Sometimes, a crisis sparks an innovation as a survival response. The Swiss watchmaking industry, nonpareil in the world of discreet luxury brands today, faced its moment of crisis in the 1980s when the Japanese quartz watches spun a spell, strong enough for people to turn their backs on handmade watches.
That the advent of quartz shook the foundation of the watchmaking industry is a rather mild way to mention the cataclysmic event. It spurred the watchmakers to find innovative solutions to the ravages caused by the emergence of this new technology. The crisis, a turbulent period in the tightly knit, then-snobbish world of Swiss haute horlogerie, proved to be a seminal moment in the history of watchmaking. It forced many heritage watchmakers to incorporate quartz movements or electronic mechanisms in their timepieces.
Yet, some like Audemars Piguet held their nerves and dug their heels. The brand constantly innovated to stay ahead of the curve and maintain its historical savoir-faire. Among the innovations was the world’s thinnest perpetual calendar mechanism (1978), refinement of elliptic and geometric forms, and the impeccable setting of precious gems on the timepieces. But it was for the 1982 Millenary Philosophique series of women’s watches that the watchmaker married fine craftsmanship and mechanical complexity, creating a timepiece that was both a flawlessly crafted piece of jewel and a cutting-edge technical marvel.
The first watch in the series, launched in 1982, was equipped with a single-hour hand, inspired by the elegant aesthetic of 17th-century single-hand timepieces. It revived the beauty and heritage of time measurement devices, which were equipped with a single hour hand until the beginning of the 18th century, to simplify energy transmission. As François-Henry Bennahmia, Audemars Piguet’s CEO says, “By telling time philosophically and sentimentally, the manufacture also broke away from the constraints of the modern industry’s relentless quest for precision. The Philosophique reminded us that watches had been, and continue to be, worn first and foremost as social and emotional markers.” In the stiff upper lipped world of Swiss watchmaking, which almost always focused on precision, the decision to sell a watch as an emotional marker, a nod to watchmaking heritage, was radical.
The brand has revived that beautiful piece of history with a modern iteration in the form of Millenary Frosted Gold Philosophique — as whimsical and playful as the original. The watch has a single leaf-shaped hand telling you the time. The idea is: if you don’t see both hands chasing each other, seemingly, you believe time moves far more languidly. Or as Bennahmia says, “This watch takes a break from the rushing minutes of our world and invites you to set your own tempo.”
The 18-carat pink or white gold case is characterised by frosted gold finishing, a technique perfected by Florentine jewellery designer Carolina Bucci. The diamond-dust effect it creates results from hours of meticulous micro-hammering. The single hour hand is sand-blasted.
And much like the present-day love for hand-wound collections, the timepiece has a new self-winding movement, the calibre 3140, endowed with a patented mechanism that ticks the hand around the dial in an elliptical trajectory. Millenary Philosophique watches are used by Audemars watchmakers as a canvas for their thought innovation, with their elliptical case, eccentric dials and visible hand-wound movement, much of which is inspired by architecture and art.
The other timepiece from Audemars Piguet epitomises high-glamour and over-the-top aesthetics. It drips more diamonds than Marilyn Monroe (famous in the world of jewellery as a passionate lover of diamonds) could have ever worn in one go. The Haute Joaillerie Sapphire Orbe is shaped like a teardrop that sits sideways on the wrist. Studded with over 12,000 diamonds and blue sapphires (one of the largest clusters of precious stones on a single timepiece), in six graded shades and 20 different sizes, it resembles a moving wave of glittering water (or a rather sparkling tornado – take your pick).
The watch, which costs $904,000 in 18K white gold, is named after the river that crosses Le Brassus, a village in the Canton of Vaud, in Switzerland, which is home of Audemars Piguet. It features a dial protected by a domed sapphire crystal and set with orange sapphires. From the dial, five elliptically shaped layers of blue sapphires, edged in diamonds, fan out to form this work of unusual design. It has taken approximately 1,050 hours to gem-set this piece. The domed centre holds a 2cm dark blue sapphire-flecked globe, which, when inverted, reveals the 18-carat white gold dial paved with graded orange sapphires. The central petal-shaped rings are entirely snow-set with diamonds and graded sapphires in six-graded shades of blue and orange. This one is meant to be a high-jewellery masterpiece so the movement is a tiny, simple quartz movement.But when you have a burst of brilliant blue, orange sapphires and glittering diamonds blinding you to the world around, you are unlikely to notice the movement or concern yourself with how much time has flown by.