During ArtBasel 2018 in Miami Beach, I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Olivier Audemars, direct descendent of one of the founding family of the Audemars Piguet (AP) Manufacture.
As you will read, Olivier is super cool, down to earth, but importantly a deep thinker and a scholar of the famed manufacture that his ancestors founded close to 150 years ago in the Vallée de Joux.
In this slightly abridge transcript (edited for clarity and flow) you will get a chance to peak into the AP manufacture’s history, on why AP gets involved into the arts, and also get to know Olivier a bit better.
Hope you enjoy reading this as much as I had chatting with him.
Question 1: Who is Olivier Audemars? and History of Audemars Piguet
WatchMax (WM): Okay so thank you Olivier Audemars for being here and as it is the second time interviewing you, it's fantastic for me. The first question is to tell us a little bit about you. Readers of WatchMax don’t know who you are and maybe the brand that your family has so cherished and that everybody seem to love.
Olivier Audemars (OA): My name is Olivier Audemars and I am the Vice Chairman for the Audemars Piguet Manufacture, also chairing the strategy committee. My background is an engineer in material physics. Before joining the family company I started my own company that still exists today.
My great-grandfather was one of the two founders of AP. I am part of one of the founding families. Actually I never knew him but I was quite close to his son and my grandfather was someone that was very important to me; he’s the one who taught me how to ski and to build houses in the trees.
And I remember when I was a kid I was frustrated because quite often he was coming home bringing work. I mean work was watch mechanisms. I could not understand why he was spending time with tiny metallic pieces. One day he came back with a watch mechanism that was fully assembled, and he asked me to touch the escapement.
It came alive. Beautiful life, like a little heart and the second hands started to move. And I was like wow, this is magic and later he also brought me back to the manufacture. I was still a kid. I met some of the watchmakers and they were like magicians for me. I was very impressed. I think that's the reason why later after I had started my own company, when members of the other family asked me to join, I did.
It was not an easy decision to take, because when you have your own company it's also your baby, and I think it's because I remember from my childhood those moments that I shared with my grandfather. And I think what he has been able to do, was to help me build an emotional connection with the manufacture.
I mentioned that the company was established by my great-grandfather. I'm about to explain why he and his partner decided to start and found Audemars Piguet. I would have to go back a long way in the industry. The company was established in a small village called Le Brassus in a tiny village in the Swiss mountain region called Vallée de Joux, and this is a place with very limited resources. It contains lots of rocks, dark forest and long winters.
So the question that you could ask is that why did people decide to settle in such a place? And what we know today is they were very independent-minded people they didn't want it to live under the rule of the King of France or the Emperor of Germany or someone else. They took the decision to move to a remote place and worked to find a way to make a living.
And they discovered that in some of those rocks they were little bit of rust so they've been able to transform it into iron. And since the quantities were limited, and the process complex, they had to specialize into making small objects with high added-value, like a watch mechanism.
And the other resource that was extremely crucial, was time. Because when you are locked into your home for 6 or 8 months per year for the winter, you have a lot of time. And that’s the reason why that instead of building simple watches with three hands, they started to develop more complicated mechanism.
They took their inspirations from the motion of the moon around the earth or the earth around the sun, and they transformed that into a perpetual calendar. So what you could see is that old watches are basically made of tiny quantity of rust and a large quantity of time.
And they also represents this freedom for those people. That's something for us very important, we want to make objects that on one hands make the people that are making them proud and also provide them with good life condition, and on the other hand we want them to be owned by people who feel an emotion when they look at them.
We want to organize this encounter between the watchmaker, where you see the sparkles in the eyes of the customer looking at what he has been doing. But what happened is that at the end of the 19th century there was a huge change coming from the US.
The Americans had started to industrialize the production of watches. They started to produce watches by hundreds of thousands, by millions, and this trend was also coming to Europe and Switzerland.
WM: So we were the Chinese of the time.
OA: [laughs] Yes, kind of.
And what happened was that the two founders, they were both coming from a long tradition of watchmaking — for instance I inherited a watch that was made by the great grandfather of my great grandfather. It was made in 1750 or 1760 and that had belong to him — they did not want to follow the path of industrialization, they wanted to continue to make watches made by human beings.
That's the reason why they decided to start the company. So we say that the company was established in 1875. But for them it was not a beginning. The company was the way they found to increase the chances that tradition and a craft that was very important for them will continue in the future and that's why for us within that is all you see today is a way to continue to do that.
WM: Thank you so much for this history overview.
Question 2: Explain Audemars Piguet Involvements in the Arts?
WM: So the next question, I guess in some ways is to tell people that we're here at ArtBasel Miami Beach, which is it's my second time here I remember a few years ago I interviewed you, but there is a somewhat obvious question to ask, and it is what is AP’s connection to the show?
So yesterday we couldn't see the Aerocene Albedo working, but there is this obvious art installation that we are looking at which tries to repurpose to the power of the sun. Yesterday, I was going to ask if AP was getting into the solar watch business... [laughs].
And I guess to summarize, the question is what is AP’s connection with ArtBasel? And why are you involved? What’s the meaning of this collaboration for people who maybe love your watches but fail to understand this collaboration? For me and others it might be great due to our love of art, but for others, how do you explain it?
OA: There are many levels. The first one. If I take the installation here, you know, I mentioned to you before that to extract the rust from the rocks, the people at the Vallée de Joux had to use the wood from the forest. And as this manufacturing activity started to grow, then they had to use more and more wood and in the end they depleted the forest.
WM: So they deforested the valley.
OA: Yes. They realized years ago that they were going to hit a wall. To maintain or to redevelop or to make sure the forest would be here in the future, they started to garden the forest. They replanted the trees and they took care of them for a long long time.
Which mean that from a very early stage they had the conscience of this necessity to take extreme care of their resources. Later in the 1980s, in Europe, there was a problem with acid rain. And that also had a really bad impact on the Vallée de Joux and that coincided with the time when we wanted to do something to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Royal Oak.
That we wanted to do something meaningful. We saw the forest getting sick, and we decided to do something about that. And that's why we decided to start the Audemars Piguet Foundation which is tasked to support projects that would help the forest to stay in good health.
But we also realized that this was not just a local problem. That's why this foundation is working on a global scale. And what we can say today is that the problem of the Vallée de Joux is a sub-problem of a bigger problem. Now we can say also that the problems of the forest are also part of the problems that we face today with the environment and climate change.
So the last year, we also had another project with a huge installation that was about the impact of the rise of the seas on places like Miami and coastal cities. So it was a way to present the problem and with Tomás (creator of Areocene Albedo project) the next project (this year) he is trying to imagine the solution. What he’s saying is basically that human being have needs, and will continue to have needs, to organize transportation, but we have to find a way to do that in collaboration with nature.
WM: To find a symbiotic relationship.
OA: Yes. So that’s why a project like this one really spoke to us. But to come back on the relationship with watchmaking or the reason why we got into this kind of projects. There are also two other elements. The first one that you could take is with the history of watchmaking.
There were, if I go really really long time into the past, the first in Western Europe at least, the first event was the arrival of the clock in the Church. And actually they were a means to control the life of the people, because before that people’s life was linked to the length of the day, to the seasons, and things like that.
And with the arrival of clocks, people had to wake up at a certain time, pray at a certain time, and eat at a certain time, and go to war, and so on. So this was an instrument of power. The Church took control of the lives of the people.
And smaller versions were made for the powerful. Mostly clocks that were really beautifully decorated by extremely skilled craftsmen. Not necessarily very accurate because it was more of a symbol than a time instrument. So the next step of this evolution was when the European powers started to build ships that would conquer the rest of the world. To go to different continents.
One of the main problems you have to resolve if you want to be able to define the position of the ship on the planet very accurately. you need more precise clocks.
WM: The longitude problem.
OA: Exactly. For this reason there was a strong competition to build marine chronometers that became more and more precise. So from that time this notion of precision evolved. With the industrial revolution, clocks also became a means used to coordinate the activities of human beings on a large-scale. So you could say that was the start of clocks and watches as an instrument to measure time.
But in places like the Vallée de Joux, what happened is that there was always this dimension of making beautiful objects. And also the notion of mastery of complexity, because basically, I mean, you don't need to have a watch to tell you that every four years there will be a 29th of February. So people bought those watches because they wanted an object that represent this mastery, this complexity. I'm not saying that accuracy is not important but this is even more true today with smartwatches.
It’s not important because you needs to have your mechanical watch accurate, it's important because it's the way to measure the mastery of the watchmaker. By that I mean that to build an extremely complex watch, that at the same time is extremely precise, it's even more extremely complex, so the accuracy is the way one can measure of the mastery of the watchmaker.
And what happened with the arrival of the quartz watches in the seventies — I mean quartz watches a much more accurate, they are cheaper, they can do a lot of things that you never been able to do with mechanical watch — so we had those two dimensions, the time measuring dimension, and the mastery of beauty and complexity. And you could see that with quartz watches the time measuring dimension became obsolete.
And what remains was this notion of mastery complexity and beauty, so that's why we are artisans, not artists, but it’s the same route, so you could say that we are close cousins. We both are making things that talk more to the heart than to the brain. You don't need to have the painting on the wall. But a painting, a mechanical watch, music, or sculptures, are the things that talk much more to the heart than to reason.
And the second one is that in 2012 we wanted to organize an event for the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak. And it was something really huge for us, but there was a sub project. We asked a photographer to come to the Vallée de Joux to take a few pictures.
And we were really shocked by the results because we had this idea of Audemars Piguet and of the Vallée de Joux as a nice place with mountains, blue sky, blue lakes, and he came with the images that you've seen of the rocks of a dark forest. And the reaction was this is not the Vallée de Joux. He’s reselling some old pictures or something like that...
But the people had to accept that this was the Vallée de Joux. And because of that we started to asked ourselves a lot of questions and we rediscovered our history, and what I explained before (the history) we rediscovered that because of this experience that we had with those photographs. So we realized that artists have the capacity to see things differently, from a different angle.
And if you can work with them then you may be able to see what they can see, what they express through their work. The weak signals that we quite often don’t perceive, they quite often can amplify them. So for us to embed the company into art world, is a way (is a great way) to prepare it for a never changing future. So that's why when sometimes people ask me whether we collect arts, I say, we don’t want to collect art, we want to be transformed by art.
If you take Audemars Piguet today, it’s a very different company than it would have been without this collaboration with the art world. We’ve been transformed by this experience, and that’s also why we commissioned art project, we don’t own the work. The work belongs to the artist, because we want also this work to continue its own life, and also transformed others.
WM: you've achieved this?
OA: it’s never never something that can be measured. But what I would say is that there is still some work to do, especially when it comes to the more technical parts. Many of the people see this as something that is outside of the art world and we have to make them share that. But it’s a long-term process.
There is a saying in the watch industry that “time does not respect what has been done without it” we are a family business and we think in terms of generations and not in terms of quarterly reports. So we know that important things take time.
WM: You play the long game in the US, that’s what they say.
WM: So I think you’ve answered all three questions I had, in covering not only AP’s relationship with the Arts but also with this new Aerocene commission. So I’ll ask a bonus question, an easy one.
Question 3: Tell us About Your Hobbies? What do you do Outside of World of Watches?
WM: We all have hobbies, I started this web site as a hobby, so the question for you is that besides watches, what do you do, what are your hobbies? What do you enjoy doing? So we can know more about Olivier.
OA: Ah it’s an interesting question. There are different types of hobbies. One of the things that fascinates me are things like the understanding what the universe is made of. I am very interested in things like Quantum Physics and Relativity.
And I think it’s also correlated to a lot of what is the notion of reality and it’s something related to what we will discuss with our second commission this year: Davide Quayola’s video and images.
The other thing that I also love to do during the winter, is snowboarding, that’s why I hope that we will still have a mountain with snow to do so in the future. Or kiteboarding, windsurfing, or sailing. And I also like to run, especially in the mountain. It's a great way for me to free my mind.
WM: As always it's been a great pleasure to chat with you Olivier. I didn't expect you to bring such deep answers, so thank you so much.
OA: Same here. Thank you.
Expect one more story on Davide Quayola’s commission and AP’s lounge at the ArtBasel 2018 fair in Miami Beach, Florida. audemarspiguet.com