Claude Emmenegger: I’m Back Among Friends
We talked to the chief designer of the watch manufacturer Audemars Piguet in his studio, which is located in one of the epicenters of the Swiss watchmaking industry, the city of La Chaux-de-Fonds. Once upon a time, Karl Marx called it the city-factory due to its characteristic architecture, strictly meant for manufacture and assembly of mechanical timepieces. Today, the city houses several renowned watchmaking houses, development workshops and design studios.
What is your background in watch and jewelry design?
My design career began in L’Ecole d’Art school in La Chaux-de-Fonds; the world-famous architect Le Corbusier also studied there in the early 20th century. At that time, it was the only art school in the area. Well, after I finished school, I needed the money, so I immediately found a job. I started with Longines where in the 4 years, I learned a lot about the watchmaking industry and, most importantly, began to feel the passion for watch design. Later, I joined the Audemars Piguet team, tested myself as a freelance designer, and now I’m back again with Audemars Piguet.
“My longtime friend Giulio Papi, the watchmaking genius, invited me to collaborate once again.”
What motivated you to come back?
Working with several brands at the same time is otherwise very interesting, since it allows you to work with a broad range of timepieces, but you simply cannot focus enough on each separate brand. So you only “scratch the surface”, while you cannot gain an in-depth understanding of the visual codes of each individual watchmaking house. I wanted to connect more with the client, to be a part of the company and not merely an external contractor – an outsider. My longtime friend Giulio Papi, the watchmaking genius, invited me to collaborate once again, and so the decision was not purely business; truth be told, I am back among friends now.
We know Audemars Piguet by their exceptional creativity: what are your experiences with them?
They are extremely open-minded! The Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi studio, where they develop the new Audemars Piguet mechanisms, is only a few minutes away from here. When I get an idea, we can discuss it immediately and sometimes it is actually a bit strange because we debate on so many different things: not only watches, but also about ways of thinking and the way people relate to time. So we can look at the design itself from several perspectives and find inspiration in topics which have nothing in common with watchmaking, and I am really excited about this sort of approach in design.
I see the cooperation with the team of engineers as very important; together with them, we can quickly estimate if and how feasible our concepts are. Of course, not everything is possible, but I am lucky to work with people who are very open-minded, and who change the limits of possible on daily basis.
“I prefer the raw, honest expression of a sketch, just like, say, rock ’n’ roll – its beauty lies in the fact that not everything is defined. “
What is your wristwatch design procedure like?
First, there is the creative meeting with the team, where we make the concept, followed by a few days’ break. The brain needs some room to breathe before I get to the actual designing. I always draw with a pen and not a pencil – I never erase a line. I really dislike the sight of a drawing with eraser marks. I often view projects that are presented with wonderful drawings, 3D visualizations, but that’s not it for me. I prefer the raw, honest expression of a sketch, just like, say, rock ’n’ roll – its beauty lies in the fact that not everything is defined.
Later, we transform the sketches into a 3D model and start working on the proportions of the watch itself. During the process, we make prototypes using the 3D print technique, and adjust the sizes of individual elements. Each plays a special role in the whole and must be placed within it in the way that makes sense. Ergonomics are very important; namely the way in which the watch lies on the wrist.
What role does the strap play in the process of design?
The watch strap is exceptionally important, but many forget about it in the process of design. I pay attention to it from the very beginning, since this is the part of the wristwatch that has the most contact with a person. We test many different types of the finest leather; the strap should have the right texture, softness, color. Stitches are really important; especially the surface that touches the skin. If it is not made right, we perspire while wearing it and the leather color can even stain the skin on the wrist. We also deal a lot with rubber straps and develop technology that would enable as little perspiration as possible, so we can better manipulate the surface that touches the wrist of the bearer.
Break the rules or master them first?
Master them, of course! You don’t know a thing when you begin. It takes at least 10 years to become masterful as a timepiece designer, and perhaps only then can you start breaking the rules – when you know the extent to which you can cross the line.
This especially comes out in wristwatch design, especially in redesign of an icon, such as the Royal Oak. As designers, we upgrade it all the time, but you need to have an exceptional amount of experience for such a task, because you risk taking the soul from the timepiece, ruining it and forgetting its essence. This comes with maturity, you need to know how to appreciate the original design concept and upgrade it with sense and with feeling. It is very important to design in a responsible manner.
Do you relate more to technical perfection or to elegant design?
I am a more emotional than technical person. Every idea stems from emotions that are then articulated with drawings, which are later followed by technical perfection and the adjustment to the visual code of Audemars Piguet, the optimization of materials, the coordination of the manufacturing costs and the like. So we combine both: the emotion of the design and the perfection of manufacture.
How would you apply the emotion of the design and the perfection of the manufacture to women’s wristwatches? Can a woman’s watch be more than just a smaller housing and diamonds?
Of course, not all women like color pink and girly toys! A strong women’s line is very important for a brand like Audemars Piguet; we put intense work into it. Our goal is not to limit the women to the ‘classic’ women’s watches: tiny, with soft lines and female colors. For a lot depends on the character of each individual, which really matters to us. The modern woman expresses her character with her looks, and the right wristwatch is a part of it.
I have dealt with women’s wristwatches in the past, but they remained at the sketch level. Now is probably the right time for me to dig through my drawers!
What matters the most to men and what to women in terms of wristwatch selection?
Well … I do not know … It must be said that men usually buy watches for women and the other way round. Setting the basic values when it comes to the purchase of a wristwatch is a very complex matter. Especially since it is most often meant as a gift.
But the men still have more choices?
Ahh, men’s watches look exceptional also on women, but it doesn’t work that way the other way round. This is why women have even more choices than men! The big men’s watches fit many women really well. The trend is taking another direction nowadays; they want watches that are designed for them especially, and we most definitely plan to accommodate them.
How did you choose your first wristwatch?
My first was a large red plastic diving watch from one of the department stores. I really liked to play with the rotatable bezel and pretended to be a diver in the swimming pool. Later, I wore one of the watches from the first Swatch collection, which was available only in three colors: blue, black and brown. They unfortunately ran out of the brown ones, so I had to buy a black one.
Regardless of our profession, we all must do some creative work with our domestic chores, how do you go about those?
Hahah, these matters are not my strong point! I’m not the most ‘handy’ guy! In life, I focus on watches and similar matters, while I am not the most skillful with chores and such. I like to read, swim and do many different things, while I prefer to leave such work to others. I really do not like it.
Your golden rule in design?
I talked a lot about this with Giuli Papi and there are two things that are important: you need to keep the will to execute things in an accurate and correct way. It is really important to know that you gave your best to achieve the result. It might sound high-handed, but at the end of the day, you really do not want your product to be ‘just another design’, you want it to be more than that. You need to work in a way so that you can tell yourself that you have, regardless of the response of others, done everything in your power and can be satisfied with the product.
With Audemars Piguet, we achieve it all with team work, so there is always more than one person who deserves the credit for a certain matter. It is important that you leave your ego out of it and really focus on the product and not on yourself as an individual. Even within the design studio, we function in the way that we tell each other everything and work strictly as a team. Team spirit is among the most important things in order for work to be successful.