Feature: 3 More Things You’ve Got To Know About Audemars Piguet
For the second in our Audemars Piguet section of our In Focus series, we aren’t going to mention the Royal Oak even once … starting from now. We’ve got three more incredible facts about watchmaking’s plucky saviour, and none of them relate to you-know-what. You can read even more about this particular third of the top three Swiss watchmakers right here on our blog at Watchfinder.com too. Right—ready to learn something new about Audemars Piguet?
Audemars Piguet Didn’t Make Watches
Picture this: rural Switzerland, 1875 and two young men who’d been friends all their lives decided to go into business together. One, 24-year-old Jules-Louis Audemars, had just finished watchmaking school, having graduated by making a particularly impressive pocket watch. It had no less than three major complications: a perpetual calendar, dead beat seconds and a quarter-repeater. By comparison, I graduated with a thin plastic-bound essay on soil compaction that was heavily borrowed from the internet.
It was clear that Jules-Louis had something special going on, and his friend, 22-year-old Edward-Auguste Piguet, thought they could make some money out of it. Also a watchmaker, Edward-Auguste found his calling not just in the regulation of Jules-Louis’s movements, which he did very well, but in the flogging of them, too. Turns out the Le Brassus country boy couldn’t just sell milk to a cow, he could sell it a leather jacket and shoes to match, too.
With Edward the brains and Jules the watchmaking brawn, together they were Audemars Piguet. Jules made high complication movements whilst Eddie sold them around the world, opening up offices in Geneva, London, Berlin, Paris and New York in just a few short decades. But here’s what Audemars Piguet didn’t do: make watches.
What you’ve got to remember here is that back then, the name Audemars Piguet meant nothing. It didn’t mean quality, it didn’t mean costly, and it certainly didn’t mean that eight-sided watch of which we won’t mention. Like so many other watchmakers of the period, Audemars Piguet operated as a B2B supplier, business to business, an OEM manufacturer to other watchmakers. They were still basically kids, making some of the most complicated—and therefore riskiest to purchase—movements in the world.
Audemars Piguet made movements for the biggest and best brands in existence. Bulgari, Cartier, Tiffany—they all saw the mastery of this up-and-coming watchmaker and wanted it for themselves. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the business could get by selling directly to the public, buying in cases and dials and assembling their own watches right there in their Le Brassus workshop.
Audemars Piguet Shouldn’t Be Around Today
Things are a little different these days—but perhaps not as different as you might think. Today, the Audemars Piguet facility is a technical tour-de-force employing both cutting edge and traditional architecture as a representation of what it takes to bring the best of everything into one exquisite watch. There are some 2,000 people on the payroll, a true giant of industry and one that many smaller brands seek to emulate.
Contrast that to the building Edward and Jules started out in and it is night and day. I say building, but that’s misleading because it’s probably causing you to think of a small industrial unit or serviced office space, when in reality it was just a house. This was a farming village, not a thriving industrial town, and so they had to make do.
The timing of this business venture was, to be quite honest, not great. Swiss watchmaking was evolving from a cottage industry that gave desperate farmers extra income during the winter season into an industry a nation could build a reputation on. With Jaeger-LeCoultre bringing the different stages of watchmaking under one roof and IWC establishing repeatable, industrial processes for mass production, the prospects for a pair of young watchmakers from the country looking to make it as independents were getting slimmer by the day.
But they had an ace up their sleeve: the incredible watchmaking of Jules-Louis Audemars. Had he been an average or even a great watchmaker, the business would have fallen on its backside. But Jules could do what no machine or factory could do, making incredible, high-complication watches to a level of quality that still baffles today.
And as the years and decades wore on, there in the little farming village of Le Brassus he stayed. Even when the pair passed away within a year of each other, the business remained in Le Brassus. Handed down to sons Paul-Louis Audemars and Paul-Edward Piguet—just think about those naming choices for a second—it remained right where it was, employing less than thirty people all the way until 1950. Even through the quartz crises, the brand continued to stick to its roots as a traditional, family-run watchmaker, and by all accounts it shouldn’t be here today. Yet, not only does the shiny new facility today continue to be located in Le Brassus—the Chair of the Board is one Jasmine Audemars, granddaughter of Jules.
Audemars Piguet Built A World-First For Omega
So it was mentioned before that Audemars Piguet tried to take the brand to the next level by making watches for itself and not for others, and that it did by refreshing Jules’ graduation project in 1882. It was a good start, improved upon in 1899 with a new, even more complicated watch showcased at the Paris World Fair. This watch had a grande and petite sonnerie plus minute repeater over three gongs, an alarm, a perpetual calendar and a split-second chronograph with all the second hands dead beat—and it was promptly purchased by Universal Geneve and re-cased as its own watch.
But somewhere in between those two watches, in 1889, another less grand but probably more important watch was made. It wasn’t a pocket watch like the other two, but a wristwatch, the first ever with a minute repeater. That is impressive enough in itself, a world-first for Audemars Piguet and a place in history—but this watch didn’t wear the Audemars Piguet name on its dial. It didn’t wear any name on its dial.
Like all good small businesses, Audemars Piguet started building up its brand by producing one-off commissions. Unlikely to be filling jeweller’s windows with its watches any time soon, producing unique pieces for certain discerning customers was a sensible approach to becoming the complete watchmaker Jules and Edward dreamt it would be.
This particular customer, however, who had ordered the minute repeater wristwatch, was rather special. He himself was in the watchmaking game, owning a firm that not only made watches, but at 100,000 units per year, was the largest manufacturer in all of Switzerland. That customer was Louis Brandt, and the watchmaker he owned was none other than Omega. If you don’t believe me, you can still see that watch in the Omega museum today.
Thank you so much for reading! If you want more, be sure to explore the rest of our blog right here on watchfinder.com for some great articles on Audemars Piguet. We’d really appreciate you checking them out—and have a think as to what brand might be coming in at number three next time.
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