Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Making Time for Audemars Piguet

Enthusiasts join the legendary manufacture to play watchmaker for a night.

My watch bench awaits at the Four Seasons.
By Scott Hickey

Audemars Piguet recently invited a small group of collectors and writers to a special evening at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, where it hosted a private showing of watches from its current collection, as well as several historic pieces on loan from its museum in Le Brassus, Switzerland.

As impressive as the watches were, the high point came when it was time to stop looking and start building. As a special treat, Audemars Piguet brought two of its watchmakers to patiently guide guests through the process of assembling a mechanical movement.

The chance to build a caliber doesn’t come along every day, and for someone who appreciates fine timepieces, it offered a rare and exciting opportunity to feel what it’s like to bring one of these elegant machines to life.
1986 Ultra-Thin Automatic Tourbillon

Let me say this, it’s a humbling experience on many levels. Peering through the loupe, you gain a deeper appreciation for a movement’s scale and complexity. You can also clearly see the meticulous decoration applied by artisans who have transformed the movement into a metal canvas for their handiwork. But most of all – as I chased a crumb-size screw around the watch bench with a pair of tweezers – I realized that I have neither the patience nor the dexterity to be a watchmaker.

Before I donned my official Audemars Piguet lab coat and got down to the business of building, my group was joined by Claudio Cavaliere, a global ambassador for the brand. His presentation offered insight into the company’s evolution from its start in 1875. But he went back even further in time, touching upon the important role that the Vallée de Joux – the brand’s birthplace – played in its success.

More than two centuries before watchmaking emerged in Switzerland, the people living in the valley were mining its rocky landscape for ore and earning the region a reputation for its metalwork. “In the early days of watchmaking, the ability to craft components precisely and consistently was crucial. The Vallée de Joux already had that experience, which is an important reason why it became the cradle of Swiss watchmaking,” he said.

When Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet established the brand nearly 140 years ago, Cavaliere said the village of Le Brassus was a natural choice. “The proximity to the raw materials simplified production, which in turn attracted skilled watchmakers to the region,” he explained.

That expansive pool of horological talent helped fuel the family-run company’s ability to manufacture complicated movements. In fact, it took Audemars Piguet only seven years to unveil its first grand complication pocket watch, an amazing achievement for such a young company.

Today as Yesterday
1923 Perpetual Calendar pocket watch.
Brand historian Michael Friedman brought that legacy to life as he shared stories about AP’s achievements while passing around more than a dozen vintage timepieces, including chronographs and grand complications, as well as the world’s first automatic-winding, ultra-thin tourbillon from 1986. “When you delve into the Audemars Piguet archives, you can see that the drive to innovate is the common thread that connects its past and present. What the brand does today, is what it’s always done,” he explained.

Friedman illustrated that notion vividly using several perpetual calendar timepieces that represented nearly a century of watchmaking. The first was an extra-thin pocket watch from 1923. If you look closely, you’ll notice there is no leap year indication. Instead, the month display includes 48 months to reflect the four-year calendar cycle.

The discussion then turned to AP’s first perpetual calendar wristwatch. Only three were made when it was introduced in 1955, Friedman said. And while an example was not on hand at the Four Seasons, one is on display at the brand’s museum in Le Brassus.

Friedman then brought out a record-setting timepiece, the world’s first self-winding, ultra-thin perpetual calendar with a central rotor. Unveiled in 1978, the extremely complex movement is housed in a gold case that is just 7mm thick. Years later, that legendary movement (2120/2800) gave rise to the 2120/2802, the automatic caliber found it the brand’s current generation of perpetual calendars. In 1996, it was skeletonized for the Royal Oak, and today a non-skeleton version beats inside the elegant Jules Audemars case, which is an impressive 9.15mm thick.

1978 Perpetual Calendar
1996 Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Skeleton
Current Jules Audemars Perpetual Calendar

Time of My Life
Before the work begins
After seeing pieces from the museum and selections from the current collection, it was finally time to try my hand at building a movement.

In a small conference room, watch benches were set up and equipped with the tools and parts needed to assemble one of Audemars Piguet’s most-basic hand-wound calibers. Perched on a low-slung stool, I rested my elbows on the bench, which stood about shoulder high. After a quick primer about the tools and some background on the movement, watchmakers Gary Cruz and Emma Schaer led our group of would-be horologists on an unforgettable 30-minute adventure.

After adding the barrel bridge and going train 
After removing the glass cover protecting the movement, my first task was to secure the bridge that holds the mainspring barrel and crown wheel to the base plate. It took some wrangling with the tweezers to pick up and place the screws, but Schaer quickly rescued me with some helpful advice, quite possibly to prevent me from poking an eye out.

The completed movement
Undaunted, I pressed on, adding the three brass wheels of the going train. As these turn, they transmit energy from the mainspring to the escapement while rotating the hands around the dial. To work, the wheels must be seated properly so they turn freely. The final step was to add the mainspring barrel. While screwing it into position, the screwdriver tip slipped, grazed the barrel and gouged the metal, marring its beautiful sunray finish. And with that, my short but enjoyable tenure as a junior watchmaker came to an ignominious end.
Watchmaker Gary Cruz adds the balance assembly to finish the movement.

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