Audemars Piguet’s history has a substance and a richness that other brands can only dream of having. The brand’s masterful and trailblazing combination of technology, history and art has resulted in some truly influential pieces that feel entirely personal yet has centuries of storytelling embedded in every complication. It’s a culmination of all of those things that attracted Michael Friedman, historian for Audemars Piguet, to the role and he hasn’t looked back since. He sat down with us to discuss how horology is more than meets the eye, how the AP brand is far more personal than what we might think and just how monumental one model in particular was for the trajectory of the brand itself.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m the historian for Audemars Piguet. It’s a unique position. I work with the heritage department. But I also work in many other facets of the company in terms of how to link and how to bring the historical narratives and the heritage stories integrated into what we do on a day-to-day basis. And keep in mind, the heritage department is responsible for all historic watches, not just those that are 150 years old or 55, 60 years old, or even 25 years old. As soon as a model is no longer being offered, as soon as something is discontinued, it’s then technically part of the heritage department’s responsibilities. So while we, of course, have a strong emphasis on antique and vintage watches, we also have many exhibitions, and kits, and lectures, and presentations that pertain to the contemporary watch industry as well.
I’ve been in the business myself 23 years from all sides. Five years ago, I became full time with Audemars Piguet. It’s a company of which I’ve been a collector of myself for many, many years, and a company I’ve had some great collaborations with over the years as well. And it’s the last company in the hands on the founding families – purely independent. As a historian, it’s a tremendous opportunity to be able to work with their incredible archives, colleagues, and family members – people whose heart and soul are devoted to the brand.
What drew you to a career as an historian, and what brought you to Audemars Piguet?
The sort of big discovery for me was when I was still in university and there was this emerging recognition that the entire history of science and technology has been anchored to time measurement. And not only that – objects of time measurement have always been platforms of the decorative arts, and decoration, artistry, and craftsmanship. So it’s a fascinating duality – an intersection if you may – between science, technology, art, design, sculpture, architecture, engineering, physics…pretty much every discipline you can image is contained within this field of time measurement.
There is this incredible balance, this incredible dialogue between these different disciplines and different fields . And that’s what’s at the centre of watches. That’s what I think certain brands within this industry have lost sight of. That’s something that Audemars Piguet have not lost sight of, and it’s also central to the company. The mission of the company is to preserve traditional watchmaking in the Vallee de Joux. So on the one hand, we harness this tradition. Our watches are finished very similar to how they always have been – that focus on the human being, on that human element. But when you look at the design language and the form language of our pieces, they’re very much stepping into the future. So we straddle this timeline. We straddle this fence.
And this isn’t new. The company has always been rooted this way. When Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet came together in 1875 to create the business, one was a fourth-generation watchmaker and the other was a fifth. So watchmaking of Audemars Piguet heritage goes much, much further, even back in history. But when the company’s founded in 1875, on the one hand, the Industrial Revolution is underway. And on the other, you have the rise of impressionist paintings, of new art movements, the proliferation of photography, the proliferation of new forms of literature, writing, popularisation of operas. All types of different aspects of culture are really emerging.
But because it’s family-run and because it’s independent, the strength and power of the AP brand still resides with the men and women who create the watches. A few years back, we introduced our Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel. That mechanism, that movement, and that double balance wheel were conceived, invented, and introduced by a watchmaker at Audemars Piguet on his own time. Even something that’s become one of our big successes – “a hit” – was not conceived of in a boardroom. It wasn’t this strategic choice of ‘let’s find a watch to appeal to a certain demographic’. There were no focus groups and there was no study. It was just the raw creativity of one watchmaker who ended up inspiring an entirely new calibre, which is now in some of our most successful watches.
From a historical perspective, how significant is the Royal Offshore Oak birthday model?
You have this long history of rule-breaking, of playing with form language, of having that cultural dialogue. We have the ’72 Royal Oak, which, as you know, people thought it would fail. By the time we get into 1993, the Royal Oak is not over 20 years old. And if you remember what the world looks like in the late 80s/early 90s, the vibe and culture at that point in time, it’s this era of extreme. It’s this extreme travel, extreme sports, and extreme music – the re-emergence of certain genres of music, of art, and of film. Things really start to get amplified in a way. And this coincides with the earliest days of Internet culture. But it precedes the Internet, as we know it today.
Our designer at the time was in his 20s, Emmanuel Gueit. He created a variation of the Royal Oak, which became the Royal Oak Offshore that inherently appealed to those in his generation. He wasn’t trying to make a watch to appeal to young people because he was a young person. He was making a watch that appealed to his own sensibilities and those in the community around him. And the watch was just as controversial as the original Royal Oak was. In fact, the name Offshore was held off on those first 100, in case the watch didn’t take off or work then the name could be utilised on another piece. But sure enough, the opposite happened and the watch achieved pretty much immediate success with young people. And here we are now 25 years later and many brands are having this difficulty of “how do we communicate with?” whether it is young people or women or any other demographic. They’re looking for answers instead of looking at people. And the way you communicate to different groups and different people is you have people in the company who make up those demographics.
As you look around, you’ll see a couple more things at Audemars Piguet. Number one, the family-run nature of the business is the epicentre of the company. We work and operate like a family. Sometimes that means we argue like a family. But we always will find resolution…and always be supportive of one another. The departments within Audemars Piguet have constant communication. Retail, marketing, heritage, and product…these entities are very much in coexistence with one another or in constant communication with one another. Where one ends, the other begins…and that, again, is an attribute of being independent and family-run. That’s central to the core of the company…In the watch industry, you can’t speak at anyone, you have to communicate with. And that’s what we try to do over and over.
It’s a watch that’s so ingrained in pop culture as well. You even have Lebron (James) in your promo material. There’s a pop-cultural, celebrity element of this traditional craft that AP is doing. How do you see this in the context of (traditional watchmaking) history?
Well, the history of horology has been tied to the history of big personalities forever. I mean, historically, watches were so cost-prohibitive that very few people were able to afford them. So the story of provenance and watches is as old as watches themselves. You know, there are so many key people in history that owned watches. And these watches are now part of museums and part of institutions.
What Royal Oak has done for the company is that it became the platform for experimentation in terms of materials and in terms of dial aesthetics. When you look at the forged carbon, the ceramics, and these alternative materials that made their way to very high end watches, the concepts – the minute repeaters, the lap timers – actually started on the Offshore. That was the platform of experimentation. We have a model that’s literally on the edge, aesthetically mega-sized, and totally rule-breaking. Watches looked nothing like that before 1993 commercially. You had big watches, but they were tool watches. They were for diving. They were for military. But to have a commercial, luxury, hand-finished watch that’s inherently designed to go jump out of your aeroplane, to go scuba diving, to go swimming, literally take it offshore – this was a completely new idea.
So it’s not a surprise that people within the art, film, and broader culture community were attracted to that particular watch because it spoke in a way that was very different. We’re a brand that creates objects that are hard to find and are exclusive in that respect because they’re so meticulously hand finished, and of course, cost prohibitive as a result. But the company, the family and the messaging is as inclusive as it possibly can be. We want to share the Audemars Piguet story, the story of the families.
This relationship with culture is wonderful because in a given week, we could be doing an event with an academic institution or a science institution or we could be doing a raging party with Art Basel or we could be doing an intimate experience with our friends and ambassadors from the music or entertainment or golf or tennis world. And this is all part of that broader culture of Audemars Piguet and why we’ve been successful in communicating with people on that one to one level. And that’s really what it’s all about.