01/18/2024
 5 minutes

Audemars Piguet Through the Ages

By Barbara Korp
The History of Audemars Piguet

The History of Audemars Piguet

Audemars Piguet – the name alone is enough to make any watch lover swoon. There is good reason why this watchmaker belongs to the “Big Three” of Swiss watchmaking, alongside Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. From sporty, elegant two-hand watches to models with exceptionally elaborate complications, AP (as it’s known for short) has it all in their lineup. And the best part? Since AP watches are so beloved and sought after, they hold their value well and often even increase in value over time.

What’s also impressive is that the brand remains in the hands of the founding family. But that doesn’t mean they shy away from innovation, daring collaborations, or overt rule-breaking. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s go back to the basics. What are AP’s origins? How does it handle the legacy of the legendary Royal Oak? And finally, what’s in store for the brand in years to come? We’ll get to the bottom of these questions and more in this article – let’s go!

The Founding of Audemars Piguet

Jules-Louis Audemars was trained as a repasseur, i.e., the inspector who conducts the final checks of a watch before it leaves the manufacturer. But instead of taking up such a post, Audemars started making his own watches alongside his friend Edward-Auguste Piguet. Together they founded Audemars, Piguet & Cie. in 1881 in Le Brassus, Switzerland. The town is located in the Swiss Jura Mountains, more specifically in the Vallée de Joux, a location famous for being home to many well-known watch brands like Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breguet, and Blancpain. In fact, parts of Audemars Piguet’s production still take place in the valley to this day. The watchmaking industry was flourishing back then and Audemars Piguet was in the middle of it all, in lively exchanges with other manufacturers and as a pioneer of watchmaking technologies.

Audemars and Piguet didn’t start out small and modest; no, they immediately started crafting complicated pocket watches. Within the first year, they offered models with a perpetual calendar or minute repeater. A pocket watch of theirs even earned accolades at the 1889 Paris Exposition. By then, the watchmakers had solidified a name for themselves as manufacturers of fine pocket watches.

Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar Pocket Watch
Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar Pocket Watch

A Move to Wristwatches

As early as the late 19th century, enthusiasts were turning to Audemars Piguet for wristwatches. At the time, pocket watches were still much more common and the wider public were uncertain whether wristwatches would just be a passing trend. The first AP wristwatch to feature a minute repeater debuted in 1891, and the watchmaker’s courage was rewarded accordingly. On the back of their successes, Audemars Piguet were able to expand and open branches in Berlin, London, Paris, and New York.

Audemars Piguet Jules AudemarsChronograph
Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Chronograph

The immense popularity of Audemars Piguet’s watches is further exemplified by the fact that many renowned jewelers would order watches and movements from Audemars Piguet and resell them under their own name, including Tiffany. The brand’s reputation helped it weather the global economic crisis prior to WWII; not even the war caused a dip in demand. Audemars Piguet’s chronographs were exceedingly popular in the US at the time and became resounding bestsellers.

Introduction of the Royal Oak

Audemars Piguet achieved its greatest success with the Royal Oak, which remains the brand’s most sought-after model to this day. When the Royal Oak first appeared on the market in 1972, it was revolutionary. It was visually distinct from other watches of its era. The design, the work of famed watch designer Gérald Genta, was eye-catching with its octagonal bezel and eight visible screws. With a diameter of 39 mm, it was one of the largest watches on the market back then. Moreover, the stainless steel timepiece was just as expensive as others made of gold! Did these attributes deter buyers? Not in the least. This watch set new standards and introduced a whole new category of timepieces: luxury steel sports watches.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Handling a Legend

The Royal Oak didn’t just capture the prevailing zeitgeist, it became a veritable legend. Simple three-hand Royal Oak models have remained hot commodities over the years. AP was faced with the same dilemma as Patek Philippe with its Nautilus: Should a luxury brand settle for its most popular model being a relatively simple sports watch with no major complications?

While Patek Philippe decided against this and discontinued their steel Nautilus, Audemars Piguet went the other way. They leaned into the Royal Oak, placing it at the center of their offerings and investing more in its development. Now, in retrospect, we can say with certainty that this hasn’t negatively impacted Audemars Piguet’s reputation as a top-class watchmaker. On the contrary, they’ve been able to further build upon their name as a brand with traditional quality fit for a modern lifestyle – a reputation they continue to benefit from today.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon 26534TI.OO.1220TI.01
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon 26534TI.OO.1220TI.01

Dealing With the AP Heritage

Audemars Piguet by no means rests on its laurels, basking in the success of the Royal Oak. They continue to hone their tradition as a specialist in elaborate complications. In 2019, the brand unveiled the new Code 11.59 series to replace the former Jules Audemars collection. It was a very bold move in what is known to be a very conservative industry. But even early skeptics couldn’t deny the charm of these new watches. The line is home to highly complicated models, but is also a symbol of AP’s approach to its heritage. While the round timepieces have a classic appearance at first glance, the octagonal mid-case is a nod to the Royal Oak’s famous bezel shape. The slim hands and indices add a distinctly modern touch. All in all, the Code 11.59 models perfectly blend haute horlogerie with a tradition-conscious design that is still markedly contemporary.

Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 Chronograph
Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 Chronograph

Audemars Piguet Today

Today, Audemars Piguet could be deemed the most modern of the “Big Three” of Swiss watchmaking. The brand has managed to curate a reputation that is both traditional and cool; rich in history, but also fit for a modern lifestyle. The Royal Oak is an icon and there is no end in sight to its popularity – it sits far too well on the wrist for that!

The design continues to delight, which appeals to new generations of potential buyers. At the same time, AP repeatedly comes out with watches featuring the most unusual combination of complications – and everything just merges in perfect harmony. As it did 100 years ago, the manufacturer demonstrates a courageous and innovative spirit that is rewarded in kind.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ConceptGmt Tourbillon White 26580IO
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept GMT Tourbillon White 26580IO

Looking Ahead

While we don’t have a crystal ball, based on what we know about AP, and our hopes for the future, we’re going to look at what’s to come for the brand – and boy, does it look bright. Audemars Piguet has found its place in the present and is helping to shape the future of the industry. Their legends aren’t preserved on the shelf, but modernized to meet today’s needs. They dare to break convention, pair up with surprising partners, and keep a firm footing in their heritage. As the saying goes, “Tradition isn’t the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” The fire is alive and well at Audemars Piguet. You can sense the passion for high-quality watchmaking and progress at every turn.

I don’t foresee this flame dying out anytime soon. No, I expect to see a lot more from Audemars Piguet going forward. As far as I can tell, the brand’s passion for crafting novel and unique timepieces is as strong as it was on day one.


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About the Author

Barbara Korp

The moment I learned that watches were a lot more than just simple jewelry, I was hooked; I become enamored with the elegance of timekeeping. But there was one small hitch: most models were just too big for me to wear! That didn't discourage me, however. In fact, I developed quite a niche interest.

Read more

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