When Jules Louis Audemars and Edward Auguste Piguet founded Audemars Piguet in 1875, they were laying the foundation of what was, for their era, the 19th-century version of a tech start-up. Now, thanks to a sprawling adjunct museum designed by the in-demand Danish architect Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG and realized by the Swiss architecture office CCHE, the company that started in a small wood-and-stone house in the hills of Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux has a new building that would look right at home in Silicon Valley. But it’s not modern for the sake of it: Ingels and his team took great care to keep the new 25,000-square-meter (approximately 26,909 feet) structure, literally, in Audemars Piguet’s roots.
Rising from the earth from what used to be the parking lot of the old manufacture, the new museum coils upwards like a stretched hairspring, the beating heart of every mechanical watch. Its grass-covered rooftop blends seamlessly into the landscape of the valley like a hedge labyrinth (and according to very early records of the land, it was originally used as a garden by Audemars Piguet workers). The groundbreaking new museum was seven years in the making. “We came up with the idea of extending the valley into the roof, so it’s a visible but invisible building,” says Matthew Oravec, an associate of BIG. “It’s depressed into the earth so it’s not calling too much attention away from the historical structure.”
At the time BIG was chosen for the project, out of five competing firms, Ingels’ name was not quite as well-known as it is today. Now the in-demand starchitect is everywhere, attached to huge projects like The Spiral at Hudson Yards, the largest building currently under construction in New York City, and Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.
“We wanted the watchmakers to be the stars and not the architect but in the end, it’s very well-balanced,” Sébastian Vivas, heritage and museum director of Audemars Piguet, told Robb Report. “The watchmakers are there, the watches are there, and the architect is there. And it’s really well combined with the historical building.” However, Ingels’s rising star was no doubt a bonus for Audemars Piguet, even in its striving for subtlety. It is without a doubt the new showstopper of the quiet Swiss watchmaking village of Le Brassus, lighting up the hillside like a giant jewel box with 108 glass panels beneath a 470-ton steel roof. Fragile but sturdy, its stunning façade is just a prelude, much like a mechanical watch, to what lies within.
Over 300 tiny treasures are housed inside. But believe it or not, the tour begins with a single stone. Plucked from the surrounding forest, the rough object is meant to be a tribute to the very foundations of watchmaking in Le Brassus, where iron mining and metallurgy know-how eventually led to the creation of timekeeping in the 18th century when local inhabitants began crafting parts and tools for clockmakers in Rolle and Geneva from the local alloy.
Visitors then move onto a brass family tree, detailing 500 important people over 500 centuries belonging to eight families that all played a part in the brand’s history. This, of course, includes the Piguets, who arrived in Le Brassus in 1264, and the Audemars, who arrived in the 16th century after fleeing religious persecution of Protestants in France. Both displays are precursors in the exhibition to early pocket watches made by Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet—the duo remained steadfastly committed to unique handmade pieces at a time when steam-powered machines were emerging in the area for the mass production of watches—to more ancient treasures like a Daniel Quare pocket watch from 1610, purchased to illustrate the development of the escapement. Vivas says the museum not only wanted to show Audemars Piguet’s history, but also the achievements of watchmakers that came before them—a watchmaking 101 for the uninitiated. “This museum is not just made for connoisseurs, but also for people that have no clue about what really makes a watch.”
Many interactive exhibits were put together to help visitors touch and play with mechanics from a giant automaton, designed by François Junod, that can be wound up to illustrate the energy and regulation of the escapement system, to workers’ desks where guests can try their hand at putting microscopic screws into a watch movement (a task even harder than it looks).
But for real connoisseurs, already versed in the nuances of watchmaking, highlights include the chance to see the archival watch that inspired the newly released [Re]Master 01, the world’s first perpetual calendar with a leap year function (the Audemars Piguet Ref. 5516), Tiffany-signed timepieces from the late 19th century, and a watch purchased by the Shah of Iran in 1884. There’s also a section devoted to the brand’s expertise in ultra-thin watchmaking. The latter includes the smallest chiming watch in the world along with a letter from the watchmaker who made it. It reads: “At last here is this watch made after two months of pain. My head and my eyes are ruined. I will never make anymore, for any price.” Who can blame him? Finding the priceless piece, however, has proven to be a headache for Audemars Piguet—the museum version is a dummy. The real version was delivered to the president of Tiffany in 1922, but its current whereabouts are unknown.
The museum is, of course, filled with original masterpieces—some of which the brand has dedicated years to restore, like the Universelle, a pocket watch made of 1,168 components and 21 functions, that take center stage within the spiral. “The watch, which was already 100 years old, was purchased from a private collector, a good friend of the brand, who had it re-cased,” said Vivas. “He still had the original case, but he simply wanted to change it. He wanted something more modern. [Laughs] That’s life. Everyone is free to do what they want.” After the collector was convinced to sell, it took two years of disassembling, reassembling and adjusting the movement to fit the watch back to its original case. “Some of the watchmakers didn’t sleep during its restoration,” said Vivas. “You must be really passionate to touch these kinds of watches. And in the end, for me, it was really impossible to imagine this watch leaving, because we were building a new museum and this is the most complex watch we have ever made.”
Just beyond the grand complication showcase are two ateliers where Audemars Piguet’s top watchmakers are hard at work on the brand’s modern high-horology and gem-set timepieces. Visitors cannot enter the space but can view the watchmakers at work, through the glass, on pieces that often take up to eight months to create. Exceptions may be made for VIP clients for whom the price of entry, one might assume, is the purchase of a timepiece made within its walls.
The show closes with the rock of Audemars Piguet’s modern identity, the Royal Oak—a full circle from the rough ironstone found in the hills of the Vallée de Joux that welcomes visitors into the space. Five glass cases are dedicated to the company’s bread-and-butter model including everything from the original 1972 version to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator Royal Oak Offshore T3 and modern versions like the coveted black ceramic model. What did not make the cut is the little known square-faced version. “It was not named Royal Oak on the original documents and when this watch was launched it was always equipped with quartz,” said Vivas. “To differentiate it from the real Royal Oaks, we made it square. We have 300 watches here and of course, we could show many more. It was super difficult to make the choice. It took us months of sticking pictures of the watches on the walls trying to decide what to include.”
The museum, originally slated to open in May, is now open to visitors via reservations. But stay tuned, because Audemars Piguet has more up its sleeve than watches—next is a 6,300-square-meter (approximately 67,812 feet), 50-room hotel in Le Brassus, also designed by Ingels and his BIG team. The architectural wonder, said to be opening sometime next year, is being constructed in a zigzag design that will allow guests to enjoy other local draws including cross-country skiing.