Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet’s new museum, the first to open during the pandemic, showcases its history, a contemporary spiral design, and a collection of 300 handmade watches
Sebastian Vivas, the Heritage and Museum Director at Audemars Piguet, speaks with unrestrained passion about the new Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet. The spiral-shaped museum atop a grassy knoll in the picturesque watchmaking village of Le Brassus (an hour from Geneva), Switzerland, opened a week ago and Vivas had a hand in selecting most of the 300-plus items on display.
Though our phone conversation is peppered with PR-friendly statements like, “We’re respecting the past but building the future,” and how “visitors will appreciate the quality and beauty of the experience [discussing the radical choice of design]”, the occasional bon mots better sum up his thoughts. For example, he speaks with disdain about the advent of quartz watches in the 1980s, an existential crisis for the industry at the time, sharing, “Quartz watches are not made by watchmakers, but by my electricians.” An unsurprising statement for someone who has published a study on quartz in the Journal Suisse d’Horlogerie.
Follow the spiral
The museum isn’t the first of its kind in the area (Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Heritage Gallery is a neighbour), but it is the first to open post Covid-19. The Musée Atelier, featuring only handmade watches, has been designed by in-demand Copenhagen architect Bjarke Ingels’ firm BIG. So the contemporary 25,000 square metre spiral construction — inspired by a watch’s hairspring, and crafted from curved glass, brass mesh and steel — is dramatic and in stark contrast to the two 19th century buildings that it is nestled between. Vivas says the design is a “counterbalance” to its surroundings, reflecting the brand’s rootedness and forward-thinking spirit.
Inside, curved glass walls and a sloping terrazzo floor (adapted to the land’s natural gradient) descend clockwise, guiding visitors through the various exhibits. Timepieces displayed in metal cases shaped like astronomical instruments, are often juxtaposed with materials that tie it to the land, like samples of iron (a hat tip to the village’s mining history). The collection, which also includes sculptures and moving models that demonstrate the inner workings of watches, serves as an introduction to Swiss horologists and the history of Audemars Piguet, which, till 1951, sold its complications to distributors.
Vivas picks three
- 1899 Universelle: This pocket watch occupies the central showcase in the museum and is made up of 1,168 parts for just the movement. “It is the most complicated timepiece the brand has made and came in for restoration a few years ago. It took four years to restore and the brand was lucky to persuade the owner to sell it back to us,” says Vivas.
- 1943 Chronograph: The watch was the basis of the [Re]Master 01, which was launched in March. The limited-edition reissue is based on a 1943 design. Vivas sees this particular model as a bridge between past and future.
- 1972 Royal Oak: The museum is home to one of the first-ever Royal Oaks ever made — Watch no 19 from the very first batch. Since its introduction, the steel watch has broken the rule of aesthetics and played a role in the survival of Audemars Piguet.
While the brand has had a private museum since 1992, according to Vivas, the new iteration — for which he has been putting together the exhibits since 2012 — “will be a living museum, animated by masterclasses and labs”. Such as the Grandes Complications workshop, which will explain how a single watch is painstakingly assembled from 648 pieces over the span of eight months, and the Métiers d’Art workshop, which will showcase jewellers and gem setters at work on the Haute Joaillerie collections.
In first person
How will the museum make use of the digital, especially now? Not through virtual tours. “Both the museum and its digital presence will be complimentary. But to offer a completely guided online tour is not our idea because nothing will replace the experience of being here. We will, however, organise talks for particular watches and around certain events.” Stressing that “we are not planning for the next five to six months, but for the next 50 to 60 years”, Vivas shares that it will be impractical to let people see the 300+ objects on a screen. “The story from this region is about exporting handmade timepieces to the world’s capitals. That is what has made people want to come and visit this small, isolated village,” he concludes.
The museum is currently offering guided visits by appointment for groups of up to 12 people. The 90-minute tours are available on weekdays through September 28. Details: maap.shop.secutix.com
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