It is a homecoming of sorts for Jonathan King. He is back in Singapore as Audemars Piguet CEO for Southeast Asia (including India and Australia) after a five-year stint in Japan and ready to take on the challenges ahead of him.

Jonathan King is comfortable in his new role as Audemars Piguet CEO for Southeast Asia (including India and Australia). Comfortable in the sense that he knows the local media and Asian culture and, most of all, he knows Singapore very well, having worked here in the past for another luxury brand.

Prior to his posting to Singapore in August, King had been with Audemars Piguet in Japan since 2012. The affable Englishman is now into his sixth year with one of the oldest and still independent haute horlogerie manufacturer. Yet, he maintains, “I’m still learning and we are a small family brand. We have seen enormous value in remaining in the hands of the founding families. That has given us, I hope, a sense of modesty. We’re a serious brand that tries not to take itself too seriously, but we’re also very mindful that we need to remain agile.”

King adds that Audemars Piguet needs to be constantly responsive and strive to improve all the time. “We need to be willing to take risks within the constraints of our size and scale. We’re not a listed company, we don’t have an enormous group behind us. We use only our own wits and limited resources to play in a very, very competitive environment with some enormous players.”

King met with Options at the Audemars Piguet office in Singapore to talk about the brand’s heritage and facing up to these challenging times.

Firstly, welcome back to Singapore. Why did you decide to return?
It is a pleasure to come back to Singapore. There was no resistance on my part to be back in Southeast Asia — it’s like my second home. It’s the place where I believe our company feels that I could drive the most value. My five-year mission in Japan went very well and it was a great experience.

The brand has developed significantly in the Japanese and Korean markets. Changes needed to be made and we needed to redeploy some resources. I am very happy to take responsibility for one of the most dynamic areas of the world and one of the largest areas because it includes Australia and India. This is one of the most engaged areas of the world — demographically, there are so many young people and an enormous population, 2½ billion, including in India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Australia. I am extremely honoured and very humbled to be in an environment where I can learn and contribute to the future.

What’s the first thing on your agenda for the markets that you cover?
I want to observe and listen first. What I have learnt is that we have a great team. We have passionate people who have a genuine sense of commitment to our customers. But like all companies, there are some things we could do a bit better, some slightly differently. It’s not a revolution; it’s an evolution. And if we put the customer at the centre of it all, we will continue to delight them and stay relevant.

Is working in a company filled with so much history and heritage easier than one that is relatively young?
Heritage is the strongest anchor point or foundation because by looking backwards, we can always find inspiration for the future, not only in concepts, designs and creations but also in reinterpretations of amazing creations — some of which we were the first to create. So, there’s always inspiration from our past.

Founded in 1875, Audemars Piguet has been through the Great Depression, the world wars and, more specific to the watch industry, the quartz crisis.

All of those experiences, if learnt from, give us a rich tapestry of mental robustness. That’s why having a long history is a great benefit and a great support. For customers, there’s nothing wrong with a brand that’s new to market. What makes them become a little jaded is when you have a brand that is relatively new to the market but pretends to have enormous history. Of course, some people buy brands that are very old but have not been active for decades. I think customers are wise and savvy enough to do their research. They know who has that uninterrupted legacy and who doesn’t.

Audemars Piguet has been shifting its focus to women’s watches and even has Serena Williams as ambassador. Why is there so much emphasis on women’s watches?
There’s a bunch of advertising [campaign] images in this room: The one behind you is from Italy 40 years ago, and another is an image of a stunning cuff watch. These are all advertisements of ladies’ watches. The point I am making is that, since we were founded, we’ve had ladies’ watches.

We made some of the most amazing and record- breaking ladies’ watches over the years, including minute repeaters. My point is that it was not a sudden U-turn for us to say: “Now, we’re going to make ladies’ watches.” We’ve always made ladies’ watches. What we realised is that — and this was a few years ago — maybe we had not been giving enough attention to the female half of our customers and maybe we had not put as much energy into that as we should have.

It wasn’t that we woke up suddenly and decided to make ladies’ watches. What we thought was: We’ve got a rich historical catalogue of ladies’ watches — why don’t we start to develop it a little bit more consistently? Not merely create a ladies’ watch and then leave it alone for a decade. No, let’s start to develop it a little bit more consistently.

The Millenary Ladies [collection] has certainly done that. We also made changes to the Royal Oak ladies’ watch. We did [the changes] by design or by default, and the feedback I get from a lot of women is that they appreciate that it is real haute horlogerie.

There were no compromises. It’s not just a miniature version of a man’s watch. It can stand on its own. It’s not backed by some enormous marketing campaign to tie it to some emotive response. It is what it is. It’s beautifully executed but, most importantly, when my customers wear the Lady’s Millenary or one of our other female models, they say it is unique and different. They feel they can demonstrate their independence — their independent thought and their appreciation for the exceptional finishing.

Of course, you have Serena Williams as friend of the brand. Do you have others in mind?
Serena has been a friend of the brand for many years. If you look at our contact book of friends of the brand, you’ll see one trait emerging, whether it’s in golf or basketball or Formula 1: There is less in quantity but more in quality. These people clearly enjoy the brand so much that they wear it at home; some wear the watches when they’re playing or performing.

The point we’re trying to make is that there is a relationship; there is genuine passion on both sides. We’re passionate about our product and we like to work with people who are passionate about our product. We can be inspired by those people as well because they represent excellence in their own fields.

Audemars Piguet’s tagline is: To break the rules you must first master them. Have you ever broken any rules and mastered the outcome?
The day we don’t look for innovative solutions and different ways to engage our customers and the day we stop thinking about how to add value in our timepieces is the day that we lose something. There are certain aspects in haute horlogerie that need to be kept absolutely within the rules.

When we have a polisher or an engraver or one of our specialists who create “open works”, such as skeletonisation, they’ve developed that skill maybe over 20 to 30 years. Then, we develop a new technique and that’s kind of breaking the rules because it is something that didn’t exist before. We created the ladies’ Royal Oak Frosted Gold Collection by using jewellery technique that was applied for the first time in a watch. While it broke with convention a little, it simply was an agile response to something, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re trying to change the way the wheel is used.

Luxury brands are facing challenging times. Is Audemars Piguet affected? To what extent?
Audemars Piguet is pretty transparent about the number of watches we produce every year. We make a statement every year on our approximate sales value as well. We are by far one of the most transparent watch brands in the industry. That confidence comes from the fact that we sometimes try to create strength from what could be perceived as a weakness.

We’ve publicly stated that we’ve been making 40,000 watches, maximum, a year, and will continue to do so in the future. I don’t know how long, but certainly for this year, next year and the year after that. That means that our production is fixed. We couldn’t make another watch even if we wanted to. We’re at maximum capacity. We have to look at growth in other ways. Other companies could say: “Well, I’ll make another 1,000 watches.” We cannot do that, so what we’d like to do is sell each of our 40,000 watches.

That’s by far the most important achievement, rather than just volume. Volume is the opposite of luxury and our customers want our watches to be perfect and that’s been our goal and our raison d’être.

Even if you see a surge in demand, you would still keep it at 40,000?
We’ve seen a surge in demand for some years now. The point is that we are a little bit asymmetrical versus the rest of the industry. We didn’t increase our distribution size; we decreased it. We didn’t build a new factory and increase our production; we maintained it. This is against the flow of the rest of the industry, the rest of the haute horlogerie-luxury level, and that’s put us in a unique position to be far more responsive to the climbing Swiss exports and the various things that have impacted our market.

This article appeared in Issue 806 (Nov 20) of The Edge Singapore.

Subscribe to The Edge at https://www.theedgesingapore.com/subscribe