Under the same big sky

Insights into luxury from Audemars Piguet Historian Michael Friedman.

BY Grace Lai | Aug 5, 2017 | Feature

“What is luxury? Is it aesthetic? It is purely a price point?” asks Michael Friedman, historian of Audemars Piguet. Is it a subjective question?

“All a watch is, is a metaphor for astronomy. That has always been the inspiration for watchmakers. They are a part of culture - culture that’s inherently designed to last forever.” In other words, if luxury is eternity, then the watch signifies immortality.

Michael Friedman, historian of Audemars Piguet

The idea and the quest of an ageless existence hold great currency in Malaysia, which ranks as Audemars Piguet’s second-largest market in Asia for sales.

“People say the present is defined by what happened in the past but Audemars Piguet has always been transgressive. We don’t recreate our past; we choose to be inspired by it. We want to create the future. One foot in the past, one foot in the present: that is the motto for us at Audemars,” Friedman explains.

The past is really the present: “No matter how futuristic our designs are, the movements, finish and case will always be the same. They will always carry the precise mechanical movements and knowledge handed down over the years.”

Founders Jules-Louis Audemars & Edward-Auguste Piguet

A brief history of that foundational past goes like this: In a Europe caught up in the promise of the industrial revolution, 23-year-old Jules Audemars joined forces with 21-year-old Edward Piguet, both having learned watchmaking in Le Brassus. Audemars was fabricating complicated ebouches (blank movements to be finished and fitted by a watch manufacturer) from a workshop on his parent’s farm, while Edward was working as a self-employed repasseur (a master watchmaker who performs the final regulation on a watch). An increasing number of orders from Geneva meant Audemars had to hire extra watchmakers, one of whom was Piguet, whom he knew from his schooldays. They would soon cease to be suppliers and instead manufacture and market the complicated watches that were their mutual passion. Audemars, Piguet & Cie was born.

1907: Audemars Piguet manufacture in Le Brassus

Audemars was in charge of production and technicalities, while Piguet focused on sales and management. The tag team worked so well that the format was maintained after the death of the founders: the Audemars family handled the techy bits, and the Piguet family, the commercial arrangements. Audemars Piguet remains the oldest watch manufacturer owned by the founding families, who have had a seat on the board of directors since the company's birth in 1882.

“The history of Audemars is beautiful,” says Friedman, referring to how the launch of its debut piece coincided with a constellation of events and historical celebs.

“Jules and Edward debuted the first watch at the 1889 Paris Expo and history buffs will realise that it was the same year the Eiffel Tower was unveiled, and at the same expo, you had iconic names like Vincent Van Gogh, Tesla, Thomas Edison and even Americans Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill in attendance!

“So when you buy a piece of Audemars Piguet – and I’m not pushing the product here –you’re giving yourself a piece of a truly historic name. Every single piece is documented - the dials specified, the numerals, hands and casing numbered. If you’ve inherited your grandfather’s Audemars watch, we can trace the piece back to when it was created and replace, or re-create any part of it, just as they did, for you today.”

Royal Oak Extra-Thin Tourbillon Ref. #26510ST.OO.1220ST.01 / See more here.

And what is the place of rising tech, with its alphabet of soup of AI, VR and smart devices? Friedman plots the trajectory of the Swiss watch like this:

“The Swiss have been making watches by hand for hundreds of years. Who are we to change that? Of course there’s always a question of, ‘Should we, shouldn’t we?’ But for me, it’s very simple: never over-adopt a technology. You don’t have to separate fashion from heritage. Mechanical watches may never be as accurate as a piece with quartz technology but then you ask yourself: is it only precision, or is it precision with legacy?”