By Gemma Billington
High up in the idyllic Swiss Jura mountains lies the village of La Côte-aux-Fées, where, in 1874, a 19-year-old farmer named Georges Édouard Piaget began making watches to earn extra money during the winter months. A gifted engineer, Georges Édouard was resolutely modest; the watches he made were sold through other companies, who engraved their names on the dials. It wasn’t until 1943 that the Piaget name came into its own, when it was registered by the founder’s grandsons, Gérald and Valentin. Two years later, and still in La Côte-aux-Fées, close to the family farm, the brothers built the first Piaget workshop, which, alongside a second factory in Geneva, is still in operation today.
From humble beginnings, Piaget has grown into one of the world’s most celebrated names in watchmaking and jewellery. Yet, four generations down the line, its roots remain firmly grounded. Piaget is still a family-run business, and the words of its founder – ‘Always do better than necessary’ – remain at the core of the business.
Part of this endless strive for perfection is Piaget’s production of ultra-thin ‘movements’ (the internal mechanism of a timepiece). This painstaking craft is a stalwart of the Piaget brand, and something that even Georges Édouard worked on perfecting from his small workshop above the family farm. Decades later, at the 1957 Basel Fair, Piaget unveiled the Calibre 9P. At just 2.1mm thick, the movement’s technical precision was unsurpassed, and it set a sky-high benchmark in the watchmaking industry. Three years later, Piaget’s Calibre 12P broke the Guinness World Record for the world’s thinnest self-winding movement, measuring just 2.3mm.
This was the beginning of a whole new era for Piaget. Pioneering, daring and revolutionary, the advent of the 1960s brought with it a fresh new wave of social and cultural reforms that symbolised a departure from the constraints of past generations. Even with such a traditional background, the house embraced this new groove with open arms.
‘It was [a time] when our designers’ imagination and the creativity of our engineers and technicians were completely in tune with the wild ideas that were going around in those days.’ These are the words of fourth-generation Piaget, Yves, the company’s charismatic president, who refers to himself as the ‘keeper of the temple.’ Aged 73, he is the last of the immediate Piaget lineage at the company helm, and it was through him that Piaget entered its most exciting and experimental chapter.
Born and raised in La Côte-aux-Fées just like his forefathers before him, Yves followed in the family tradition by studying engineering and gemology. After learning the basics at the Piaget boutique on Geneva’s luxury shopping strip, Rue du Rhône, Yves (the son of Gérald, who had been head of sales) was appointed marketing and communications director.
Determined to create an international, fashion-forward brand, Yves rubbed shoulders with the newly landed jet-set as well as the most glamorous and influential figures of the decade – from Sophia Loren to Andy Warhol and Sammy Davis Jr. Emboldened by Yves’ vision and the creative freedom he bestowed upon them, Piaget’s in-house designers and artisans took research trips to Paris fashion shows and experimented with form, structure and style. Led by visionary designer Jean-Claude Gueit, Piaget began to produce jewellery for the first time. Exquisite, one-of-a-kind haute joaillerie was a natural extension of the luxurious jewelled watches set in extravagant ‘slave’ cuffs, show-stopping tassel necklaces and even embedded in solid-gold coins.
Piaget’s technical capabilities were pushed further when, in the mid-1960s, the designers began using semi-precious stones such as tiger’s eye, opal and lapis lazuli to produce unique and colourful watch dials. Perhaps the most famous of these pieces was worn by fashionable first lady, Jackie Kennedy. Traditional in shape, her watch featured a delicate yellow-gold strap set with a striking oval jade dial surrounded by brilliant-cut diamonds and emeralds. Famed for her impeccable taste, actress Elizabeth Taylor owned two Piaget timepieces, including a cuff watch created by Gueit that featured a jade dial and fine gold loops. When Taylor picked it out from a private selection presented to her by Yves, he commented that it ‘could have been made for her’.
While its collections were being snapped up by 1960s glitterati, in the latter half of the decade, Piaget embarked on its most avant-garde collaboration to date. Surrealist artist and provocateur Salvador Dalí had an enduring fascination with gold – even indulging his passion by minting his own line of engraved gold coins. In 1967, Piaget released a limited-edition collection of watches, jewellery and accessories crafted with coins from the Dalí mint. Yves and the artist together unveiled the collection at the Hotel Meurice in Paris in typical Dalí style: the painter sat aloof on a transparent inflatable chair, walking stick in one hand, his pet ocelot in the other.
Last year, Piaget celebrated its 140th anniversary. In commemoration, the house released an exclusive collection of luxury watches and jewellery inspired by the designs that epitomised the creative explosion and enduring influence of Piaget in the 1960s and 70s. Entitled ‘Extremely Piaget’, the collection includes timepieces with stone dials, asymmetric cuffs and even a replica of Jackie Kennedy’s jewelled watch in sapphire and lapis lazuli.
Piaget’s incredible journey is one that Georges Édouard could never have envisaged. Yet, from the tranquility of the Swiss mountains to the headiness of the Hollywood red carpet, the same steely drive and initiative remains at the heart of Piaget. A desire to surprise, inspire and still – more than 140 years later – to always do better than necessary.
Yves Piaget quote taken from Piaget Altiplano – Historical Expertise