For as long as Olivier Audemars — the charismatic fourth-generation scion and vice chairman of Audemars Piguet’s board of directors — can remember, art has been an important touchstone in his life. Indeed, his earliest conscious memory of the medium is of René Magritte’s The Empire of Light. He was just 10, he remembers, out for the day with his mother in Geneva, when he suddenly stopped in front of an art gallery window. “She couldn’t understand why I was so struck by the image in the window. I just couldn’t work out the contradictions between the house, the light and its relationship to the lamp post.”
That tantalising moment of wonder and curiosity has informed much of Audemars’ subsequent professional association and, indeed, his personal journey with art. Contemporary art, in particular.
“I really only started collecting art when Audemars Piguet began its collaborations with artists,” he says, referencing the brand’s first forays into contemporary art in the early 2010s when it began working with the likes of Dutch artist Theo Jansen, multimedia installation artist Sebastien Leon Agneessens, London-based visual artist and filmmaker Quayola, and Zona Maco, Mexico’s premier art fair. “That was when I was able to meet the artists in situ, in their studios and galleries, and have them explain to me their process. When that happens, it changes your perspective of someone’s work and your appreciation of it, and I guess the desire to own one of their pieces flows from that.”
An improbable watershed moment occurred in 2013, when Audemars and his team prepared to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak, a crown jewel in Audemars Piguet’s catalogue of coveted watches. He signed off on the appointment of the British photographer Dan Holdsworth with a brief to capture the essence of Audemars Piguet in the context of La Vallée de Joux, the strikingly beautiful Swiss valley that has served as the company’s headquarters since 1875.
Holdsworth spent a month in the valley, tramping up its rocky hillsides and snow-covered peaks with his Linhof Master Technika spooled with 5×4-inch colour negative film, all the while grappling with the challenge of how to contextualise a revered watch brand with this wild, changing, primeval setting “which had, in a way, exported time around the world. I thought it was captivating.”
Holdsworth came back with images that shocked everyone. “We were expecting blue skies, mountains and sun,” Audemars says. Instead, he was confronted by haunting images of rocky hillsides emerging from thick cocoons of clouds, hard-edge valleys caught under moonlight and transformed into an altogether eerie, even threatening, landscape.
“At first, we said this was not the Vallée de Joux,” Audemars remembers, “that these were images of Scotland, but eventually, we realised and admitted that he had captured the very essence of our home.”
Holdsworth’s images forced Audemars to wonder what had made his ancestors establish themselves in such surroundings in the first place. “Who were we and what was our raison d’être?”
Eventually, these existential questions helped to crystalise the brand’s internal and external communication. But beyond that, Holdsworth had shown how artists see things differently; how they revitalise and interpret something that is right in front of our eyes. This, Audemars says, is how Audemars Piguet became involved in the contemporary art world. “How could we create the conditions to reproduce what happened with Dan? How could we generate circumstances that enable us to learn things we ignore or that our eyes cannot see?”
The Audemars Piguet Art Commission was born out of this crucible. “Specifically, we understood we had to work with contemporary arts specialists to guide us on our journey and help us see our own work and lives in a different light.”
The Commission’s modus operandi involves an international advisory council comprising crack art specialists, collectors, museum directors and curators who choose a curator for each edition. Between three and five artists are invited to spend a few days in the Vallée de Joux, and to each submit a project, only one of which would be selected.
“We look for artists whose works revolve around the themes of complexity and precision — topics that have been a source of artistic interest down the ages and that share natural affinities with our heritage and business,” Audemars says. “We then help one of these artists to bring their proposal to life with funding and by providing access to our resources and any special expertise they may need.”
But what is a great artist and a great commission if there is no platform to showcase the results? From the beginning, Audemars realised it was important to partner with a blue-chip and global visual arts institution that would, ideally, share common Swiss cultural roots. Art Basel, with whom Audemars Piguet signed on in 2013 as global associate partner, was, on every count, a no-brainer.
Indeed, the brand has demonstrated both scale and ambition in its visual arts projects by consistently presenting some of the most talked-about exhibitions during Art Basel, including last December’s Reconstruction of the Universe, a large-scale installation by the Chinese artist Sun Xun. The takeaway of the nine-minute video comprising 10,000 engravings that consumed 150 people over 18 months was that a watch is not just an assembly of metal, but also a piece of someone’s life — an observation that lies at the heart of Audemars Piguet’s organic, all-encompassing approach to the business of luxury watchmaking.
Indeed, its commitment to the cause extends to every aspect of Art Basel, down to its booth in the Collectors Lounge, which Audemars says “enables guests and visitors to partly experience the reality of the Vallée de Joux. Usually the lounge artist or designer works with us for several Art Basel editions for which the concept evolves each time.”
In recent years, the booth has been reimagined by the Chinese video artist Cheng Ran who made a movie of the Vallée de Joux as a bridge of understanding between China and the vallée and, last year, by the Chilean-born artist Sebastian Errazuriz, who encased the booth in a stylised white cocoon inspired by the winter ice and snow of the vallée.
The December 2017 edition of the Commission, meanwhile, will feature the LA-based American multidisciplinary artist Lars Jan, whose work Audemars lauds for using “cutting-edge technology and bold creativity to explore some of today’s most pressing issues”.
“Contemporary artists are helping us to evolve into a company better suited to face the challenges of a fast-changing world — a valuable, but completely unexpected, outcome of our arts engagement,” Audemars says.
One can’t help but think of the image of Audemars’ 10-year-old self, standing mesmerised before the window of that art gallery in Geneva all those decades ago, and how equally unexpected his own journey has been.