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On his watch

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 11 min read
On his watch
SINGAPORE (Dec 2): Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias explains why doing things differently can take a business to a new level, as seen in its award-winning Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Minute Repeater Supersonnerie
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SINGAPORE (Dec 2): Audemars Piguet CEO François-Henry Bennahmias explains why doing things differently can take a business to a new level, as seen in its award-winning Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Minute Repeater Supersonnerie

The Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Minute Repeater Supersonnerie (above) and the Royal Oak ‘Jumbo’ Extra-Thin also won awards at GPHG for their technical and aesthetic complexity

The Royal Oak Selfwinding Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin was awarded the ‘Aiguille d’Or’ Grand Prix at the 19th edition of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie in Geneva

François-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet, started his career as a professional golfer and later ventured into the world of luxury timepieces. But the route from sports to watches involved a strange twist. He disliked golf when he was introduced to it at the age of 13, but was intrigued by a timepiece he saw on the wrist of a golfer.

Bennahmias explains, “I hated the game at first, but that changed when I turned 15. I saw a youth championship in Spain, and France won. I watched
the game closely and told myself that I will one day beat [the champion].” That day arrived two years later and he beat this opponent, but what caught young Bennahmias’ eye was the Rolex Oyster timepiece his rival wore on his wrist. “He told me he wanted to get rid of it, but I wanted it. So, I bought the watch off him. And that was my very first watch,” he says.

As the years went by, that love shifted to Audemars Piguet, especially since Bennahmias joined the company in 1994 and was made CEO in 2012. The watch that still holds a special place in his heart is the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. He explains, “I’ve always loved Perpetual Calendars. I mean, think about it: It was created by people without any computers. All they did was look at the sky, the moon, the sun... and put everything into a tiny mechanism. I bought it in 1995 and it is numbered one. I still have it.”

Sweet taste of victory

Bennahmias is an affable watch CEO who is clearly a favourite among the watch writers, and he has proven himself to be an exceptional host when it comes to media trips to Le Brassus. It would seem that nothing fazes the man. But there are always exceptions and Options found out what it was in this exclusive interview that took place at the Audemars Piguet boutique in Liat Towers.

When Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet was launched this year, it received brickbats on social media. The collection is clearly a departure from the types of watches that Audemars Piguet produces. Of the reviews, he says, “Of course it hurts. But what hurts more is people not even knowing [the watch], not having seen it, but judging it. Welcome to social media today. I see so many brands getting hammered on such things. No matter what you do today, you can either please people or you can offend people. No matter what, people will always find ways to say it’s not good.”

He says if social media had existed in 1972 when the Royal Oak was launched, it would have destroyed the company. The Royal Oak was designed by Gerald Genta and it was based on an old diver’s helmet. But it was the octagonal bezel and hexagonal screws that watch fans found difficult to get used to. Bennahmias says, “The Royal Oak is not a normal round watch. It was the people from the industry, such as the suppliers, who came to us and said, Great job. They respected the technicality of the case and the design.”

Sales of the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet, however, have been healthy. The Frenchman says, “Sales are pretty good. More than 50% of the buyers had
never bought a Audemars Piguet timepiece before. The average age is between 25 and 35, so it’s a young crowd.” He adds that sales are likely to double, and he will wait and see where the collection is headed in the next three to five years. He says the new collection for the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet will “surprise people”. “Eventually, the bad reviews will go away. It’s like boxing. Before the fight, people will insult each other, but by the end of the fight, they stand as one.”

A few weeks after this interview was conducted, we cannot help but wonder whether Bennahmias is perhaps having the last laugh. In early November, Audemars Piguet was awarded the “Aiguille d’Or” Grand Prix for its Royal Oak Selfwinding Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin at the 19th edition of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie in Geneva. The timepiece won for, among others, its record-breaking proportions measuring just 41mm by 6.3mm, with a perpetual calendar movement of 2.89mm thickness. The manufacture received two additional prizes at GPHG: the Iconic Watch Prize for its Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin; and the Men’s Complication Watch Prize for the Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Minute Repeater Supersonnerie.

The latter combines the minute repeater supersonnerie technology launched in 2016 with the unconventional aesthetics of the collection. This contemporary wristwatch has the sonic power of a pocket watch. Its exceptional acoustic performance, sound quality and harmonic tones are granted by patented gongs, case construction and striking regulator. The gongs are not attached to the mainplate but to a new device acting as a soundboard, which improves sound transmission. The redesigned striking regulator eliminates unwanted noise, thanks to its more flexible anchor system.

The 18-carat white-gold case is a complex multi-faceted architecture composed of a round bezel and caseback, an octagonal middle case and stylised lugs. The upper lugs have been welded to the extra-thin bezel, while the lower part leans delicately against the caseback in perfect alignment. Satin-brushed, bevelled and polished, the bezel, lugs and case present high-complexity finishing techniques usually found on calibres. The case is complemented by a smoked blue enamel dial set off by white gold hands, applied indexes and numerals, as well as an Audemars Piguet signature in enamel.

Social media and e-commerce
Comments in the internet can be both a boon and a bane, as Bennahmias knows well. On the day of the interview with Options, Instagram was all abuzz with singer Justin Bieber’s post showing off a 1977 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 5402BA, which he bought to celebrate his marriage to Hailey Baldwin.

Bennahmias proudly scrolls through his Insta account to show me the post. While he concede that this is one way that millennials are now looking at Audemars Piguet, he believes Instagram is not the only avenue for capturing millennials. To make his point, he tells the story of a 15-year-old German boy who is a tennis player living in Detroit, Michigan, the US. During a trip to Switzerland, he told his parents that he wanted to visit the Audemars Piguet boutique, which they duly did and even bought him a watch. Bennahmias says, “I asked him, ‘What brought you to the brand? Where did you get the association? Where did you hear about it? What drove you to Audemars Piguet?’ He said he associated Audemars Pigeut with victory.”

This perception is due to the global sports ambassadors that Audemars Piguet is associated with, such as American basketball player Lebron James, Irish golfer Rory McIlroy, Argentine footballer Leo Messi, Indian cricket player Sachin Tendulkar and American tennis player Serena Williams. To ensure that the right ambassador is selected, Bennahmias interviews them to see how they react. They have to have a real passion for watchmaking and he invites them to the manufacture in Le Brassus to see how much passion they have for the watches. “I don’t want divas. I want people who are competent and accessible; so, they have to be friendly,” he says.

“I’ve seen athletes winning and wearing Audemars Piguet, but that’s one touchpoint. Others will be touched by other things. So, it’s not always one thing. They could have heard about Audemars Piguet in music. They could have seen Audemars Piguet on TV. They could have their parents loving the brand already. But the funny thing for that kid, because he pushed his parents to get him a watch, they both got one too.”

Bennahmias believes a right balance must be struck when it comes to design and delivery. To him, if the watch is a little too proper, conservative and traditional, then there will be issues. Adjusting and adapting is the way forward, hence the birth of Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet. With e-commerce on the rise, many brands have shifted to e-commerce as the future. Not Bennahmias, though. “I have never looked at e-commerce as being the future. I look at it as potentially becoming another tool to facilitate a sale with someone who doesn’t want to go into a store or who cannot travel to a place where there is a store.”

He cites, for example, the boutique in New York, which sells about 1,000 pieces a year but only half its customers visit the store to buy them. Most of the sales are done over the phone. After doing their homework, customers will call to ask for a certain watch and, when the store has it, the money is wired and the watch delivered. To Bennahmias, this is another form of online business except that it is not e-commerce.

Watches and other wonders
Audemars Piguet will not be present at Watches and Wonders (formerly known as Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie) next year. Bennahmias does not see the need to be a part of a watch fair, as retail operations account for more than half of the business.

Describing the tedious process of introducing watches at fairs and getting them to market, he says retailers who attend the fair usually do not get the allotment of watches that they ask for. This is because watchmakers, including Audemar Piguet, need to ensure that their products are distributed fairly among markets. “[Retailers] are going to say, ‘This is what I’m going to get.’ So, they may get, say, 90 watches, 170 watches or 250 watches, but that’s it.”

In addition, the selection by retailers has to be done in a very limited time, within the duration of the fair. Bennahmias says Audemars Piguet can instead meet
with retailers outside the fair and they can take their time to go through the novelties. The biggest challenge for retailers is that 35 watch companies are introducing novelties at the same time.

At SIHH, there is a slew of information for retailers to digest within a short time. Then, following that is the Baselworld Watch and Jewellery Show, which
means they have to go through a “second wave” of novelty watches. He adds that, sometimes, the watches introduced in Geneva at the start of the year are not available until October, when watchmakers have to reopen the doors of communication with retailers.

Bennahmias says, “I firmly believe that time to market is of the essence. Now, when we launch something, it means we have the watches in stock. So, when we talk about it, it goes viral on the internet and we deliver. We cannot expect people to wait three or four months. You cannot tease people: You say this is new, that is new, but have nothing to show. It doesn’t work this way. We made the choice to say this is not our business model anymore.”

Asked about that one minute in his life that was a turning point, he says that, of the many, the one that stands out was the moment that brought him to Audemars Piguet 25 years ago. He relates how he was in the French Caribbean island of St Barthélemy with his ex-wife and, at the spur of the moment, she
decided to get a new strap for her Breitling watch. They argued about who should go into the store to change the strap. She ended up doing it and, in the process, met a friend who worked at Audemars Piguet. As it turned out, he offered Bennahmias a job at Audemars Piguet. If Bennahmias had been the one to enter the store, he would have just changed the strap and left without knowing that the person at the store knew his ex-wife.

After 25 years, he is still very much enamoured of the brand and highly optimistic about not just the company but also the watchmaking industry. “I want to look at the glass half full and not half empty, as there is so much more to do. Every country we go to, we meet new clients. We see a lot of young people coming to the brands now, not only to Audemars Piguet but to other brands too.”

To stay ahead, he says, Audemars Piguet needs to be creative, different and special, putting clients’ needs first. He ends on a realistic note, “Are we always perfect? No. We make mistakes and we learn every day to do better.”

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