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Postcard from SIHH: Audemars Piguet
"To break the rules you must first master them"
The new strap line for Audemars Piguet perfectly sums up a company who has always sought its own path both in terms of the models it creates and indeed the way the company operates.
Audemars Piguet is not part of a large conglomerate but a family owned business, founded in 1875 which is steered by the descendants of Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet.
The current shareholders consider themselves custodians of Audemars Piguet for future generations, preserving watchmaking know-how and continuing to employ artisans in Vallée de Joux.
Audemars Piguet do not have to appease Institutional Investors but focus on the task in hand, creating haute horology with an innovative edge.
Royal Oak - rule breaking
Forty years ago, in 1972 Gérald Genta penned the iconic Royal Oak, an innovative watch, unlike anything else seen before.
A octagonal case featured a bezel held in position with 8 polished hexagonal screws in white gold. The bracelet was incredibly complex with links and studs arranged in progressively diminishing order.
At SIHH, Olivier Audemars explained that the Royal Oak was created when there was a crisis in the watchmaking industry, the onslaught of the quartz watch.
Initial models were only available in stainless steel, a departure from the “noble metals” of gold and platinum. However, the irony was it actually proved more costly to produce the watch in stainless steel than gold due to complexity of fabricating stainless steel watches in this shape back in 1972. This was borne out by the fact that initial prototypes were actually made of white gold.
A term used by Audemars Piguet to describe the Royal Oak was “from avant-garde to icon”, something with which I concur.
Audemars Piguet have taken the brave step in 2012 to evolve the original 1972 design into a large case size. This could be described as “high-risk” bearing in mind its proven success and a cash-cow status.
The designers have taken great care in executing the 2012 models, preserving the DNA of the original but with a slightly larger case size of 41mm featuring on the Royal Oak.
The horological cognoscenti need not worry. The icon is enhanced and the design remains true to the original.
Millenary 4101 - more rule breaking
The danger of being an icon is becoming type cast as any actor will attest. Audemars Piguet have always been more than just the Royal Oak. They have sought to push boundaries with other models, yet remaining true to craft and artistry which they hold so dear.
With all of the attention from the media, focusing on the Royal Oak there could have been a danger of overlooking another gem, the Millenary 4101.
I have never really been sure about the Millenary until now. The shape is unique for a man's watch, an exquisite elliptical form. It does not look like anything else I have seen on the market.
The Millenary 4101 has an unusual architecture not merely due to its shape , but the off-centre dial, the gold coloured bridge holding the escapement, not to the rear of the watch following convention but to the front appearing to the left of the dial.
This departure from the norm has created a unique visual appeal, attracting the award of the Grand Prix D’Horlogerie de Genève Public Prize in 2011.
If you study the watch closely, you will note the unusual oval movement, but you will also see that Audemars Piguet does not eschew craft and haute horology. Perlage, Côtes de Gèneve, engraving on the rotor, all visible courtesy of the sapphire glass to the front and rear.
The new models - a selection of the hi-lights
The new models are now visible to the general public by visiting the company website.
There were various “novelties” presented at the show.
Open-worked Extra-Thin Royal Oak.
This model retains the case diameter of the original, 39mm but has a shallow depth which was omnipresent at SIHH this year. The skeletonised finish affords the owner a view of the Calibre 2121 and the intrinsic craftsmanship within the platinum case.
The watch is a limited edition of 40.
Open-worked Extra-Thin Royal Oak Tourbillon
A case diameter of 41mm, this watch is presented in platinum and is one of the thinnest Tourbillon watches on the market today with a depth of 8.85mm.
The watch is a limited edition of 40.
Extra-Thin Royal Oak Tourbillon
There was a definite move away from the over-sized watches at SIHH. “Bling”, bulbous creations were less in evidence and there was a definite move towards 40 - 41mm being the preferred diameter of the moment. Moreover, the depth of the case has shrunk as the a new move to svelte lines is gaining momentum.
Audemars Piguet have read the trend and launched this range with discreet proportions.
Self-winding Royal Oak
The Royal Oak continues to be available in both Chronograph and non-Chronograph models both featuring the new enlarged case diameter of 41mm.
My personal favourite of the Royal Oak collection was the Selfwinding Royal Oak in pink gold on matching gold bracelet with black grande tapisserie dial. It’s simplicity is alluring. Nothing is superfluous. The eyes can readily interpret the time.
The key benefit of this watch is that it offers two uses; classic dress watch and sports watch. It is the perfect watch for a holiday as it fulfils both roles admirably. With water resistance to 50 metres, it will tolerate the occasional dip in the swimming pool whilst being worn.
An Interview with Gary Mead, CEO Audemars Piguet UK
Angus Davies (AD) - Can you tell me a little about your own background?
Gary Mead (GM) - Going back far more years than I care to mention, I started in retail sales. I then became a buyer, then a Store Manager, then I moved into the “Japan Department”, overseeing the development of the Japanese market. Ultimately we had 9 stand alone stores in Japan when I left that role.
I then increased my portfolio and went on to become International Business Development Manager looking after businesses in Bahrain and Jakarta.
I moved into the wholesale side of the business from retail which is very different from retail as it is a very different application. I worked as an AP Brand Manager for 13 years and then I created Audermars Piguet UK, a wholly owned subsidiary of Audemars Piguet in Switzerland, back in July 2008.
Since then the company has being going from strength to strength.
AD - I have to ask what watch you are wearing today?
AD - Ah, I can see, it’s a Royal Oak. Is that the new 41mm case?
GM - No its the original size, 39mm, 18-carat rose gold, automatic with black dial.
AD - So that is your own watch, which you wear everyday?
GM - Correct
AD - I must be honest I prefer the new 41mm to the old one and that is primarily because of my own size (6 ft 5 inches).
AD - I met your Chief Artistic Officer yesterday, Octavio Garcia and I said to him it must have been very stressful for him taking on the holy grail, Gérald Genta’s masterpiece of 40 years standing and having to play with the dimensions of the watch.
GM - Of course. If you go back into our heritage, the Royal Oak has always been an iconic watch. It has always been a substantial part of the brand. It has always been one of the main pillars of our brand. It was an interesting challenge to say we need to go forward into a new era. What are we going to produce?
The timing has been fantastic for two reasons, you have the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak and a time when people are moving away from big watches.
The move away from the colours, you either love of hate with the Royal Oak Offshore to a larger cased watch than the original Royal Oak which is only 1mm smaller than the Offshore. It still retains the classic lines of the Royal Oak, but is the ultimate sports watch with a pure heritage, a classic looking watch which is suitable for all occasions for all people.
AD - Yes it’s a more versatile watch.
GM - Correct.
AD - I have always liked the Navy, Safari and Diver but a watch I have not been that keen on in the past is the Millenary. However I have seen the Millenary 4101 and that is a different kettle of fish. It is gorgeous. The only difficulty is educating the buyer to have another look, it was only when someone actually made a point of showing me this watch that I actually fell in love with it.
It is totally different, yet clearly has the same shape case as Millenary models of the past, but somehow it really works for me.
GM - It is completely different. It is so unique.
When you take a brand like Audemars which is not only versatile but relatively speaking a free spirit, they do what they want to, they are the last Swiss-owned family watch brand, owned by the descendants of the founders which has never been sold.
They still keep going with an entrepreneurial spirit. We are not part of a power group, consequently decisions are made more quickly. The decisions are made in a more unusual way. When someone says “It has never been done before”, it is often followed by “that’s the perfect reason for us to do it”.
With the 4101, the fact that they have turned the watch market on its head has enabled them to do something that has not been done before. Introducing a new calibre and encasing it in a shape which nobody else makes. It is just incredible. Then they have inverted the movement, so what you normally see at the top is at the bottom and equally what you see at the bottom you now see at the top.
So the whole proposition of it is incredible. I think it is the most astounding watch I have seen in years.
My favourite used to be the Concept watch, but this is now my favourite piece. It is outstanding.
AD - The other thing that interests me is Special Editons. I think you once made a special edition for the Bolshoi Ballet for the Russian market, a ladies watch. I think I am correct in saying that this watch never came to the UK.
GM - Correct. Normally the country that commissions the timepiece normally bears the research and development costs, hence ultimately that market has the right to sell those products themselves.
In the case of the Bolshoi model, 100 units were produced. If the CEO of Russia wanted to release 2 or 3 pieces to individual markets that is his choice.
AD - I also know you have new product planned with your associations with Michael Schumacher and Lionel Messi. Are these products coming to the UK?
GM - Yes, definitely. When we work with Global Ambassadors, the limited editions go to all markets.
The Lionel Messi Limited Edition will go on sale soon, with the Michael Schumacher model the exact release date has yet to be confirmed.
AD - Sometimes Actors talk of the role they regret not taking. Are there any Special Editions you regret not having?
GM - It is very interesting you ask that. There was a model some years ago called the Juan Pablo Montoya, who was driving for Williams at the time in Formula One before moving to Indy car.
We made three limited edition models, not only were they hugely in demand, but years later people still asked if we have any of these models available, even as late as this year.
I think two things led to this.
Firstly, it was our first step into Formula One so the watch incorporated a lot of design elements from the Formula One world. The parts on the watch were designed to replicate the parts on a Formula One car.
The second things that was very interesting was that the watch was fetching 40% more than retail price at auction.
So that product really drove the brand and I think it was 8 or 9 years ago but people are still in love with that product.
Audemars Piguet are faithful to the traditions of craftsmanship and artistry but embrace innovation.
Clearly a successful company with over 1100 employees and a turnover in excess of CHF 500 million, it is a refreshing change from the larger conglomerate. Ownership is retained by the family, preserving the traditions and the brand for the future generations and the community at large.
It is a sense of community which has led to the formation of La Fondation Audemars Piguet with environmental and educational projects around the globe.
It is this DNA that has led to wonderful creations.
In the hands of people like Gary Mead, Philippe Merk, Octavio Garcia and Olivier Audemars to name just a few, Audemars Piguet has a bright future filled with endless opportunities for more unique creativity.