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Swiss Watches

Swiss watchmakers are taking timepieces to a bold newlevel
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

(continued from page 2)

Another watchmaker renowned for craftsmanship is Audemars Piguet, the Swiss firm founded in 1875, which has pioneered numerous horological advances. The company has introduced such treasures as a split-second chronograph with minute counter as early as 1882, and the Grand Sonnerie, a watch that chimes the hours and quarter hours, which requires three years of work. Overall, production is limited to 15,000 watches annually.  

Artisans at this family-run watchmaker continue to perform magic with their rectangular, 2871-caliber Tourbillon Canape (only 6.10 millimeters thick, this $95,000, micro-mechanical marvel has 146 components) and the automatic Millenary perpetual calendar in glittering 18-karat pink gold. The company is most widely celebrated, however, for its Royal Oak collection, octagonally shaped pieces whose power and elegance have made Audemars Piguet a leader in the luxury sports watch market ever since their introduction in 1972.  

"Though it is the most expensive, stainless steel chronograph [$15,200] on the market, the Royal Oak Offshore is our flagship, the ultimate piece when it comes to flaunting the fact you have the strength to wear a big, heavy watch," says Francois Bennahmias, the president of Audemars Piguet, North America. "While we've introduced a titanium Offshore [only 100 grams as compared to its 250-gram stainless steel sister], the Royal Oak is still a planet removed from our amazingly thin pieces. It's the watch that really says, 'Look at me.'"  

Arnold Schwarzenegger recently collaborated with Audemars Piguet to design a limited-edition Offshore chronograph celebrating his recent millennial film, End of Days. The watch, which has a "devilishly black" dial, automatic movement, tachymetric scale, stainless steel case and bracelet buckle, is built to withstand the most extreme underwater and shock-producing conditions.  

Whether it's the steel chronograph, the 450-gram yellow-gold model, or the even larger Grand Complication ($650,000), the flamboyant Royal Oak line is one of the world's most fabled collections. Yet that renown, according to Bennahmias, has also cast a long shadow over Audemars Piguet's other pieces. "The Royal Oak's fame is certainly a positive, but it's also bad," he says. "Since those pieces get so much attention, people don't know we do lots of other incredible things."  

One of the company's most noteworthy achievements is the Batman, or Night and Day Double Hunter pocket watch, which is studded with 38 carats of diamonds, 9.95 carats of yellow sapphires and 48.72 carats of blue sapphires--1,599 precious stones in all. Priced at $4 million, it depicts a starry night illuminated by a radiant moon, and a sun's golden rays. The intricate gear-and-wheel mechanism magically animates the winged Batman symbol.  

The Ladies Minute Repeater Carillon, a testament to Audemars Piguet's renewed efforts to appeal to sophisticated women, also flaunts bold engineering. The smallest wristwatch of its kind, with 340 parts shoehorned into two cubic centimeters, the complication employs three bells and three hammers to produce distinctive chimes for minutes, quarter hours and hours.  

Audemars Piguet's manly version of a minute repeater, the $360,000 Jules Audemars Tourbillon Split-Second Chronograph, is its tour de force. Besides producing clear, melodious sounds, this elegant, yet strong-looking, limited-edition watch (only 20 pieces were made) is a complex technological delight. The chronograph, named after company co-founder Jules-Louis Audemars, comprises 474 components, including 40 jewels, a guilloche dial, a transparent sapphire caseback, mechanical safety systems that guard against overwinding, and a device that ensures synchronization of the hours, quarters and minutes. The watch is presented in a sumptuous wooden cabinet with ample space for other items. Audemars Piguet will continue to unveil one limited edition of the Jules Audemars each year through 2006.  

Finely crafted technological timepieces have long distinguished Breguet, the legendary L'Abbaye, Switzerland, firm founded by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1775. Breguet was esteemed as the father of the modern wristwatch, responsible for such inventions as the self-winding perpetual watch, the independent seconds hand and the tourbillon. The company's early clients included King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Czar Nicholas II. In the twentieth century, Winston Churchill owned Breguets and Ettore Bugatti adorned his Royale dashboards with them.  

Today, classical Breguet watches--with their renowned blued steel pomme (or apple) hands and patterned guilloche dials--are no longer the exclusive domain of European royalty or industry titans. Under the spirited leadership of Jean Jacober, the former chief operating officer at Patek Philippe, Breguet is offering six-figure objet d'art complications, along with a wide range of pilot watches and Marine chronographs priced to appeal to a young, discerning audience. In keeping with Old World traditions, the company limits total production to about 9,000 pieces a year.  

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