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Shared legacy

Audrey Simon
Audrey Simon • 11 min read
Shared legacy
Olivier Audemars, vice-chairman of the board at Audemars Piguet, on how he is but a steward of the luxury watch company, and why it wants to stay independent
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Olivier Audemars, vice-chairman of the board at Audemars Piguet, on how he is but a steward of the luxury watch company, and why it wants to stay independent

How many people can say that as a seven-year-old, they had already observed a watchmaker put a complicated watch together? Or that their grandfather had explained the movement of a watch to them? Well, Olivier Audemars had this privilege, as he grew up in the Vallée de Joux — the heart of the Swiss Jura and the birthplace of Audemars Piguet.

Olivier, the great-grandson of Edward Auguste Piguet, one of the founders of the luxury watch brand, gave Options an exclusive interview at the Audemars Piguet boutique at Liat Towers while on a visit to Singapore recently. Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875 and is still in the hands of the founding family.

Recalling his early years, Olivier says he had always shared a close bond with his grandfather Paul Edward Piguet, who had taught him how to ski and build a treehouse. But it was not love at first sight when it came to timepieces. Olivier says, “I was close to my grandfather, and as a child it was frustrating for me to see him bring watches home. I did not understand why he was spending so much time on these tiny metallic pieces, instead of spending more time with me.”

All that soon changed when Olivier had his aha moment, which occurred when he was about seven. His grandfather had brought home a movement that was fully assembled. Olivier did not think much of it until his grandfather asked him to touch the escapement. “When I touched it, [the escapement] came alive. It was like the beating of a little heart.” The escapement is the mainspring of the watch that regulates the watch’s oscillation.

Olivier, now 58, admits he was also fascinated by the people who worked on the watch pieces, which were so tiny, some were not even visible to the naked eye. Fascinated though he was, Olivier’s first choice of vocation was not the family business. Instead, he graduated in material physics and started his own material physics laboratory with his former professor.

He says he was reluctant to join the family business “because when you have your own company, it is like your baby. To leave that and join the family business was not an easy decision to make”.

By the people, for the people
It was Olivier’s memories of his childhood growing up in the Vallée de Joux, and that of the people who worked there, which changed his mind.

In 1997, he joined the brand’s board of directors and in 2000, he took over from his aunt as administrator. He is now vice-chairman of the board.

In a recent interview, he was quoted as saying, “The company belongs to the people who work here — to the watchmakers, to their families and to the entire valley.” We ask him to elaborate.

Olivier explains that the valley is a very hostile place. It is filled with nothing but rocks and dark forests, and the winters are long and harsh. One of the questions he had always pondered upon was why anyone would want to settle in such a place.

“Today, we know it was because the people were highly independent; they didn’t want to live under the rule of the King of France or under the Duke of Savoy. They felt it was better to live under difficult conditions but with freedom, rather than have a comfortable existence but under the rule of someone else.”

Making a decent living posed a huge problem, but the early settlers soon discovered the rocks offered something special. They were rich in iron oxide and the watchmakers were able to extract this and use it in the mechanism of Audemars Piguet timepieces.

The other resource they had was time. Locked in their home or farm for six to eight months a year because of the snow, they had plenty of time. This was one of the reasons they started to make watches — not simple watch mechanisms, but complicated ones. They also studied the motion of the moon around the earth, and the earth around the sun.

Olivier explains, “Our watches are made of two elements — one is a tiny quantity of iron oxide and the other is a very large quantity of time. So you could say that our watches are the expression of freedom at the valley.”

One can sum up that the tradition of making highly complicated watches is a symbol of this freedom. It allowed the early watchmakers to have a good life and work on their craft. “The company belongs to them because of their craft. It is not my craft,” he stresses.

Olivier says Audemars Piguet “will continue to provide good working conditions and a good life [to the watchmakers] and to make objects that will make people happy when they have it on their wrists. That is one of the advantages of the family business — we can have this long-term view as we think in terms of generations and not in terms of revenue. That is what I mean when I say I don’t consider myself an owner, just a steward.”

Staying independent
Growing up, Olivier did not get the impression that his family was special, or that the company was exceptional. “I just thought there was something going on in this Vallée de Joux that was worth it.” He says there were 40 to 50 people working in the company when he was a child. When he joined, there were 200. Today, there are 1,500.

During family dinners, conversation would revolve around the business and problems were openly discussed. Apparently, the company had gone through some tough times. Olivier recalls his grandfather telling him that the company almost folded during the Great Depression (1929 to 1939). An Audemars Piguet US agent, who represented 50% to 55% of the company’s turnover, went bankrupt and it nearly killed the company. Things became worse as Audemars Piguet could only afford to keep three watchmakers on its payroll and only one watch was produced a year.

Olivier’s takeaway from his grandfather’s story is that you should learn from past mistakes. For example, when everyone rushed into the China market, Audemars Piguet wisely held back and focused on the more difficult markets at that time, such as the US and Europe.

He also wants to make this point: When you pay attention to family discussions, making your own important decisions becomes easier. “When I have an important decision to make, I think of what my grandfather would have decided 50 years ago, and also what my grandchildren would think of my decision in 50 years’ time. You have this bridge between the past and the future and that gives me perspective. There is a saying in the Vallée de Joux that time does not respect what has been done without it.”

He continues, “We live in a world where we do everything really fast and we make big mistakes. It is very important even in a fast-moving world to be able to have a long-term view of things.”

The one question that keeps popping up at interviews is: How long will Audemars Piguet stay independent? Olivier offers, “After the quartz crisis, the brands were much weaker and the big groups started to take control of them. At the same time, they also tried to take control of the supply side and distribution side. We had to integrate new things that were not in the company before, and we had to buy back our markets and also start to have our own points of sale.

“Audemars Piguet did not increase the quantity of watches produced in order to keep its costs low, so as to remain independent. We had to be very reactive and recognise the purpose of the company. As long as the company is strong, we cannot sell something that does not belong to us. It belongs to the people.

“We are not the owner of the company, so we cannot sell it to someone else. It is important for the company to be strong, and the purpose of the company is to continue to provide good working conditions and to [create] beautiful products. It is not because I want more money, but because to be successful economically is the key element to remaining independent, and remaining independent is the key element to being able to continue with our tradition.”

Art and watchmaking
Over the years, Audemars Piguet has evolved into more than just a watchmaker. It has also carved a niche for itself in the world of art. Since 2013, the brand has been active in art, having formed a successful partnership with Art Basel, an international art fair that has three shows a year in Hong Kong, Basel and Miami. This contemporary art show has proven to be the perfect platform for Audemars Piguet to showcase its pioneering spirit in the world of art and watchmaking by inviting artists to interpret its heritage and origin.

Olivier explains that watches and clocks were instruments to measure time, and accuracy became a critical element especially when powerful Western nations started to compete to conquer the seas. In order to accurately position the location of the ship at sea, you had to know exactly at what time you were taking the measurement. Hence, the race to make more accurate watches began.

Then complications — some required, some not — were added. “If you take a perpetual calendar [watch], you don’t really need a watch that takes into account the fact that there is a Feb 29 every four years. You don’t need something like a minute repeater to tell you what the time is at night, for instance. The point I want to make is that both require an extreme level of craft mastery. And from the beginning, the people who buy our watches have been fascinated by that.”

When the quartz crisis happened in the 1970s, it nearly killed the watch industry. Olivier admits that the quartz watch is much more efficient. “It’s like... you don’t need to have a painting or a picture on the wall, as the paint on the wall will do the job. You don’t need a mechanical watch, as a smartwatch will do the job. But a painting, a sculpture, or music — these speak much more to the heart than to the brain. And, in that respect, you could say that artists and artisans are close cousins.”

Another factor that made Audemars Piguet choose to form a partnership with art occurred in 2012, on the 40th anniversary of the Royal Oak timepiece. To commemorate the occasion, Audemars Piguet commissioned renowned British photographer Dan Holdsworth to photograph the Vallée de Joux in all its rawness. The results surprised Olivier because in his mind, the Vallée de Joux was a beautiful place with a blue sky, blue lake and mountains. However, Holdsworth’s images were of rocks and emptiness, and Olivier could not believe they were pictures of the valley.

“This was like an epiphany because we realised that artists had the capacity to see things differently, as if they could see things from a special angle or they have special glasses. Sometimes, we can borrow those glasses and see the world as they see it through their art pieces. We realise that it could be a very powerful means for a company like ours to be able to see the weak signals of the environment and to react to them. It is also very interesting especially if you are a partner for something like Art Basel.”

Olivier cites another example. Chinese artist Cheng Ran, who spent time in the Vallée de Joux, created a video titled Circadian Rhythm that was inspired by the sounds of nature, as well as those of the timepieces. Cheng was able to capture the sounds of a mechanical watch and match them with images of the Jura Mountains and the intricate inner workings of an Audemars Piguet timepiece. The exhibition held last year in Shanghai featured a stunning architectural installation in the form of a large-scale ring with a copper finish that measured 30m in diameter.

Olivier says, “Exhibitions and timepieces are like a two-way bridge because we can meet collectors or we can introduce contemporary art to our customers.”

With so much on his plate, how does he find time for his family? Olivier says he still manages to spend quality time with his eight- and 13-year-old daughters. All three love to jog and discuss important issues such as school, nature or family.

In time, perhaps, he will follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and share the family legacy with his daughters and teach them the many qualities that go into making an exquisite Audemars Piguet timepiece.

This article appeared in Issue 793 (Aug 21) of The Edge Singapore.

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