It goes without saying that the people manning the heritage department at Audemars Piguet are big on history. Not just history of watches per se, but history in general. We’ve previously spoken to Michael Friedman, AP’s head of complications and historian, a bibliophile who could as easily school you on the philosophy of time as well as he could on the subject matter of watches.
Sébastian Vivas too, is cut from the same cloth. A history major in university, Vivas began working for the Musée International d’Horlogerie to finance his studies. The museum was celebrating its 25th anniversary at that time, and Vivas found himself flipping through the first professional watchmaking journal, the Journal Suisse d’Horlogerie, reading about the past centuries of culture, techniques, economics, distribution, advertisement and marketing in the field of watchmaking.
“It was the best introduction,” recalls Vivas. “I turned 100,000 pages trying to understand what was in this newspaper.”
It was also because of this particular exercise that Vivas realised there was a pressing need in the field of watchmaking to better communicate about its history. “The Quartz Crisis made a big gap,” he explains. “During the rebirth of mechanical watches, history started to become a very important instrument of marketing, and many companies started to open museums, publish books, to try to erase this gap that has cut our history.”
Finishing his studies, Vivas sent out letters to various manufacturers to offer his help. He accepted a position at Jaeger-LeCoultre before joining Audemars Piguet in 2012.
The Museum Brief
Audemars Piguet inaugurated its first museum in 1992, an exhibition room located within the company’s oldest building, where Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet had set up their workshop in their time, in 1875. By 2004, the company had enlarged the exhibition to encompass the entire historic building.
This April 2020, Audemars Piguet is ready to welcome a new, modern extension to its museum within the cradle of the Vallée de Joux. To build a space that could house its living crafts and venerable treasures, Audemars Piguet hosted an architectural competition to find the right partner to expand its historical premises. Five architectural companies entered. The competition brief was written by Vivas himself.
“It was a great privilege because then I could follow the whole project from the very beginning to today,” he says. “The brief was about creating an experience for the visitors that would make them understand the various facets and the deep identity of Audemars Piguet. For this reason, we talked about the oxymoron, the connection of opposites; past and future, international vision and deep roots, craftsmanship and high technology, vision and tradition, all these things merging together.”
The real challenge, however, lay in the physical building. “It had to feel like this kind of grand complication and be respectful to the landscape. We asked for the absolute impossible,” admits Vivas. “We asked for a super emblematic building that everybody can recognise and remember, but totally respectful to the local environment which is very quiet, and to the local architecture too.”
Chuckling sheepishly, Vivas says, “I thought nobody would do it. But finally the idea from Bjarke Ingels Group [BIG] was very clever. They did not really make a building, they made it part of the landscape. It’s part of the landscape which you can see and recognise and admire. But it does not compete with the old building because it’s positioned much lower. It’s very well-articulated.”
A Visit to the Atelier
BIG’s high-concept spiral pavilion rises gently above the ground, walls of structural curved glass that support a steel roof, while a brass mesh runs along the outer edge of the structure to regulate light and temperature. The roof, covered in greenery, also helps to regulate temperature and absorb water. It perfectly integrates with its surrounding scenery; nothing looks out of place, out of the ordinary within the remote valley of Le Brassus. You would believe that the museum was always meant to be there.
Inside the museum, every tour is guided by the watchmakers themselves. The curved glass walls converge towards the spiral’s centre, where the Grandes Complications and Métiers d’Art Ateliers are located, before moving in the opposite direction. Right at the centre of the spiral is the Universelle (1899) — the most complicated watch ever produced by Audemars Piguet — surrounded by astronomical, chiming and chronograph watches.
It won’t be a real museum experience if you could only see with your eyes, but not get to touch and feel. With the aid of German museum designer Atelier Brückner, the Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet becomes a truly unique place for discovery and learning as well as conviviality and passion — guests are invited to not only discover the 300 exceptional watches on display that encapsulate over two centuries of watchmaking, but also get the chance to try their hands on some of the ancestral techniques Audemars Piguet calls its expertise, such as satin brushing and circular graining.
Connected with the glass spiral is the historical house, the restored building of ancient woodwork and stone now houses the Restoration Atelier on its top floor, where visitors will discover a handful of highly specialised watchmakers restoring antique timepieces to their original pristine conditions. At the vaulted basement of the building, you’ll find various immersive exhibitions that narrate how the brand carries its values around the world today.
“It’s a place where people could feel like they’re part of the family because it’s a family-owned company. It’s a very special company where the connections are human first, then professional. We wanted people to feel that,” says Vivas.
It took more than two years to build the new museum, but it was well worth the wait. Having an AP museum was a dream for not only Vivas, but also the whole heritage department, who felt it was one of the best ways to showcase the company’s history to people.
“It’s the best in the sense that it’s the most complete,” says Vivas of the museum. “We are based in the Vallée de Joux. The museum plays with the landscape itself. There are watchmakers working in the museum in both the new and the historical buildings. We offer visitors the possibility to discover the collection but also to understand techniques and experience them, right in Le Brassus.”
Bridging the Past
Not too long ago, Audemars Piguet published a book on its 20th-century complicated wristwatches, a masterpiece and essential reference book one should have in their collection. The book followed four years of archival research, from the first minute-repeating wristwatch in 1892 to grand complications in the 1970s. No two watches are the same. In it, there are mentions of 550 complicated wristwatches: 35 minute repeaters, 188 calendar wristwatches, 307 chronograph wristwatches and 20 double complication wristwatches with calendar and chronograph functions. With detailed photography, fascinating narrative and historical background, the book was made possible due to Vivas’ timely discovery of company archives in a storage next to the railway station.
“My predecessor, Martin Wehrli, had a fantastic memory. He spent four years in the company and he told me, ‘If you go to these storages next to the railway station, you may find something.’ He gave me the key and left the company,” says Vivas. “Okay, there are many archives everywhere and it’s not centralised but we went. We opened these boxes filled with papers with descriptions, numbers. What were they? No clue.”
Step by step, the team found out that every watch ever made by the company from as early as 1910 to the 1950s were documented in these papers. Because there were no model numbers at that time, every watch was described to minute detail, with glued-on parts added to show the transformations and repairs that the watches went through. It was an absolute treasure, a rare find that was not exploited until now.
With the completion of the book, Audemars Piguet now had a really clear picture of its own history with the chronograph. The team knows for a fact that Audemars Piguet’s vintage chronograph wristwatches are among the rarest in the world — only 307 examples were made between the 1930s through the 1950s.
And so, to celebrate the opening of its Musée Atelier, Audemars Piguet, the brand that calls the octagonal Royal Oak its bread and butter, did what no one expected them to do. It created a new take on its rare chronographs from 1943.
A vintage-inspired, classic chronograph with not such a conventional name, the [Re]master01 is a self-winding flyback chronograph that speaks to the company’s storied past, evoking all the design attributes of the original timepiece. It is not merely a reissue of an important relic from the past, but a remastering of a past creation — hence the name. You can read more about the watch in our article here.
Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet is set to open its doors on June 25, 2020. Visits are by appointment only.