them, taking them apart to hone or polish given sections – such as correcting the tooth of a gear by one-hundredth of a millimeter – until a satisfactory result is obtained. The watch’s final adjustment is done through a variable series of tests to ensure regularity and accuracy, then the dial is added, the hands are attached, the mechanism anchored to the case, and a strap is finally affixed.
It takes around six months for an Audemars Piguet timepiece to come into being, and this is only after years of designing, conceptualising, and prototyping. To don a Royal Oak or Millenary, is to wear a piece of history. It is the result of generations acquiring the finer points of their trade, sitting at the workbenches, fixing their watchmaker’s loupes into their eyes, and holding the same tools in their hands. As Simon Van Booy once wrote, “Actually, years mean nothing. It’s what’s inside them.” As far as Audemars Piguet is concerned, what’s inside is 140 years of uninterrupted excellence.