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AP restorers turn back the clock

In a corner of the Audemars Piguet Swiss HQ sits a small workshop staffed by three people who restore and research antique AP pieces. Debonair spends an afternoon with them to watch history come alive

We don’t want to forget the old ways of watchmaking. — Angelo Manzoni

At the top of a winding alpine road in the Swiss Vallée de Joux lies the village of Le Brassus, home to hallowed watch manufacturers such as Breguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Blancpain, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Audemars Piguet — and many more cows.

Around 7,000 people live here and 99% of them are employed in the watch industry. “The cradle of high-complication watchmaking” is a phrase we hear more than once during our time in this picturesque little town.

Passing through the drizzle and fog, we arrive at the AP manufacture that was built in 2008. We enter the workshop, passing two giant, high-tech Lavazza coffee machines. Clearly, producing more than 40,000 watches every year requires a lot of caffeine.

We don’t want to forget the old ways of watchmaking. — Angelo Manzoni

Rows and rows of technicians sit hunched over workbenches, placing a tiny screw here or a barrel spring there. Almost every person wears ear buds and listens to music, while all wear white anti-static lab coats and matching white Crocs that are never worn outside in order to prevent dirt and dust getting into their precious watch movements.

But this is not our destination; we’re on our way to see living history. Vanessa Cellier was born in the Vallée de Joux and has been a watchmaker at AP for 15 years. She shows us through another door, and finally we arrive at the restoration workshop, staffed by Italian Angelo Manzoni, Swiss Malika Schüpbach and Spaniard Francisco Javier Pasandin. Schüpbach is starting out in her career and has been at AP for two years, while Manzoni has chalked up 20 years at the brand. Pasandin, meanwhile, is approaching four decades at AP and wants to retire but is eager to pass on his knowledge before he exits.

It looks like all the other rooms at the manufacture but the watches being restored here are very different.

Manzoni pulls open the double doors of a metal cupboard and there is a gasp. Rows and rows of wooden boxes from the 19th century are stacked inside, all marked with handwritten notes and codes about what’s inside each one: springs, screws, levers, wheels, barrels. Battered old legers contain lines and lines of information in beautiful handwriting about every model that has left the workshop since 1882. Every AP watch has a serial number so when a piece arrives to be restored or is unearthed in an auction, the staff cross-reference it with the records kept in these dusty old books.

Two wooden trays are brought out, which contain their current projects: a 1929 pocket watch and a self-winding wristwatch from 1953. “We restore watches to protect the region and its watchmaking history,” says Manzoni.

They don’t make things easy for themselves, using old tools and techniques to carry out their work. “We don’t want to forget the old ways of watchmaking,” he explains.

If components are broken, they are remade from scratch in the workshop.

Manzoni and his team are closely involved with the AP museum that will open nearby in early 2020. Among the 500 pieces from the archives that will be displayed is a Grand Complication Universal watch that won a silver medal 120 years ago at the 1899 World Exhibition in Paris.

Cellier leads us back into the main workshop and jokingly blocks our view of the top-secret Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar in white ceramic that’s being worked on. “We have one foot in tradition and one in the future,” she smiles. “This keeps us alive.”

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