The drive from Geneva to the tiny town of Le Brassus takes little more than an hour. Most of the journey feels vertical: You’re climbing into the mountains, passing quaint Swiss towns along the way, and getting brief, breathtaking views of the Alps beyond.
You’re taking largely the same trip that’s sometimes referred to as the Watchmakers’ Path. For centuries, the families that lived in the Vallée de Joux in the Jura Mountains, where Le Brassus is located, would make cheese in the summer and timepieces in the winter. When conditions allowed, they would travel down to Geneva to sell their wares. Because of global warming, there isn’t as much snow in the mountains as there used to be, say locals, but the quiet region is just as charming as ever. And for the watch enthusiast it’s about to become even more welcoming.
Later this year, aficionados of the brand Audemars Piguet—probably best known for making the Royal Oak, with its octagonal bezel—who visit the company’s headquarters in Le Brassus will be able to deepen their knowledge and appreciation with a visit to its museum, a piece of architecture just as impressive as one of the timepieces.
The Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet was designed by Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels, who is known for the unusual geometries of his buildings. Recent projects of his include a triangular building on Manhattan’s waterfront and a skyscraper that twists precariously over the heart of Vancouver.
Here in Le Brassus, he conceived a structure that appears to rise up from the valley as a swirling coil. The single-story building’s most defining element is its walls—it’s supported entirely by 108 curved-glass panels that hold up the ceiling without any supports. The windows allow the interior to be bathed in natural light and provide gorgeous views of the valley. Yet from the outside, the grass-covered structure maintains a low profile that blends in with the local surroundings.
As visitors walk through the exhibits—more than 300 watches, including historic oddities, 20th century landmark designs, and more contemporary best sellers—they will see right into glass-enclosed workshops where watchmakers toil on some of AP’s more advanced mechanical movements. (The museum is also a wonder of clean-room technology: considering that airflow has to be monitored to house such dust-free spaces, the working areas of the building have airlock-like anterooms separating them from the exhibition.)
The building’s spiraling shape means that visitors never see the same thing twice on their way in and out of the space. At the spiral’s central point is the most impressive specimen in the company’s archives: the Universelle, a gold pocket watch from 1899, one of only three similar ones made, that has more than 20 complications and 1,168 parts.
Of course, a visit to the museum will naturally spark the desire to make a purchase. (Like many luxury houses today, AP is drawn to the idea of creating experiences; the company has so-called AP Houses in cities around the globe that act like social clubs for clients.) Indeed, the museum is key to developing relationships. Demand for Audemars Piguet watches far outstrips supply, creating the need for the company to truly understand who is buying them. “It’s extremely important, because of the human dimension,” says Sebastian Vivas, AP’s heritage and museum director. “The experience we offer is part of what we sell. To buy a luxury watch, you need more than just the object. They need to feel that they’re part of the community, that they’re welcome.”
To celebrate the museum’s opening as well as bridge its storied past with its offerings today, AP has released a limited-edition run of 500 watches called the [Re]master01, a self-winding watch inspired by a rare chronograph from 1943 that has a stainless steel case and pink-gold bezel. The [Re]master01 is very similar on the outside to the original—aside from being slightly larger, at 40 millimeters, than the original 36—but it’s totally different on the inside, with a modern movement. It also has a water-resistant case.
One goal of the new piece, says AP’s head of complications Michael Friedman, is that “20 years ago, the vintage world and the modern world for watches were separate universes. In the past 20 years, the two groups have overlapped. The biggest collectors of modern watches in the world own a few vintage, and the biggest collectors of vintage own a few modern.”
With Audemars Piguet watches from this era being so rare—only 7,000 were made between 1930 and 1950; everything before ’51 was one of a kind—the [Re]master01 is a treat for collectors who want the best of both worlds. “It’s more in tune with modern aesthetics,” Friedman says. “More people can wear it. That’s why the watch needed to be water resistant: The way people wear watches today is very, very different from how they did back in the 1940s.”
For Jasmine Audemars, the board chairman of the company, which remains in family hands, introducing clientele to the brand’s past doesn’t seem as important as linking it to the valley that surrounds you as you walk through the galleries. “What I like especially is that it’s not only a museum. It’s a musée-atelier,” she says. “You have real watchmakers working here making high-end watches, and at the same time, you can enjoy the landscape.”
Connoisseurs looking to take in the environs over a long weekend—and perhaps do a bit of skiing nearby—will be able to stay at the company’s Hôtel des Horlogers, also designed by Ingels, set to open next year.