Winter comes early and hard to the Vallée de Joux. It’s an unlikely place to settle, and an even unlikelier place to have given birth to an industry that, despite its relatively small size, has grown and refined itself over the centuries so that its products are sent, seen, and appreciated all over the world. To reach the Vallée, you travel north from Geneva, and the city quickly gives way to rolling hills and farmland. The road to the village of Le Brassus, which has been the home of Audemars Piguet since it was established in 1875 by Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet, ascends the flanks of the Jura mountains via a series of increasingly steep switchbacks, narrowing as it winds through dense forest, where occasionally-visible homes cling to the mountainside, seemingly in defiance of gravity.
As you climb upward, you begin to understand just how isolated the Vallée de Joux really is. Getting to Le Brassus in the year Audemars Piguet was founded would have been a strenuous challenge, even in the brief few months when the road was clear, in the late spring and summer – and in the winter, with the snow meters deep, reaching Geneva directly was impossible. It was this isolation (along with the presences of raw materials like iron) that gave birth to the most refined expression of Swiss watchmaking: the creation of highly complicated, very rare, and extremely valuable complicated watches, which historically have been at the very heart of Audemars Piguet’s identity as a watchmaking firm.
In a world where luxury in general, and watchmaking in particular, are both almost exclusively in the hands of multi-billion dollar international corporations, Audemars Piguet remains one of the last hold-outs of a much older way of doing things. The company is still owned and operated by members of the original founding families, which trace their ancestry in the Vallée back over not years or decades, but centuries. The vice chairman of the company’s board of directors, Oliver Audemars, is a very visible presence, and an active part of a tradition that was already very old by the time his great-grandfather co-founded Audemars Piguet.
The extreme difficulty of making highly complex timepieces – including perpetual calendars, and perhaps the most challenging of all, chiming watches – made Audemars Piguet, from the beginning, one of only a tiny handful of companies capable of producing them, up to and including so-called “grand complication” timepieces, which combine chiming mechanisms such as the minute repeater and grande sonnerie with other complications. This degree and direction of specialization meant that production of watches at Audemars Piguet was very small relative to the industrially oriented watchmaking that dominated, and still dominates, much of the rest of the industry. Astonishingly, Audemars Piguet did not begin using the reference number system for serially produced watches until 1951; prior to that, every AP timepieces was essentially a unique piece and even afterwards, in many cases, series production meant the creation of just a handful of very labor-intensive timepieces, with meticulously crafted dials and cases as beautifully made as the mechanisms they housed.
Creating complicated watches is not just part of Audemars Piguet’s past. Chiming watches, for instance, continue to be a subject of active research at Audemars Piguet, and the company’s historic production of some of the finest repeaters and grande sonneries ever made means that there is a tremendous reserve of knowledge upon which to draw for the future. Though such research represents the cutting edge of modern horology, it’s grounded in a past that arose from a very particular place – and from the tenacity of the families who first made the Vallée de Joux their home, and who found, in its rugged isolation, the impetus to create some of the finest and most complex expressions of mechanical art of all time.