Many watch brands can easily be put in a drawer – either they are classic and timeless or they are trendy and revolutionary. Audemars Piguet, on the other hand, cannot simply be classified into one of these schemes, but embodies the ultimate synthesis of both poles. It is currently the hottest brand among pop stars and other celebrities, but at the same time it is the oldest Swiss watch manufacturer, which has remained in the ownership of the founding families from the very beginning until today.
The company’s history began in 1875 in the Swiss Vallée de Joux, a valley in the Jura Mountains. As early as the 18th century, the valley had developed into a lively watchmaking location, in which the manufacture of timepieces quickly manifested itself as a cultural heritage. The local farmers cut iron veins from the mountains and made clock parts as a sideline in order to survive the icy winters. In 1875 the two friends, Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet, decided to become masters of this subject. After successfully completing their apprenticeship as a repasseur, they got together and worked from home to manufacture complex watch movements, which they supplied to large watch manufacturers such as Tiffany & Co. After a few years, they both made the decision to expand their production to include entire watches. They already had the necessary skills and tools, as their families introduced them to the art of watchmaking at an early age.
But Audemars and Piguet always strived to surpass the original art. Early on, they shifted their focus to elaborate, extremely complex clockworks that only a few could create themselves. After only six years in the business, they already dared to create masterpieces such as a minute repeater or a perpetual calendar. The success of the two can be judged by the prizes and awards that you can still proudly look back on today. Probably the most impressive was the grand prize at the World Exhibition of 1889, which Audemars Piguet won for a “Grande Complication”, a pocket watch with four different functions. In the same year, the company opened a manufacture in the watchmaking city of Geneva, which soon became one of the largest employers in the region.
Even then, the brand began to specialize in the production of wristwatches – a clear pioneering step, as these would not experience their real breakthrough until 25 years later. The exact reasons for the decision have not been passed down, but it can be assumed that it was made out of ambition – out of pleasure in the challenge of accommodating increasingly complex functions in increasingly smaller movements. The time of the First World War was accompanied by great upheavals for Audemars Piguet. The two founders died one after the other in quick succession, their sons Paul-Louis Audemars and Paul-Edward Piguet managed the company from then on. In addition to the manufacture, they also inherited the ambition of their fathers. They continued to create groundbreaking innovations such as the world’s thinnest pocket watch or the first skeleton watch.
Ten years later, in 1930, the company was hit by an event that was far more devastating than the subsequent quartz crisis: the Great Depression. In 1933 the once large producer employed only two watchmakers and only had a handful of watches made. During the historical turmoil that followed, the company recovered slowly until watch sales began to pick up again in the 1950s.
In the early 1970s, the company was again on the brink as the inexpensive quartz watches from Japan conquered the market. Many companies tried to meet the new competition with discounts – Audemars Piguet, on the other hand, opted for a much riskier maneuver: swimming against the tide. Shortly before the watch fair in Basel in 1972, the then managing director Georges Golay heard of the demand from Italy for a luxury watch made entirely of stainless steel. A revolutionary idea at the time – timepieces were still made from precious metals and only sports models such as a Rolex Submariner were made from the metallic alloy. According to the story, the legendary watch and jewelry designer Gérald Genta developed the design in just one night: The Royal Oak was born! At first, the model was viewed with healthy skepticism: A luxury watch made of bare stainless steel, the design of which seemed inspired by a diving helmet and which cost ten times as much as a Rolex Submariner? Quite a few critics could not imagine that someone would even want to buy such a watch. Not long, however, and the prophecies of doom fell silent. The striking timepiece with the beefy front and the steel bracelet that merges into the case was enthusiastic