Perpetually on Time
Michael Friedman loves his job—especially as he has to explain what he does to almost everyone he meets. As Audemars Piguet’s in-house historian, Friedman—who, with his shaved head, glasses and salt-and-pepper beard gives off the vibe of a college professor—describes his work as “a pie with many pieces.” Indeed it is a big pie, filled with the staples of an historian’s diet: researching and writing, often in the archives maintained by the Heritage Department at Audemars Piguet’s headquarters in Le Brassus, Switzerland; traveling around the world to meet with press, current and potential collectors; a hefty program of lectures and panels about the industry and the brand’s role as a family-owned company in the preservation and progress of fine watchmaking, as well as attending auctions and visits to watch dealers.
His preparation for this role began in the 1990s while still a student at Clark University where he studied psychology and interdisciplinary studies, and wrote several papers on horology, the study of time measurement. Before joining the company, Friedman worked as a museum curator, auction house expert, appraiser and advisor to institutions and private clients, including guitarist Eric Clapton.
“The primary function that I have is weaving the history of Audemars Piguet—the watches and watchmakers, executives and family members—into the narrative of what the company does today.”
Weaving history into present day narrative yields communications materials such as the double-sided “Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar” book, which was published in 2015. The book’s right hand pages tell the story of the new 41mm ROPC, while the left hand pages chronicle the history of all 188 AP vintage calendar wristwatches as well as 20 double complication wristwatches produced before 1978.
Another theme in Friedman’s work is the cultural context of timekeepers and why mechanical watches remain popular. “There is a massive cultural desire to have objects that last,” he says. “Everything else in our lives is really here for a moment and as we move deeper into the digital age this is becoming the norm. But it is going to be those objects that stand in defiance of this constant obsolescence that will capture people’s imagination.”
For Friedman, the most prominent of those objects is the luxury, hand finished mechanical watch. “People use the word experience a lot when they talk about luxury. What they mean by experience is humanity, the desire for long lasting objects made by hand,” he explains. “At our Art Basel exhibitions in our collectors lounge we always have watchmakers, finishers, dial makers and gem setters. What we have found is that everyone gravitates to where these people are working.”
This year marks the fifth year of Audemars Piguet’s involvement with Art Basel and Friedman says that one reason for the brand’s involvement is that the fair provides the opportunity to create interesting experiences for clients, like seeing an artisan at work. And they always present an exhibition of timepieces from its museum alongside contemporary watches.
“This year we’re exploring Perpetual Calendar watches, gem set watches and watches that go through metallurgical transformation like our new frosted gold watches for women. The unifying theme is nature. Perpetual calendar watches relate directly to a most important natural event: the earth’s orbit around the sun,” explains Friedman. “About gem set watches I always like to remind people when they are looking at a diamond set watch that gemmology is geology. Diamonds are the product of time, pressure, carbon and luck, a natural process. Watch cases and bracelets and the movement inside are created from naturally occurring materials that are transformed into something novel and interesting by the human hand applying lessons from metallurgy, physics, chemistry and engineering.”
With that flourish the discussion ends, and with a knowing smile, Friedman takes a pause and watches as I meditate on the lesson learned.