Audemars Piguet and the sound of music

Audemars Piguet has celebrated the magic of creating sounds since it produced its first chiming watch almost 150 years ago. That passion continues today through its partnership with the Montreux Jazz Festival, which this year marked its 57th edition. Zaneta Cheng reports from the Swiss hills

A performance at the Lab during the Montreux Jazz Festival 2023.

The thing about Le Brassus – a picturesque village in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux and the birthplace of luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet – is that it’s almost silent. And not that kind of ringing silence but a calm, complete, all-enveloping stillness. Others in my party remark on this after we check into our hotel because they’ve never stayed in a room so quiet. It’s because the town is tiny, the fields are vast, and the vehicles and their noises are limited to morning and evening rush hour. Which might be why, when the villagers of Le Brassus began working on the watch functions for which Audemars Piguet is now renowned, they were making minute repeaters.

The striking Hotel des Horlogers

The villagers began producing their own music to fill the silent expanse of countryside. Think chiming birds or the chimes of the church bell that were used to awaken residents to yet another day. The Vallée de Joux was always predisposed to watchmaking. Iron ore, I’m told while visiting the Audemars Piguet museum, was discovered in Le Brassus in the 15th century – meaning that all the materials necessary to build watch components were already lying quietly in the hills. It also helped that the area is prone to very long winters and short summers, removing farming from the equation.

The Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet

The minute repeater, which strikes the hours, quarters and minutes with precision and on demand, was invented sometime in the 17th century. It requires watchmakers to file and file to create the correct pitch between the low-pitch gong and the high-pitch gong that differentiates hours from minutes. As their expertise led to the development of a more complex chiming mechanism, the watchmakers at Audemars Piguet created the Universelle in 1899, a timepiece the brand is proud to claim as one of the most complicated ever produced. It takes 30 watchmakers working together in the museum to create one Universelle each year.

The Musée Atelier Audemars Piguet

Given Audemars Piguet’s long history with music in its watches – think the Royal Oak Offshore Music Edition and the Supersonnerie with its advanced case construction designed to produce crystalline sound – it makes sense that the manufacture has been steadily extending its love of the art form through projects such as its first music collaboration with Jay-Z in 2005.

This was followed in 2006 by a research project with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, resulting in significant advances in terms of acoustic performance, sound amplification and sonic quality; and in 2009 by a partnership with Quincy Jones and his “Project Q” initiative aimed at raising awareness about young people and their need for self-expression.

One of the more significant partnerships is the manufacture’s participation in the Montreux Jazz Digital Project to digitise and preserve the renowned festival’s entire audio-video archives – itself a vital record of music since the festival was founded in 1967. In 2019 Audemars Piguet became a Global Partner of the festival and in 2022 launched the Audemars Piguet Parallel programme to create intimate concerts in addition to the official festival to give select artists the opportunity to perform in a unique concert set-up.

The Montreux Jazz Festival is anything but silent. Claude Nobs created the festival while he was working in the Tourism Office of Montreux and was asked to revitalise the town in the post-war era. Nobs headed to New York, where he met Nesuhi Ertegün, the then- president of Atlantic Records, who helped him to invite the likes of Aretha Franklin, Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett. The heavyweight performances quickly put the Swiss town on the map internationally as a place for jazz connoisseurs.

A visit to Nobs’s house in the hills above Montreux shows the impact the festival has had not only on the town but also the music industry. Hanging in his multistoried chalet are paintings by David Bowie and Miles Davis and drawings by Ronnie Wood. Nobs was one of the first supporters of the Rolling Stones, flying them to Switzerland to open for Petula Clark. There is a Bechstein piano on one of the floors next to pinball machines and an archive of vinyls numbering in the tens of thousands given to Nobs by Freddie Mercury.

There’s a listening room in one of the other buildings on the property where guests can be treated to video recordings in full concert quality. A couple of taps of the remote brings Prince to the screen singing “Purple Rain”. There’s a David Bowie performance and another of Pharrell Williams jamming out with the audience on stage. It’s a party before we even head to the party.

Performances curated by Mark Ronson at the Montreux Jazz Festival 2023.

The Montreux Jazz Festival runs for two weeks each summer and draws nearly 250,000 spectators. On the evening we visit, there are 11 stages across town, nine of which are free. The venues are intimate and we’re told that artists who perform here (this year there is the one and only Bob Dylan, Lionel Richie, Sam Smith and Janelle Monáe; a few nights before, Lil Nas X also took to the Auditorium Stravinski for a crowd-pumping set) use the spaces to try new material, very often moving into The Memphis, an after-hours jazz lab, to continue jamming for the crowds. Both Ed Sheeran and Adele were booked as up-and-comers to perform smaller sets before making it to superstardom, and the festival has expanded from solely jazz acts to an extravaganza of pop and jazz to cater to diversifying musical tastes.

The night we’re there the entire group congregates at the Lab for Worakls, a French DJ and electronic musician who brings in strings, woodwind, brass and singers for two hours of non-stop dancing. In a testament to the three-person team that curates the line-up every year, the crowd grows as the set continues swelling to an almost emotional finale. It’s a fitting scene, considering APXMUSIC was created in 2019 to “support music talents and invite music lovers to unique live music experiences brimming with emotion”. This year marks the programme’s first long-term ambassadorship with British music producer and Barbie soundtrack maestro Mark Ronson, which means there will be lots more incredible experiences and emotions to come. Silence may be golden, but music is life.

Also see: The dawn of the toy cinematic universe

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