Audemars Piguet (Est. 1875 – ) Today, Audemars Piguet is considered one of the Big Three of Swiss watch brands that include Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. It was not, however, always this way.
The official establishment of Audemars Piguet in 1875 came about through the collaboration and friendship of two LeBrassus, Switzerland natives. The 23 years old Jules Louis Audemars met Edward Auguste Piguet, then only 21, at Vallée de Joux where each had gone after graduating school. In 1874, the two agreed to begin working together in watch manufacturing.
The business started with Audemars managing the production and technical portions while Piguet focused on sales. Success came slowly.
Audemars started producing component parts for movements and Piguet became the repasseur, i.e. the individual who approves the final regulation of a timepiece. In 1875, they founded the firm that became known as Audemars, Piguet et Cie.
The Audemars Piguet trademark was registered in 1882; but it was not until seven years later that the company was officially founded. When it was, Audemars Piguet et Cie became one of the largest watchmaking employers in southwestern Switzerland. Since the year of the trademark registration, members of the Audemars and Piguet families have been on the board of directors and directly or indirectly run the company.
In 1889, its first branch opened in Genev. It was here that the company began creating components and assembling watches in its own factory that employed direct supervision and strict quality controls. Between 1894 and 1899, the company produced about 1200 timepieces including a selection of very complex watches.
For example, Jules’ school watch had its original incarnation before the founding of Audemars Piguet but was transformed in the company’s workshops over the first two decades. It is an example of Audemars’ exceptional watchmaking talent that was evident at a young age.
The complicated timepiece combines a perpetual calendar with a quarter repeating mechanism and includes the rare, independent deadbeat seconds function. Deadbeat seconds are displayed by a central hand that distinctly stops or ticks at each seconds’ indicator before precisely jumping to the next position – 60 jumps per minute. By comparison, most mechanical watches have a small seconds (i.e. subsidiary seconds) or center seconds that continuously sweep around the dial.
The school watch is encased in 18K pink gold and the dial is made of white enamel that features Roman hour numerals, with the outer seconds track and Arabic five-minute divisions all in black. The large 20’’’ movement requires not one, but two spring barrels. The deadbeat seconds consumes a large amount of energy and, therefore requires the need for a dedicated spring barrel and gear train.
Over four decades, Audemars died in 1918 and Piguet in 1919, the company that bears their names became one of the finest in watchmaking. It pioneered the smallest minute repeater, the thinnest watch, the first skeleton watch. These achievements boosted Audemars Piguet’s reputation considered as one of the very best in the industry.
Their timepieces of note include, in 1892, the development and production of the first minute repeater wristwatch and, in 1915, the smallest five-minute repeater calibre made with a diameter of just 15.80 mm.
After the founders’ passing, the company grew steadily and became more famous. As its success rose, the company’s customers included Tiffany & Co, Cartier, and Bulgari who rebranded and sold Audemars Piguet watches under their own names. Since 2012; however, Bulgari has made their own in-house movements for select timepieces. Today, the movements made for these notable names are only identifiable as Audemars Piguet products by their serial numbers.
Later firsts for Audemars Piguet include the world’s smallest pocket watch with minute repeater and a jumping second hand (i.e. the second hand jumps from second to second rather than sweeping progressively.) In 1925, Audemars Piguet also introduced the world’s thinnest pocket watch, at 1.32 millimeters. Three years later the company created the first skeleton watch.
The company also advanced the art and development of openworking which, through highly skilled craftsmanship, gives access to each movement while safeguarding its functionality. This technique reveals a movement’s beauty. It requires endless patience and a perfect command of each move to unveil the transparent beauty of an openworked movement yet still ensuring perfect operation of the timepiece. This long and painstaking procedure is performed entirely by hand and requires great experience and skill as a Grande Complication requires more than 120 hours of openworking for just one calibre.
At the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, Audemars Piguet’s success began to dim. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Depression slowed development of many Swiss watch companies. During World War II, Audemars Piguet returned to the market with a range of ultra-thin models, notably the Calibre 2003.
During the late 1940s and early 50s, Audemars Piguet sales again began to grow. With Jaeger-LeCoultre, it designed the thinnest automatic movement that included a 21 carat gold rotor placed in the center. However, it was not until 1972, when Audemars Piguet produced the Royal Oak designed by Gerald Genta that the company’s fortunes really prospered. The Royal Oak uses a custom Jaeger-LeCoultre movement and is said to have created the market for the stainless steel luxury watch.
Compared to the watches of the time, the Royal Oak was, at once, a futuristic, dynamic, angular, and economic shock to the system. The biggest shock was not the watch itself, but the price. At its 1972 release, it cost more than every other Audemars Piguet watch and ten times that of a contemporary timepiece, the Rolex Submariner.
While initial sales, not surprisingly, were slow, this extreme pricing introduced a new level of super-premium luxury watch that only the most affluent could afford. Once the Royal Oak took off, it did so well that it pulled Audemars Piguet out of monetary difficulties and propelled it to financial success.
In 1993, the Royal Oak evolved into the Royal Oak Offshore, an evolution for the watch that changed history for Audemars Piguet. The large, bold and often colorful Royal Oak Offshore recreated the niche for super-luxury watches by again raising the price and opening opportunities for other, new, super-premium brands to follow in its footsteps.
The appeal of the Royal Oak Offshore can be summed up partly by the use of exotic materials and by its large proportions, but more so for the quality and watchmaking excellence that exemplifies the essence of Audemars Piguet output since its very beginnings.
Like many other luxury watch manufacturers, Audemars Piguet has recruited many well-known celebrities and sports figures to act as ambassadors for the brand. They include Michael Schumacher, LeBron James, and Serena Williams, among many others. However, the company took one of these endorsements further.
For example, Audemars Piguet was a sponsor of Team Alinghi, winners of the America’s Cup in 2003, and made a series of Alinghi limited edition watches.
In 2010, Formula 1 legend and Audemars Piguet ambassador Michael Schumacher wanted to know if the company’s engineers could create a mechanical wrist watch for motorsports that would make it possible to measure and record an extended series of consecutive lap times. This was a challenge never before seen in a mechanical watch. It would have the ability to time and compare multiple, consecutive laps only previously achieved by using a bank of two or more stop watches arranged in series.
It took five years of development to meet the challenge. In 2015, Audemars Piguet created the first motorsport-specific watch to feature the complications imagined by Schumacher. With two angular indexing systems on a single chronograph, each system has an independent memory. This development also marks the first time a movement was developed from scratch at the behest of an Audemars Piguet ambassador and also recognized the long-standing relationship the company has had with Schumacher.
On May 20, 2015, Roberta Naas, a veteran, 30-year journalist specializing in watches and author of six books on watches wrote of the timepiece’s debut in ForbesLIfe.
“Just minutes ago … top luxury watch brand Audemars Piguet unveiled what may well be one of the most complex chronographs in the world. Indeed, the Royal Oak Concept Laptimer Michael Schumacher watch was built in response to the seven-time Formula One World Champion’s 2010 request to create [a] watch specifically for motorsport use [that] a bystander on the sidelines can [use to] measure every single lap for an extended series of consecutive laps — instead of having to use multiple watches to do so.”
The completion of the watch was also a tribute to Schumacher who had suffered serious injury in 2013 while skiing for which he still remains in rehabilitation. Despite the accident, it was the wish of the Schumacher family that Audemars Piguet continue the development of the timepiece.
The lap timer of this very complex watch operates in a straightforward manner. The bystander on the sidelines pushes a start button on the watch. This activates two independent central second hands. When one lap is complete, the timer pushes a button that does two things at once: it immediately freezes one hand in place to mark the end of the lap, and simultaneously jumps the second hand back to zero to begin timing the next lap. The sequence continues – lap after lap – with each hand alternating its duties of freezing and flying back to zero to start again.
The making of this movement was entrusted to renowned watchmaker Giulio Papi of APRP. Papi is the designer behind the special and complex movements made for many top watch brands including Audemars Piguet.
This was the second Audemars Piguet watch to bear Schumacher’s name. The first was made early in the brand’s relationship with the driver that was the Royal Oak in different colors. The new watch also has a charity component as a portion its cost will be donated to the ICM: Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Epiniere.
Today, the Audemars Piguet watch group is composed of 1100 employees, fourteen distribution subsidiaries and sixteen boutiques around the world. It has three production sites: Le Brassus (SA de la Manufacture d’Horlogerie Audemars Piguet & Cie), LeLocle (Audemars Piguet: Renaud et Papi SA), and Meyrin (Centror SA) and produces 26,000 timepieces per year.