Renaud & Papi - Design

Driving like Schumacher we made the excursion in two hours only to be vexed trying to find Renaud & Papi.  We found everything else trolling back and forth - Ulysse Nardin, Zenith,  Tissot - until using my most polite French I managed to stumble upon what obviously was an horlogist in the clever disguise of an old lady carrying groceries who got us pointed in the right direction. 

The time that we gained courtesy of Jeff "Schumi" Kingston was promptly frittered away when, having arrived in Le Locle in record time, we couldn't locate Renaud & Papi's premises ! The location of every other watchmaker seemed to be sign posted, including Christophe Claret's atelier, yet nothing for Renaud & Papi ! Fortunately, after several false turns, we found it and quickly regained our composure. We were greeted at the reception by Robert Harrap, whose identity and place at Renaud & Papi wasn't revealed (to me anyway) until much later on. Even though I had been up for the last 30 or so hours, I instantly recognized that accent of his – we had a Kiwi in our midst ! This was a pleasant surprise for me, since Kiwiland (okay, New Zealand) is my adopted home and it is where I had spent a large part of my life. I wasn't expecting to come across another New Zealander in Switzerland, let alone in a place like Renaud & Papi. We then went through a corridor (which had pictures of the IWC Grande Complication and Muller's Imperial Tourbillon, to name a few) to the main design area, where we met our next host.

Renaud & Papi, from the outside does not shout “high end watch making”.  Indeed, the building looks as if it may have been helicoptered in from Silicon Valley


Inside is a different story. We were privileged to spend quality time with no less than GiulioPapi himself.  He is nothing less than one of what are but a handful of true watch geniuses.  


He and his team are responsible for, among other things, the movements for the splendid Audemars Cabinet series watches, Audemars’ Grand Sonneries as well as  the highest end repeaters and tourbillons for several other top Swiss brands.


The path to introducing a new movement, chez Papi, is tortuous and resembles what some might see as an impossible fusion of Silicon Valley tech and old world methods.  The first step is done with an assembled team of designer engineers meeting around a table developing concepts and ideas in notebook form.



In fact while we were there a team meeting was going on doing just that - hashing out some future trinket that will emerge from the house.  Next, these ideas are entered into a CAD computer and preliminary dimensions determined.  Now were something like a Boeing 777 being developed, that would the end of it.  Boeing went straight from the computer to aluminum.  Take comfort in that next time you recline your seat from the full upright position and sip your cocktail at 30,000 feet.  But these watches are trickier than mere jumbo jets.  From the computer the new design next goes to plastic models in big scale to verify that the components will work as they are supposed to.  Several plastic models were shown to us including the model of a new escapement which is under development.  Sorry no photos of that. Finally assuming all is still going well first prototypes are built.  Papi emphasized that alterations and changes are made at every step in this process.


Sitting at his desk I popped the question which launched me into pressing for a visit to Audemars.  Just why was the Cabinet Series 1 split-second chronograph so good?  What was the secret sauce that made the starting and stopping so silky?  Had I been a seer, the answer could have been found, no less, in the Audemars catalogue !  Papi explained that the base gear train is derived from the Lemania 2310 chronograph movement.  Here there is common ground with Patek, Vacheron, Dubuis and Breguet in their best of breed offerings.  Audemars and Patek however, retaining the basic gear train, each extensively modify virtually everything else in the movement to make it their own.  In Audemars’ case, changes are made which are not found in Patek’s 3970 or 5004.  Key is the arm that runs from the column wheel to the moveable train that connects the center chronograph wheel to the supplemental fourth wheel.  More simply put, when the start/stop actuator is pushed, that causes the column wheel to rotate slightly.  There is a finger resting on the column wheel that is allowed, by the rotation, to pivot slightly which drops a turning gear onto the center wheel of the chronograph, starting the second hand into motion.  Although Patek has modified the shape of that finger, and indeed the configuration of the arm bearing the supplemental wheel which drops onto the center wheel, Audemars has done more.



Papi reasoned that not only must the shape of the finger resting on the column wheel be such that its drop would occur doucement (gently), but that its angle should be made adjustable.  His design thus added a pivot point, adjustable, to the arm so that its action could be finely set to be just right.  That arm, with pivot (albeit lacking explanation) graces the background of nearly a whole page in the catalogue [scan from catalogue].  There it was:  a kinder and gentler column wheel system!  That’s why the Audemars chronograph was better.  Additionally to soften the return to zero, Papi made changes to the geometry of the return to zero hammer of the chronograph.  Unfortunately neither words nor pictures capture the magnificence of the action and feel of this chronograph.

Perhaps because I am somewhat of a student of chronographs and perhaps because I am an enthusiastic head nodder sending signals of more comprehension than actually is there, Papi then set about explaining to me his changes to the design of barrel teeth.  I would wager a sum sufficient to buy a Grand Complication that of the legions of avid watch collectors who inhabit the internet, not a handful have ever devoted even a second of thought to the shape of the barrel teeth of their watches.  Papi has.  Unfortunately my eager head nodding sent the level of his explanation, as they say, right to the edge of the envelope of my engineering French language skills.  But as I somewhat dimly extracted from our conversation, there is a problem with the angle of gear teeth engagement at the barrel.  Most barrels have been designed to transmit the maximum amount of torque to the watch’s gear train.  From the standpoint of power reserve this is good.  However, from the standpoint of application of consistent torque, this is not so good.  Papi has devoted research and work to minor shape and angle changes to produce a more consistent torque as the barrel rotates (and the main spring unwinds) with little loss of power reserve.  Great stuff !

While this was all fascinating stuff, my interest began to wane, mainly because the conversation was conducted in French, and my high school French was only getting me so far. Fortunately, with Robert at hand, I was able to talk to him in general terms about the watch making industry and recent developments. Robert initially thought that we were watchmakers (or at least in the industry), given our unusual (for non-industry people anyway) level of knowledge of the industry and watch movements. This was high praise indeed, coming from someone like Robert. Robert proceeded to show me and Hans plastic models of the movements they make, explaining that it was an integral part of the design process. They needed these models to ensure that their computer designs would actually translate into a working movement. While looking at these plastic models, I took the opportunity to evaluate the types of watches that people there were wearing. Not an Audemars in sight – Giulio himself wore a Porsche Design watch by IWC, while Robert wore a Zenith chronograph. Other watches spotted were a Rolex GMT II and a couple of digital watches. 


At any given time R&P are working on about a dozen different projects. One we were shown and given the permission to mention is a new single impulse escapement that doesn't require oiling. Like so many novelties in watchmaking, it's based on an old design that was never finalized. An R&P engineer breathed life into it and it shouldn't be long until it's officially presented. The company is studying new and high-tech materials to use in their movements. One of their ultimate goal is to develop a movement that requires no oiling at all ! Computer simulation is used extensively in their design process, this short video shows an animated 3-D rendering of a current development.  Click the below image to open or use the right mouse button to save the file cad.mpg (860 KB)


At this point we were placed in tow of one of the Master Watchmakers at Renaud & Papi and language changed.  He is Robert Harrap who hails from, of all places,  Wellington New Zealand.  I would rather expect that it is a rare number who emigrate from Wellington to Le Locle.  Robert gave us more perspective on the Renaud & Papi operation.  Last year Renaud & Papi produced 400 watches—that’s it.  Most were for Audemars, a few were for two other very high end brands.  At this level of watch making, one watch maker does the watch from beginning to end, hand finishing each and every piece in the watch.  Robert himself was working at the very pinnacle of what is produced there - a Grand Sonnerie.  He started on this watch in November and was still hard at work on it during our May visit.

Indeed he pressed us for information on one point.  He was dying to know what kind of people owned one of his Grand Sonneries.  I would have killed at that point to have said “Mais, que c’est moi!” and shooting my cuffs produced one for him to see on my wrist.  Sadly, that not being possible,  I told of the streets paved in gold (now being ripped up) in Silicon Valley.

AP: Getting There Movements Cases Museum
RP: Design Manufacturing Assembly Leaving There

A Day at Audemars Piguet and Renaud & Papi