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Watches

Behind the scenes at the Audemars Piguet restoration workshop

Words by Rob Chilton

In a corner of the Audemars Piguet Swiss HQ sits a small workshop staffed by three people who restore and research antique AP pieces. EDGAR watched them turn the clock back.

At the top of a winding alpine road in the Swiss Vallee de Joux lies the village of Le Brassus, home to hallowed watch companies such as Breguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Blancpain and Jaeger-LeCoultre – and many more cows.

Around 7,000 people live here and 99 per cent of them are employed in the watch industry. ‘The cradle of high complication watchmaking’ is a phrase we hear more than once during our time in this picturesque little town.

Passing through the drizzle and fog, we arrive at the Audemars Piguet manufacture that was built in 2008. We enter the workshop, passing two giant, high-tech Lavazza coffee machines. Clearly, producing more than 40,000 watches every year requires a lot of caffeine.

Audemars Piguet technician working.

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A technician gets to work

Rows and rows of technicians sit hunched over workbenches, placing a tiny screw here or a barrel spring there. Almost every person wears ear buds and listens to music, while all wear white anti-static lab coats and matching white Crocs that are never worn outside in order to prevent dirt and dust getting into their precious watch movements.

But this is not our destination; we’re on our way to see living history. Vanessa Cellier was born in the Vallee de Joux and has been a watchmaker at AP for 15 years. She smiles as she shows us through another door, and finally we arrive at the restoration workshop, staffed by Angelo Manzoni from Italy, the Swiss Malika Schupbach, and Francisco Javier Pasandin from Spain. Schupbach is starting out in her career and has been at AP for two years; Manzoni has chalked up 20 years at AP, but Pasandin is approaching four decades at AP. He wants to retire but is eager to pass on his knowledge before he exits. The impeccably clean room looks like all the others at the manufacture but the watches being restored here are very different.

Audemars Piguet restoration workshop.

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Components of a restoration project

Manzoni pulls open the double doors of a metal cupboard and there is a gasp. Rows and rows of wooden boxes from the 19th century are stacked inside, all marked with handwritten notes and codes about what’s inside each one: springs, screws, levers, wheels, barrels.

Battered old leather-bound ledgers contain lines and lines of information in beautiful handwriting about every model that has left the workshop since 1882. Every AP watch has a serial number so when a piece arrives to be restored or is unearthed at auction, the staff cross-reference it with the records kept in these dusty old books.

Audemars Piguet restoration workshop.

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Boxes containing watch parts are carefully catalogued

Two wooden trays are brought out, which contain the technicians’ current projects: a 1929 pocket watch and a self-winding wristwatch from 1953. “We restore watches to protect the region and its watchmaking history,” says Manzoni. They don’t make things easy for themselves, using old tools and techniques to carry out their work. “We don’t want to forget the old ways of watchmaking,” he explains. “If components are broken, we remake them here in the workshop.”

Manzoni and his team are closely involved with the AP museum that will open nearby in early 2020. Among the 500 pieces from the archives that will be displayed is a Grand Complication Universal watch that won a silver medal 120 years ago at the 1899 World Exhibition in Paris, an event that saw Vincent van Gogh, Nikola Tesla and Edgar Degas pass through its doors as visitors (we wonder if they got together for a coffee and a chat?).

Audemars Piguet restoration workshop.

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A restored 1929 pocket watch

Our time in the workshop is up. Vanessa Cellier leads us back into the main workshop and –with a laugh – leaps in front of a watchmaker’s desk to block our view of the top-secret Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in white ceramic that’s being worked on. She points to Angelo, Malika and Francisco in the restoration department and adds, “You see, we have one foot in tradition and one in the future,” she smiles. “This keeps us alive.”

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