Michael Friedman is known throughout the watch world for his distinctly scholarly approach to researching watches and their history, an attitude which lends itself extremely well to his position as historian for Audemars Piguet. During a visit to Hong Kong we had the chance to sit down with him and have a far reaching discussion, covering his journey to arrive in Le Brassus, what the tourbillon means for Audemars Piguet and where the future will talk the complication and this grand manufacture.
Nicholas Biebuyck: Just to kick off, can you tell us a little bit about how you ended up at Audemars Piguet?
Michael Friedman: My career in horology really begins from a much broader perspective than just watches and clocks. In university, I became interested in how different cultures measure time, and what it meant historically and culturally. The systems by which we break down astronomy into an organised means varies from era to era, and culture to culture. Things that I had taken for granted, such as the 24-hour day, I discover as a 19-year-old student that ancient Japan, until 1880, didn’t have 24 hours, they had 12 hours, and the length of those hours adjusted depending on the seasons.
Towards the end of my university career, in 1994, I started working in museums. My first big assignment was initially as the intern, and then the assistant curator, at Willard House & Clock Museum, during which time I also worked with a conservator and learned the basics of how to disassemble and reassemble movements, how dial restoration was done. I was a sponge for these men and women, between their 50s and 70s, at a point when horology wasn’t very cool and there weren’t a lot of young people doing it. They were really enthusiastic to have a young, eager person who was happy to dive in. I went from there to the National Watch and Clock Museum where I started in 1997, and I got to tell the story of time measurement from the ancient obelisks and sun dials, all the way to global positioning, and the exhibition is still largely intact from that initial project.
I was recruited by Christie’s in 1999 and I reluctantly went. I was excited to move to New York, but I was alittle concerned about heading into a more commercial situation. I quickly learned that there was an academic reality that was much needed at auction, and I wasn’t alone. The people who I came up with, such as Aurel Bacs and John Reardon, were of a similar mindset: that condition reports and authenticity needed to improve. We loved watches ourselves, so we wanted the discourse surrounding them to be as accurate and thorough as possible.
In early 2000, François Bennahmias, who now is the global CEO and at the time was CEO of AP North America, comes barrelling into Christie’s offices with this massive project that he wants to do. He starts talking about a charity auction in benefit of Muhammad Ali and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s non-profit organisations, something which is pretty normal now, but in early 2000 these types of things weren’t happening and certainly not at this level. To make a long story short, we pulled off this incredible event that was important for a lot of reasons, and for me it really was this recognition of what is possible in terms of the people we can connect, the stories we can share, but also the impact that can be left. This also coincided with the End of Days [Royal Oak] Offshore, which was the first limited edition from AP, the first full black PVD commercially available watch, that was very much part of this whole era and helped bring Audemars Piguet to a new level of awareness.
I left Christie’s in 2003 set up my own company, but remained in touch with Audemars Piguet during those years. But it wasn’t until attending the 2012 Royal Oak retrospective that I really reconnected with the team and François, when we talked about the possibility of doing something different, of creating a role that really bridges together where the company has been, and where it is heading, not to look at heritage in the museum as a separate entity, but as something central. That’s really how it got going and I haven’t looked back since.
NB: Audemars Piguet really is a window into the kind of anthropological aspect of history at that time, so when you look at your 1920s watchmaking, your mid 20th century watchmaking, or the Royal Oak in 1972, you’re getting a window into what culture looked like at that time.
MF: Exactly. Within the Heritage Department that’s exactly the approach that we take. We have a dedicated archivist, the museum director, Sébastian Vivas, we have curators, we even have a woman who is still handwriting the archives to this day. The Audemars Piguet watch on your wrist is entered into the archives, of course it’s computerised in the modern system, but it’s also entered by hand in the traditional system as well.
That’s the anthropological approach that you were just touching upon. I say it a lot, but we feel at AP that we are temporary curators, that this is our time. In the restoration workshop, Francisco Pasandin, Angelo Manzoni, Malika [Schüpbach], myself, it’s our responsibility to keep those archives up to date, to interpret them and study them, so the next generation inherits something even stronger than what we inherited. We’re lucky that we’re a family run business, and that the archives are perfectly preserved from 1882, down to sketches in the archives and notes. In the new complications book, we have a handwritten note from the watchmaker who, upon completion of the seven ligne minute repeater, the smallest minute repeating pendant watch at that time ever produced, talk about how his eyes are ruined and he never is going to do it again.
So it is a human element, that we are a company of people, not of watches. That’s something that the board of directors, Jasmine and Olivier Audemars and François, all the watchmakers all take to heart, that we are really about the people first and foremost.
NB: With the introduction of the Ultra Thin Automatic Tourbillon in 1986, Audemars Piguet really created a milestone watch. Can you provide a bit of insight as to how the watch was conceived and bought to market, at a time when the Swiss watch industry wasn’t at its most healthy?
MF: What’s interesting is that in the 1970s and 1980s, the Quartz Crisis or the Quartz Era depending on who you’re talking to, it is true that it devastated much of the watch industry, but some companies grew during that era. Audemars Piguet is one of those companies, Patek Philippe is another, Rolex is another; interestingly three brands that are still independent today. I can speak through the lens of Audemars Piguet, that from 1970 to 1985 was actually the biggest growth period up to that point for the brand. It was a series of different chances that were taken on by management, first the Royal Oak in 1972, then the extra thin perpetual calendar designed by Jacqueline Dimier in 1978, one of two automatic perpetual calendar watches in series production with the Patek Philippe reference 3448 which was not an ultra-thin.
This is a moment to mention not Gérald Genta but his successor, Jacqueline Dimier, who I would argue is even more central to the history of Audemars Piguet for quite a few reasons. She worked under Genta, she feminized the Royal Oak in 1976 which was not easy, she creates the extra-thin perpetual calendar design, which becomes an iconic design throughout watchmaking, she starts to bring complications to the Royal Oak in 1984 with the perpetual calendar, she designs the 1986 tourbillon, she works on the Star Wheels, on the Millenary collection. Her understanding of form, design, and what collectors were looking for really helped the company grow during a period where other brands were falling into trouble.
So this is where we arrived at the 1986 Ultra Thin Automatic Tourbillon. The earliest prototypes were done by two watchmakers, Maurice Grimm and André Beyner, who were not working at Audemars Piguet, but when AP took on the project it still had a long way to go to be ready for production, allowing Jacqueline to create a design that would be iconic, thanks to the position of the tourbillon on the dial. It was initially marketed as the Ra, the ancient Egyptian deity of the sun, and the first box had hieroglyphics on it. The tourbillon represented the sun, and then the lines represent the rays coming off of it. So, this was a real conscious effort of taking the technology, putting the engineering forward, but not just losing design. This watch to me is as much of an ancestor of the Concepts as it is of the modern tourbillon itself. It launches a new chapter in watchmaking: the adoption of CAD, CNC, the location of the tourbillon on the dial, the use of advanced materials, to utilise the back of the case as the baseplate with the jewels fully visible, to locate the crown on the back of the watch, to keep this streamlined design, that was all a conscious effort. With the first reference 25643, we made more of these between 1986 and 1999, than the entire history of tourbillons, from their invention in 1801 till 1985.
NB: This leads us on nicely to the fact that tourbillons are a core component for Audemars Piguet complications today, but there weren’t that many made pre-1985, the focus was on chronographs, repeaters and perpetual calendars. So with this watch featuring a tourbillon visible on the dial, you can say the AP pioneered the use of the tourbillon as an aesthetic device rather than the chronometric performance device.
MF: That’s right and that’s part of the theme here this week in Hong Kong, looking at the tourbillon simultaneously through the lens as a technical solution, as well as an aesthetic component of a watch, and it allows us to ask the bigger questions. You probably know where I stand on this: is the tourbillon a complication? My answer to that is, well, it’s a complicated question. The tourbillon is an incredibly complicated escapement to produce when done right, but it’s not a complication in the classical sense, at least as defined by Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet. We can say it falls under that category because of the amount of craft and technique involved, immensely complicated to produce and to finish, but it doesn’t have a function that goes above and beyond time telling, which is classically what a complication is.
NB: I think the other challenge is we use the word “complication” in the context of watches as a device to tell an additional piece of information, and funnily enough Apple use it in the same way on the Apple Watch. The challenge is that a complication is complicated, but just because something complicated, doesn’t make it a complication.
MF: Correct, and it’s not to take anything away from the tourbillon, in fact to me it really puts it into that category of art as well. If it was just about function and not about form, I don’t think the collectors and enthusiasts would have that passion towards the tourbillon, it’s the fact that it is aesthetically beautiful when done right.
NB: Given that the tourbillon can be seen as a chance for watchmakers to show you that prowess in craftsmanship and finishing, do you see the opportunity for other techniques from the past to come back, such as hard enamelling for signatures and scales on dials?
MF: This is the beauty of having the restoration workshop at Audemars Piguet as it allows us to be constantly revisiting all of these techniques. We have individuals who have that responsibility of needing to master, sometimes to relearn all of these techniques to properly restore the vintage watches, and this can then also help set us on development paths on what’s coming next.
When I arrived at Audemars Piguet five years ago, the restoration of vintage dials was good, but I knew it could be better. We had a great opportunity when one of the big global collectors, Eric Ku, acquired a vintage Audemars Piguet chronograph that needed dial restoration. He and I spoke about it ahead of time and he said, “I’m going to give your department all the time you need, and I want this dial to come back as best as possible”. This path of chemical analysis, of really looking at and studying every existing dial in our collection, finding old dials that hadn’t been cased. We really went through such an extensive level of what was engraved in enamel, what was printed, we have these dials, especially the complications in the mid-century with a combination of techniques use.
As we move forward looking at current and future collections, enamelling is a good example as we did bring back the technique already. We didn’t do it with a lot of watches or announce it with a big press release. They just snuck back in on our Jules Audemars Supersonnerie last year, and you’re going to see some other enamel dials emerging.
NB: So many manufacturers are now dipping into their archives for inspiration. Do you think this movement is something that we are going to see continuing in future across the industry, or do you think it’s only viable for a brand like AP that have not stopped and started production, but have kept pieces in some sort of continuous production?
MF: I think not just in watchmaking, but in all aspects of culture, we are deep into the 21st century, and pulling from the past is central to all industries right now. Whether you’re looking at music, film, art, architecture, literature, watchmaking, or car manufacturing, we’re at a point where we can pull from anywhere on the timeline. I refer to this as remix culture, which is of course birthed through hip-hop, but it’s part of postmodernism, and pulling from the past and reinventing it for the present.
This isn’t going to go away: some companies who have lost their identity, are going to have to really lean on the past as they have done, especially those companies that are publicly traded, but it is all about balance: if a company resides too much in the past, they’re going to have a hard time forging an identity for the future.
Independents with long history and legacy, like Audemars Piguet, have the responsibility to continue their history, but they also have that flexibility to pull from. It’s the legacy brands that are now publicly traded that are in an interesting position, because on the one hand they have resources that are unimaginable; they can pull from these parent companies to create new movements etc. But it also creates challenges; the shareholders want quarterly earnings. Is watchmaking an industry that can reflect this? We’re talking about objects of permanence in an era of obsolescence. The question is, how can a brand create or recreate a strong identity under a publicly traded model? I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s extremely difficult. Right now, the strongest performing brands at auction, and at retail, tend to be independent brands of varying sizes.
NB: You talk about the resources available within groups; while externally it looks like a strength, actually what we’re learning now is that it can be a weakness. It can create this kind of homogenous entity within the group, where it is difficult to identify one from the other as they are using similar calibres, design directions and marketing efforts. The other problem with reporting to shareholders is they want growth the whole time, and what that means is you have to blow up production in a boom, but then when there’s a bust you’re left with all of this stock sitting in your hands, and all of these employees who now have nothing to do. Whereas as an independent brand, such as Audemars Piguet, you never see them opening up a brand new facility to make another 20,000 watches a year, because they know that things aren’t always going to be sunshine and rainbows when the whole market cyclicals.
MF: It is cyclical and that’s why our business strategy has been taking a new direction as well. As you know we’re shutting doors, we’re driving more business to our boutiques. We still have key retail partners around the world, and there will remain key retail partners, but we’re driving more of the business directly between us and the client.
At Audemars Piguet, the product is exclusive, but the company is inclusive. Everything we do we try to welcome people into the experience. What does an AP client look like? The demographic is all over the place: we have people in their 20s and their 70s buying the same watches, one from the U.S., one from Indonesia. This means those employees in the boutiques need to approach everyone who comes in as an enthusiast or as a buyer, giving them the exact same experience, as we know that if you’re not engaging with young people, you’re not going to have a future, it’s that simple. We need to know how do they buy, what’s interesting to them, what do they view as permanent or do they view as obsolescence? All of this is central to the decisions that we make moving forward.
NB: Audemars Piguet has a rich history for bespoke commissions, how do you think clients can be encouraged to bring such pieces into existence today, and do you think AP has the capacity and incentive to do these sorts of things now?
MF: We do this to an extent with our grand complications, which we very specifically define as a watch with split second chronograph, minute repeater and a perpetual calendar. We make seven to nine a year in a dedicated workshop, and one watchmaker produces the entire watch, all 648 components; it’s their work of art. If you order a grand complication today, and that watch goes back for service in 20 years, and the watchmaker who made it is still with the company, they will be the only one allowed to touch that watch.
With these watches we already offer a degree of customisation for clients, including what case form they want and some dial subtleties. These are amazing creations, I can’t say too much without upsetting the confidentiality of some of the clients, but they are really incredible, interesting designs. For us to do that to a larger extent, it’s going to really remain on high complications, due to our capped production. Our best sellers are still made in very few units relative to what people think; this is part of the reason why even finding a 15400 blue dial is very difficult. But I do feel that in the category of high complications, increasing customisation options is something that we’re certainly looking into, and more important than anything, we want to make sure our watchmakers are challenged. These types of requests are interesting for them and help, as part of the mission for the company, to preserve the traditional watchmaking methods in the Vallée de Joux.
NB: With the evolution of complications like the minute repeater becoming the Supersonnerie, and the chronograph becoming the Lap Timer, where do you think the tourbillon can go in the future?
MF: The Supersonnerie was only realised because we looked outside of watchmaking as much as inside. We wouldn’t have achieved this without our collaboration with the EPFL [École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne], and didn’t just study the acoustics of minute repeaters during eight years of R&D, but it also included neurology, physiology, questions like how the sound transmits with the watch on your body, how acoustics function in other applications such as resonance in guitars.
The Lap Timer is another one, which is not a split-second chronograph as some people thing. The lap timer function is something we all use on our phones, but to take that concept and to reverse engineer it, requiring three column wheels, I mean the watch is crazy. So it’s a fascinating exploration in that regard, as is the Concept line in general. It is a range that always include the tourbillon, now the flying tourbillon in some of the models and the automatic tourbillon we brought back on some models with the peripheral winding rotor, but they’re also our platforms for really trying highly experimental things.
I think it’s exciting to think about what we showed last year with RD2. These ultra thin mechanisms are really Audemars Piguets’ space: for much of our history from the 1900s all the way to the 1986 Ultra Thin Automatic Tourbillon, thin watches were very much part of our identity. So I’m glad with RD2 to see us returning to that, but the key was ultra thin watches is to keep the balance of engineering and watchmaking. With advanced technologies and tools it’s very easy to over engineer, and there’s some watches in the market which are awesome, but they are engineered watches. You don’t see that finishing and that craftsmanship, so it’s always going to be important for us to maintain that balance.
NB: Can you tell us a bit about the new museum is being created in Le Brassus, I think the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) is working on it?
MF: Yes, Bjarke Ingels spearheaded the project and he has been central to it from the very beginning. This is a process that began years ago, before BIG blew up and was a known name, and when the design was selected it was totally unanimous. It’s been one of my great personal pleasures to work with him; he and I are the same age and I joke that I want to grow up to be him. We came up in the same generation, similar cultural references, sometimes we end up talking about time travel in movies too much instead of the project at hand.
The existing museum is the original manufacture, and it is still going to be very much part of the experience, but we’ve attached this beautiful spiral formation which will take the visitors on a fascinating journey into the history of the Vallée de Joux and of Audemars Piguet. The design is spectacular and experiential, but it’s going to be very much an analogue experience: you’re not going to see many screens or digital, it’s going to be guided tours only.
The construction is all glass, so no matter where you are you have sight out into the Vallée de Joux. You have the same view that Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet had when they made their watches, and that all of the watchmakers have today. It was extremely challenging technically to create a glass spiral that can withstand the temperature changes, and there are [watchmaking] ateliers inside so dust management and light control become central.
There are so many different aspects to thoroughly explore, not just the technical history of Audemars Piguet, but the design history as well. Can a watch museum appeal to people who know nothing about watches, and to people who’ve been avidly collecting for 30 years at the exact same time in the exact same moment? That was the challenge, and I think, in part thanks to the design from Bjarke, we’re going to achieve that.
BIG has also have designed the hotel, which is well under construction now as well, so we really are going to create a destination for enthusiasts to visit us in the Vallée du Joux. I can envision you and I at an auction in two years in Geneva, getting together a group of collectors and journalists to head up to the museum, in between sessions, to do a quick tour.