A visit to the Le Brassus restoration workshop is like walking into past: if not for a computer monitor sitting on one of the workbenches and the electric heater that keeps the winter chill at bay, the atelier is largely unchanged from the original work space that watchmakers from Audemars Piguet (AP) and around the Vallée de Joux would have trooped to on a cold winter morning such as this one.
Indeed, a watchmaker from a century and a half ago would feel completely comfortable here and would probably have little trouble going about his daily routine for this is what he would find in pristine condition waiting for him: antique mechanical watchmaking equipment, boxes of components organized by caliber, and a bookshelf of original watchmaking documents, illustrations, and manuals.
Although the workshop sits atop the Audemars Piguet museum, the room is not part of the regular tour and neither is it just for show. The rare antique equipment, documents, and watch components are all still used by the two watchmakers assigned by AP to repair historical timepieces turned in by clients and their own museum. The objective is to restore the watches to as close to their original condition as possible. Original condition, of course, means using original parts from a century ago. And, if that’s not possible, then crafting new parts made from the same equipment used to make them in the past. Audemars Piguet collectors are passionate about provenance and will not only insist that original components be used, but that these be made in exactly the same way it was manufactured before. In other words: by hand—and from scratch.
Audemars Piguet is one of a few elite watch companies that can offer this service. It helps that the brand has been in the hands of the founding families since it was established in 1875. This unbroken chain in ownership guarantees that the company’s savoire-faire and watchmaking technology remains intact over the years.
In the 1970s, however, the Quartz Crisis threatened that same continuity when executives suggested throwing out the workshop’s outdated mechanical equipment and components. With the trend in battery-powered watches, few believed mechanical watchmaking would survive. Wiser heads at AP prevailed and the decision to retain their old workforce and equipment has paid off immensely with their current ability to restore rare timepieces—even those of their neighbors in the Vallée de Joux.
The restoration workshop on the top floor of the Audemars Piguet museum occupies exactly the same space of the original atelier in Le Brassus. Even the building is original—it was here where AP first operated. With the absence of electricity in the early years of the company, watchmakers preferred working on the upper floors where natural light was most available. Not all the old equipment has been kept, but the few that remain are still used to craft components and reassemble antique timepieces.
AP currently employs hundreds of watchmakers at Le Brassus, but only two of their best are dedicated to the restoration facility: Francisco Passandin (left) and his assistant Angelo Manzoni (right). The two have a combined experience of 50 years in watchmaking and are capable of crafting discontinued and rare watch components by hand.
Considered outdated during the advent of the Quartz Crisis, most of AP’s mechanical watchmaking equipment was ordered thrown out. But wiser heads in the company prevailed and the antique machinery is still used to craft parts no longer made by the manufacture’s state-of-the-art facility close by.
The job order
Rare timepieces that cannot be repaired by official AP service centers around the world are sent to the Le Brassus workshop for inspection and restoration. Master watch restorer Fracisco Passandin admits that 80 percent of his work entails fixing the mistakes of other watch service centers. Along with AP timepieces, rare watches from brands in the Vallée de Joux are also accepted.
Evaluation and research
Before any watch is repaired, the watchmakers take the timepiece apart, and evaluate the work that needs to be done plus the cost and time needed to restore it. Each piece is photographed and meticulously evaluated and cross-referenced using AP’s extensive computer database and, if necessary, handwritten archive. It takes three days to provide an estimate to clients, but a rare and complicated timepiece like a Universal pocket watch could take up to 200 hours just to evaluate.
Once the problematic parts are identified, the watchmakers set out to find a replacement from their archive. A cabinet full of original components is organized according to caliber or movement—most still in their original boxes. Because watch companies in the Vallée de Joux used to manufacture and trade similar parts among each other, the workshop of AP can repair watches from neighboring companies.
Designing the missing parts
Components unavailable in the archive need to be reproduced in the workshop from scratch. Using historical documents as reference, the watchmakers start by recreating the designs by hand without the aid of computer software.
Crafting the new components
The most difficult challenge for watchmakers is handcrafting components with the original machines and metals used to make them. The skills required to do so are no longer practiced in today’s state-of-the-art factories, but with the aid of the company’s archives and antique instruction manuals in their possession, AP’s watchmakers are able to craft the components using a combination of modern techniques and traditional savoire-faire.
Handcrafted from start to end
Reproducing a discontinued part like the gongs of a minute repeater entails up to 30 hours of meticulous handcraftsmanship. Applying an age-old process of filing, drilling, soldering, further filing, and polishing by hand, the watchmaker relies solely on his sense of sight, touch, and hearing to determine when the gongs have reached their optimum shape and sound.
The finished product
After extensive testing and final finishing, the restored timepiece is ready for delivery to clients. The turnaround time can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months. The most challenging job, according to the pair of watchmakers, was restoring a pocket watch from 1898. A total of 814 hours of their time was spent repairing the movement.
This piece originally came out in Issue 16, 2014 of Vault.