High-end watchmaking in the 21st century has a common denominator – a Swiss movement manufacture which nowadays goes by the name of Audemars Piguet Le Locle, but you may know them better as Renaud et Papi.
An impressive host of talent, working at the very upper echelons of watchmaking, started their careers at the firm before setting out on their own, from the Grönefeld brothers to Stephen Forsey. Over the span of its lifetime, the specialised manufacture has essentially become a training ground for horology’s finest, with a disproportionate impact considering its small size. In many ways, working from the shadows, they are also behind many of modern watchmaking’s success stories. Richard Mille didn’t come up with everything on his own, after all.
One of the more easily recognisable Renaud et Papi movements.
The roots of the company took hold way back in 1984, when two ambitious young watchmakers, Dominique Renaud and Giulio Papi, met whilst working at Audemars Piguet. There, they discovered that they both shared a dream of working in the field of grand complications.
Impetuous and imbued with the kind of bravado only found in the young and hungry, they decided to set out on their own, founding the eponymous Renaud & Papi SA in Le Locle in 1986, rather than spending years or even decades working their way up through the traditional system.
Even today this would be considered a bold move, but at the time it was downright foolhardy, as the Swiss watch industry was still in tatters following the Quartz Crisis that had seen two thirds of the businesses disappear. The future of complicated watchmaking, which stood at the very apex of traditional, mechanical watchmaking seemed all the more uncertain, as they set out on their own.
Renaud and Papi shortly after launching their movement manufacturer with some early CAD drawings, courtesy of Dominique Renaud.
Still, their timing proved uncanny as an interest in the kind of high watchmaking they sought to focus on was beginning to resurface, while many of the watch companies that had survived the ‘70s lacked the expertise or the manpower to produce such watches, instead forcing them to turn to third parties. Though it was talent that would carry them through, the aftermath of the Quartz Crisis created opportunities for the two young men, which they were certain to capitalise on. Whereas it may have been a race to the bottom for some, it was certainly the reverse for Renaud and Papi.
One of their first customers was Günter Blümlein, the man whose confidence and vision brought IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre back from the brink and later helped launch A. Lange & Sohne. He tasked Renaud & Papi with making a minute repeater module to work with a chronograph and Kurt Klaus’ perpetual calendar, for the IWC Grande Complication Ref. 3770. The watch would debut at Baselworld in 1990 and was Blümlein’s way of making a bold statement to the world.
The IWC ref. 3770.
It was the first of many such statements from an industry exhibiting renewed confidence in itself. This became apparent through in a series of audacious watches in the early 1990s, such a Blancpain’s 1735 Grande Complication of 1991 and IWC’s astonishing 1993 follow-up, the Il Destriero Scafusia. Both demonstrated the firm renewal of interest in complicated watchmaking.
In 1989, the pair entered into a joint venture with Christophe Claret – then better known as a specialist in Jacquemart striking watches rather than the gaming watches he is known for today – named Renaud Papi Claret. But, citing the need for independence, Claret bought his partners out in 1994 and went his own way, renaming the company Christophe Claret SA.
While there was plenty of work to be had, the pair’s enthusiasm and inexperience with running a business saw them spread themselves too thin and run out of funding. With the banks making it clear that they weren’t prepared to invest, Renaud and Papi turned to their former employers, Audemars Piguet, who had become one of their biggest clients. They were also in a much better position to understand what the pair were trying to accomplish and why it was commercially sound.
The press conference announcing the launch of the A.Lange & Söhne brand in 1994, helped along by the work of Renaud et Papi, of course.
Whilst Audemars Piguet didn’t necessarily need the expertise – the brand had continued to launch high-end watchmaking firsts throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s – the brand’s then CEO, Stephen Urquhart, who you might perhaps know better as Omega’s former CEO, saw the value in bringing Renaud & Papi closer. He pitched a deal that would see the brand buy a 52% stake in the business. The pair agreed, on the stipulation that they would continue to take on work for other brands besides Audemars Piguet. This might have been one of the smartest moves take by the two men.
That insistence on working with other brands would prove to be hugely valuable when Richard Mille, then general manager of watchmaking at high jewellery brand Mauboussin, came knocking on their door. Mille came armed with outlandish projects destined for royal clientele, such as baseplates milled from semi-precious stone.
Some years later he returned, pitching his concept of forward-thinking high-end watchmaking, not concerned with tradition, but with development through modern technology, materials and techniques. This vision struck a chord with Renaud and Papi’s own sensibilities and led to the company developing much of the revolutionary watchmaking at Richard Mille over the first two decades of the brand. Both were united by the same objective of creating a new language of watchmaking for the time.
Renaud and Papi using traditional techniques in their ground breaking movements, courtesy of Dominique Renaud.
The collaboration with Richard Mille was a fruitful one. Both parties agreed on using light materials, not only to create more comfortable watches, but also help create more of a link to the automotive world. Since the racing industry was so focused on losing weight where possible, they thought they should introduce this concept to high-end watches too. The idea of an ultra-light tourbillon, which could be worn in the most extreme of conditions, shows just how far Renaud and Papi wanted to push the boundaries of complication. They wanted to create a rupture with the past.
When it was first introduced, the brand’s first model, the RM 001, sent ripples through the watch world. Beyond its forward-thinking design, it was also priced considerably higher than any other tourbillon on the market, on account of the extreme approach that was taken towards changing the language of watchmaking. The combination of multiple engineers, extensive prototyping and advanced materials all combined in an innovative, albeit expensive cost, which was amortised over a very small production. Their collaboration with Mille demonstrates Renaud and Papi’s constant desire to move forwards – all the way to a shockingly light 13-gram tourbillon, worn on the wrist by Rafael Nadal during his games. At the forefront of innovation, the pair partially solved the challenge of heavy shocks by having the bridges of the movement designed so as to direct the energy into the strap.
The RM001 that began the collaboration between Renaud et Papi and Richard Mille.
Interestingly enough, this relationship sheds light on a rather unique aspect of Swiss watchmaking, namely the hugely talented and influential suppliers which have always worked in the shadows of more recognisable, established names. Be it Stern Frères for dials, Gay Frères for bracelets, Lemania for movements and more recently Renaud and Papi for complicated watchmaking, the prowess of certain brands has often concealed the talents of specialised artisans. Nowadays, especially with vintage pieces, a small number of these suppliers have developed a lure of their own, coming out of the shadows they previously lived in.
Following a few successful ventures, Dominique Renaud left the business in 2000, selling his shares to Audemars Piguet, which by then owned 78% of the company. In 2003, the name of the business was changed to Audemars Piguet Renaud & Papi (APRP), to reflect AP’s stake in the business. It would be a full 14 years before Renaud reappeared on the watchmaking scene, first as head of watchmaking at HYT, before introducing the world to his concept for a Blade Resonator escapement two years later.
APRP’s watchmaking ethos has always attracted precocious young talent of a similar mindset and the volume of work that it has undertaken, both for Audemars Piguet and for others, has no doubt ensured a certain level of turnover, especially in a business that employs some 150 people. But the sheer number of “faces” that started their careers at APRP is somewhat startling.
Bart Grönefeld working on a sonnerie movement while at Renaud et Papi, courtesy of Bart Grönefeld.
Renaud & Papi’s aforementioned first big contract brought in the first. Robert Greubel, today one half of Greubel Forsey, moved to Schaffhausen in 1987 to work at IWC on the Grande Complication project, but within three years – and no doubt because of what he’d experienced whilst collaborating with Renaud et Papi – he began work at the Le Locle atelier as a prototypist. He would stay at the company for the next nine years, eventually rising to the rank of Co-Chief Operating Officer and partner, before leaving to work with his former colleague Stephen Forsey, who had pitched him the tantalising prospect that “perhaps not everything has been invented yet”.
It was Greubel himself who interviewed the young Stephen Forsey when he arrived in Le Locle from London. Forsey had been working at Asprey restoring vintage pieces whilst taking the WOSTEP course, where he met another future APRP alumni, Bart Grönefeld. Forsey introduced Grönefeld at Asprey, helping secure him a position, but after a year the Dutchman returned to Switzerland to complete his training. He then joined APRP in March 1992 and soon returned the favour by introducing Forsey in Le Locle a few months later.
“I wanted to progress further,” recalls Forsey. “So, getting involved with making watches and particularly complicated watches was a must. Switzerland was definitely the place to and while Renaud & Papi was in its early days, having been founded by two young watchmakers, I felt a dynamic almost without limits.”
“Thanks to my previous experience, Renaud & Papi immediately gave me the opportunity to work on complicated watches, whereas the historic watch companies had established hierarchies so it could have taken years to climb the ladder.”
A look inside the Renaud et Papi workshop in 1989, courtesy of Dominique Renaud.
Not only was APRP unique in the sense that it threw obviously talented, yet comparatively inexperienced watchmakers in at the deep end of complicated watch design and manufacture, but it was also at the forefront of embracing new technologies such as CAD, putting it at the cutting edge of the industry.
Bart’s brother Tim also worked at APRP, as did Andreas Strehler, Carole-Forestier Kasapi, Stepan Sarpaneva, Peter Speake-Marin and Anthony de Haas, head of movements at A. Lange & Sohne; all watchmakers who have gone on to major accomplishments or gone into business under their own name.
In reality, the extraordinary output of APRP, both in terms of watchmaking and watchmakers, is like anything else in life, a series of interlinked events that feed into each other, occasionally resulting in something significant, sometimes less so. What is almost certain is that APRP could not have come to be if it were not for the devastation caused by the Quartz Crisis, with the young atelier rising out of the ground like fresh shoots after a forest fire.
The movement that acted as payment for Bart Grönefeld's overtime for his final year at Renaud et Papi in substitute for Swiss Francs. According to Grönefeld, it is still waiting to be cased up, courtesy of Bart Grönefeld.
At the time Giulio Papi began his training, watchmaking was viewed by most in Switzerland as something of a dead-end; he has said previously that because so few people were studying the craft at the time, he had unrivalled access to incredibly talented teachers including Jean-Claude Nicolet, the first watchmaker to win the Gaia Prize.
Incidentally and inexplicably Papi’s own Prix Gaia would not materialise until 2015, by which time three of his students Greubel, Forsey and Andreas Strehler had already been honoured. This rich vein of knowledge provided an answer to every question the student might have had. Anything must have seemed possible for a hungry young mind at the time and the idea of such a student, in these circumstances, entering into a preformatted system of watchmaking is almost unthinkable.
While the foresight and boldness of Renaud and Papi allowed the pair to fulfil their own ambitions, the company they built has become a training ground, not only allowing others to excel but to find their own independence along the way.
We would like to thank James Buttery for putting together this excellent look at the peerless movement maker Renaud et Papi. We would also like to thank Dominique Renaud and Bart Grönefeld for supplying some archive images from inside the workshop.