VIDEO: How Audemars Piguet used the quartz crisis to refine their brand visionTime+Tide
It’s well-known that between 1975 and 1985, the Swiss watch industry collapsed and its chances of survival looked slim. Many manufacturers went bust or were forced to join larger conglomerates. The primary cause of the disruption was, of course, the innovation of electronic quartz movements.
On Christmas day, 1969, Seiko released the Astron, the first-ever quartz watch. This signalled the dawn of a more democratic age of watchmaking that yanked the industry out of the hands of skilled craftsmen by replacing the complex movements of mechanical watches with a straight-forward mechanism. While the Astron initially cost $US8000, prices of quartz watches swiftly fell. By the mid ‘70s, you could pick up a quartz watch for under $20 as more brands jumped on board with the new technology.
The problem of how to deal with quartz was compounded for Swiss watch brands by other issues. A rapid increase in value for the Swiss franc aggravated economic problems, while bureaucratic red-tape made it a challenge for this fragmented industry to modernise. In short, the Swiss watch industry was on its knees. But some brands didn’t just survive but thrive and one of them was Audemars Piguet.
In this video, shot at the brand’s home in Le Brassus, Switzerland, Andrew speaks to Sebastian Vivas, Heritage and Museum Director for Audemars Piguet, to try and understand how AP managed to emerge from the quartz crisis in such good shape. “The idea of [Managing Director] Georges Golay was to believe in the identity, the know-how and trust the people,” Sebastian explains.
The reason for AP’s resilience in this trying time, came down to three main ingredients.
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak
The sheer appeal of the brand’s signature watch, the Royal Oak, played its part. Released in 1972 on an integrated bracelet, the model was watch designer Gérald Genta’s response to Golay’s fateful request to dream up “a steel sports watch that has never been done before”. Genta’s creation would become a huge success and kickstart the steel sports watch phenomenon.
“The second answer was to come back to classical complications,” Sebastian says. At a time when hardly anyone else was making any sort of traditional, complicated timepiece, Audemars Piguet found success with their extra-thin perpetual calendar. This had a movement just 3.95mm high and was an in-house perpetual calendar module, built on the Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre 920. The response to the watch was dramatic with AP selling 400 a year at the peak of its popularity. “It proved there was a future for complications,” Sebastian says.
Audemars Piguet’s third trick was skeletonization. “To show the beauty of all elements of the mechanics,” Sebastian says. By delivering an array of open-worked watches that celebrated the craftmanship and aesthetic pizzaz of mechanical watches, AP showed what quartz watches were missing. Check out the video to see more.