Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, mechanical watchmaking was beginning its incredible upswing towards what is now widely known as the “mechanical renaissance”. Big-name brands were once again becoming interested in progressing non-quartz watchmaking, and the small collectors’ market willing to pay big money for exceptional and unique mechanical timepieces began to increase in size and scope. The Swiss watch industry is by its very nature a cottage industry, so during this period, a great deal of the major complications were being developed by outside specialists with a particular penchant for thinking outside the box. These “suppliers” included THA, Christophe Claret, and Renaud & Papi — though, like the entire Swiss watch industry, the lines here were blurred and it may not have always been clear where one started and the other ended — a lot like the continuing saga of mechanical watchmaking.
Christophe Claret began his career — like many of similar ability and predilection — in the restoration of vintage timepieces. At the 1987 Basel Fair, the owner of a major Swiss watch company requested that Claret develop an exclusive minute repeater movement. While fulfilling this order, in 1989, he founded a company along with two other talented watchmakers: Giulio Papi and Dominique Renaud. Papi, who had been previously been a regular bench watchmaker at Audemars Piguet, struck out on his own in 1986 at the age of 21 to explore avenues of high complication.
This partnership, which was called Renaud Papi Claret — or RPC — didn’t last very long, and in 1992 Claret says he felt the need for independence. He bought up his partners’ shares and renamed the company Christophe Claret SA. Papi and Renaud needed additional financing since they had no outside money invested in the company. It was then that one of their main clients stepped in and purchased 52 per cent. The watchmakers’ previous employer, Audemars Piguet, had made its first move toward securing an exclusive future for complications. The bulk of the reputation of Renaud & Papi — as the company was now known — was based on the complication that it began life making: the minute repeater. Thus, it should come as no surprise that this also remains Christophe Claret’s specialty.
In 1996, more major changes occurred among the company’s leaders: Renaud sold all of his shares to Papi and departed. Robert Greubel, who had arrived in 1990 with IWC’s grand complication project in tow, and was joint COO together with Fabrice Deschanel, also sold his four per cent to Papi in 1999 and left. He and one of the watchmakers also employed at Renaud & Papi — Englishman Stephen Forsey — first worked independently before founding CompliTime in 2001 and Greubel Forsey in 2004.
Fraternal Dutch watchmaking duo Bart and Tim Grönefeld both worked at APRP after completing WOSTEP courses in Switzerland. Bart, eventually in charge of assembly, was employed from 1991 to 1998, while Tim rose through the ranks from 1994 through 1998 to do quality control on tourbillons and escapements made by older watchmakers with more experience.
The brothers agree that the reason they left was a strong desire to return to their home country, where they provide high-quality service for a number of brands and have founded a boutique brand simply named Grönefeld. Their Oldenzaal-based workshop, which also employs several watchmakers, is housed in the location of their family’s retail jewellery business. The first watch to ensue from this family affair was, of course, a minute repeater. Possibly the most complicated watch ever manufactured in the Netherlands, it is called the GTM-06, which stands for Grönefeld Tourbillon Minute Repeater — a watch that was in development for more than four years before one was ever sold.
“I can understand that Giulio is proud of his ‘alumni’,” Bart recently said during a discussion on the fact that many of the APRP alumni have gone on to make big names for themselves with their own creative watchmaking. Bart understands all too well since one of his own apprentices, Pim Koeslag, has gone on to a wonderful career with Frédérique Constant, in particular creating the luxury timepieces of Ateliers deMonaco. APRP “was the beginning of an era,” Bart continued. “They were doing this type of watchmaking before it was ever en vogue.” The brothers enjoyed working together in La Chaux-de-Fonds and relate a casual atmosphere. On one particular weekend, Bart and Tim were working overtime at their benches to get a project done. Since they were there alone, they enjoyed some loud metal music as they worked. Papi naturally showed up —but he simply walked over, looked at what they were doing, shook his head with a little grin, and left without saying anything.
Anthonie De Haas, affectionately called Tony by friends and acquaintances, is probably not a household name among watch enthusiasts since he did not go on to found his own brand. De Haas, who worked at APRP from 1999 through 2004, is the head of development at A. Lange & Söhne. De Haas had a lot of responsibility at APRP, including prototypes. The prototypists of any company are generally among the most gifted. During his time in La Chaux-de-Fonds, for example, he prototyped an Audemars Piguet grande sonnerie.
The jovial Dutchman cites one of APRP’s great strengths as being able to “give people possibilities to develop possibilities”. He agrees that working there was like receiving a stimulating education, and he thought it clear that most technicians being trained there would end up moving on. “Everything that is APRP is the art of watchmaking,” he says with a serious look. “There is no politics there.” De Haas was in charge of Audemars Piguet’s minute repeater, and still describes it as being “the best on the market”, explaining that it is the balance between the forces and the gongs that make it so special. He worked on this piece together with Forsey and the Grönefeld brothers — though the Grönefelds had already left by then. “Tony started straight after we left,” Bart Grönefeld explains. “Since [Tim and I] continued working on watches for APRP, we came every month and stayed for a week. During these times, we all worked closely together.” Bart Grönefeld also explains that at that point in time, there was only one minute repeater in progress, which was based on the Audemars Piguet jumping hour. “This was my specialty,” he grins, “so we talked a lot about it.”
Talking to Stephen Forsey about his former employer is to see a face glowing as he remembers those years. “APRP broke with tradition. That is significant,” he reminds us of the company he joined in 1992. “APRP broke the mould of what was out there before: it was young, fresh, and didn’t bring any baggage of tradition with it as a big company would. It was easier here for talented young watchmakers to get into interesting departments without first having to spend years pushing jewels or polishing.”
New, dynamic, adventurous — and no “baggage”: Forsey is certain these elements are what attracted the crème de la crème of young watchmakers to the factory in La Chaux-de-Fonds. While Forsey worked at APRP, 3D CAD/CAM programs were just coming into use, and this progressive company was one of the first to utilize it as standard equipment. Forsey himself recognized it as the wave of the future, and from the moment of its founding, Greubel Forsey immediately adopted it. The same can be said of their early use of wire- and spark-erosion technology. Forsey’s earliest experiences following his educational years involved the restoration of antique and vintage pieces (“that is the best schooling”), which led to a position at Asprey in London, where he worked for a year with Bart Grönefeld — which Forsey cites as a catalyst for him going to APRP. With Grönefeld already there, Forsey immediately became involved in repeaters. In 1994, Forsey prototyped the grand sonnerie for Audemars Piguet, and in 1995, he was put in charge of the assembly department along with managing a few bigger projects. He explains that one important element of his time there was the continuous improvement of reliability. “At heart, Giulio is so open and willing to share,” Forsey explains. “There was a continual rush of fresh ideas and talent at APRP.” Forsey saw that 1999 represented “the eve of a new millennium”, and APRP had about 60 people working there. He felt it was time to change direction and he shared a vision with Greubel that “perhaps not everything had been invented”. Thus, the two set off and first founded CompliTime, which runs its business in much the same way as APRP by producing complications for third parties. The ultra-luxury brand Greubel Forsey followed in 1994. As an aside, Forsey also reports that “selling watches” is not his real focus; rather, it is research and development. The ultra-limited, excellent-quality watches finance the duo’s penchant for progressive watchmaking. Forsey also reports that it was he who brought yet another extremely talented watchmaker to the APRP team — Peter Speake-Marin.
Peter Speake-Marin arrived on his “dream scene” in 1996. “We worked like dogs,” he remembers, “but we had fun. APRP gave me some of the best friends I have ever had and continue with today.” He counts 10 or more nationalities together under the one roof, and what they produced was “fantastic quality”. Speake-Marin left La Chaux-de-Fonds in 2000 for personal reasons and went to pursue a position offered in the Geneva area, which subsequently didn’t work out. It was that final experience that saw him going into business for himself since there was far less demand for minute repeaters and tourbillons at that time.
The year 2009 saw Speake-Marin hit another milestone in his illustrious career: after three long years of passionate development, he finally presented his in-house movement, the automatic calibre SM2. “Calibre SM2 incorporates the very best of all that I have learnt in my years as a watchmaker,” the “proud papa” reports. “SM2 is a unique automatic movement designed by myself from the ground up. It encapsulates my holistic philosophy to movement design; a philosophy that encompasses function, assembly, adjustment, finish, beauty, longevity and reliability… with design following function and function influencing design.”
Other APRP alumni include Cartier’s head of high watchmaking movements, Carole Forestier-Kasapi. In fact, Forestier-Kasapi’s talent was such that Cartier literally built its movement development department around her when she left APRP in 2000 to join Richemont. She began there in 1994 fresh from watchmaker school CIFOM in La Chaux-de-Fonds and was head of development.
Andreas Strehler was a prototypist at APRP from 1991 through 1995. The Swiss watchmaker then left to found his own company, which specializes in development for others. Strehler, creator of the Opus 7, also has a very limited line of his own watches. Finally, there is Frédéric Garinaud, who joined APRP in 2001 as technical office manager and later directed APRP’s “watch concept” department, paving the way for his role as a watch developer. In order to create Harry Winston’s Opus 8, in 2005, he founded the specialist unit called La Cellule des Spécialités Horlogères (CSH). In mid-2010, he left APRP and has meanwhile founded his own company, the result of which remains to be seen.
Those early days of the modern era of mechanical watchmaking now seem almost mythical as the Swiss watch industry experiences a changing of the guard and entry into the current post-modern era with the aid of intelligent machinery. Renaud & Papi continues to be located in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Unlike most expanding manufacturers, the company, which was officially renamed Audemars Piguet (Renaud & Papi) SA — or APRP — in 2003 after AP acquired a full 78 per cent, only has one single location, keeping its more than 150 employees all under one roof. Papi, who now manages the company together with Deschanel (who currently owns two per cent), remarks that APRP can be likened to a “training ground” and that it is designed so that others can also search out their own independence, should that be the path they desire. Today, APRP describes its main services to brands as proposing ideas, specializing in quality finishing and decoration, and making reliable watches. Much like Plato and his Academy, Papi has had a big hand in furthering the dynamism of the era, which relied on genius-like creators with entrepreneurial spirit and ambitious vision. Thanks to APRP’s “curriculum”, the watch world is a much richer place.