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Olivier Audemars on the Family Ties That Bind Audemars Piguet
Olivier Audemars on the Family Ties That Bind Audemars Piguet
Words Eduan R. Maggo
January 21. 2018

The Audemars Piguet vice-chairman channels the past to propel his company into the future

Interviews
Words Eduan R. Maggo
January 21, 2018

From its base in the Vallée de Joux in the Swiss Canton of Vaud, Audemars Piguet has been crafting exceptional timepieces since 1875. The only high-end watchmaking firm still in the hands of the founding families, the ethos of the company remains unchanged, says Olivier Audemars, vice-chairman of the Audemars Piguet Board and the great-grandson of one of its founders, Edward Auguste Piguet. 

“People often look at Audemars Piguet today and assume the company looks like it did back then. But when I was a child, there were maybe 40 people in total working for the company. When I joined, there were less than 200 employees, and today we’re at 1,500.”

Olivier Audemars on the Family Ties That Bind Audemars Piguet

Born just a few kilometres from Le Brassus, birthplace of the family business, Audemars recalls the moment watchmaking took on significance beyond being something his grandfather once did. 

“I was quite close to my grandfather,” he says of Paul-Edward Piguet, one of the second-generation owners. “He was the one who taught me how to ski, how to build tree houses — that kind of thing. I found it a little frustrating that he would quite often bring work home with him. He would spend a lot of time thinking about different ways to work on the watches, and as a child I didn’t understand why he was spending so much time on those tiny, uninteresting pieces of metal. 

“People often look at Audemars Piguet today and assume the company looks like it did back then. But when I was a child, there were maybe 40 people in total working for the company."
Olivier Audemars

“One day he came with a watch mechanism that was fully assembled. He asked me to touch the escapement, and it came alive — like a beating heart! It was in that moment that I discovered that there was something magical about watch mechanisms.”

Fascinated, Audemars would spend hours in the factory, watching as the watchmakers plied their craft. But he went on to train as an engineer and started his own business. 

“When I was requested by the members of the Piguet family to join the family business, I was not very enthusiastic at first, because your own company is a bit like your baby,” he says wryly.

“I remember people saying, disgusted, ‘They could have at least hidden the screws.’ 

“The watch came as a real shock but we understood that people’s way of life was changing and that the way they’d wear their watches would also change. We anticipated that people would want to wear their watches all the time, including during physical activities.”

“What we do today must be better than what we did yesterday and what we do tomorrow must improve still further on what we do today.”
By Olivier Audemars
 

The main challenge, he says, was the fragility of the brand’s complicated mechanisms. This led to the development of the Royal Oak case — the strong but beautiful safe that protects the mechanism. “The Royal Oak was seen as breaking all the rules. But for us breaking the rules doesn’t mean you have to do crazy things just for the kick of it. It means that sometimes you do things that will be perceived as breaking the rules while actually aligning with your core identity. That’s what the Royal Oak was. It was something that was perceived as crazy, as something that would kill the company, but actually it was completely in line with our mission, which is to make beautiful watches that can be worn every day.”

Audemars highlights the feat of his forebears being able to forge a robust industry in a hostile environment: “The Vallée de Joux is a pretty poor region, with very few natural resources.”

"We play a very small role in a very short period of time, but it is important because if we don’t do it well, then we won’t be able to continue into the future.”
Olivier Audemars

But some of the rocks in the valley were marked by rust, and the early settlers managed to extract the rust, fuel their forges with the wood and transform it into iron. 

Hard as that decision was, Audemars joined the brand’s Board of Directors in 1997 and succeeded his aunt as administrator in 2000. 

While Audemars Piguet was founded in 1875, both the Audemars and Piguet families have long histories of watchmaking that far predate the company. The oldest watch in the company’s museum was built by Audemars’ great-grandfather’s great-grandfather in the 1760s. 

“I think of my grandfather quite often,” he tells Watch1010. “When I have to make an important decision, I try to put myself in his shoes and I try to imagine how he would have addressed the situation. Of course I’m cognisant that the world has changed since his time, but it’s more about the process — his intention.

 

“At the same time I also think about what my grandchildren may think about my decisions in 50 years. There is this long-term perspective, which is a big advantage, because it means we don’t think in terms of quarterly reports; we think in terms of generations. That’s also why we’ve been able to take some daring decisions along the way.”

The biggest of these, he says, was the decision to produce the Royal Oak — steel timepieces with exposed screws when the rest of the industry was focusing on precious metals. 

“We took a huge risk in 1972 when we decided to launch the Royal Oak. You have to understand that it was in the context of big social changes,” he explains. “It also coincided with the arrival of the Quartz watches, which nearly destroyed the Swiss watch industry. So, to produce a stainless steel watch that costs the same as a gold Patek, or 10 times as much as a Rolex, in the middle of this crisis, and to give it sharp angles and feature visible screws... It seemed crazy. 

Olivier Audemars on the Family Ties That Bind Audemars Piguet

“As the process was complicated and the resources limited, they had to specialise in making small objects with high-end value, like watch mechanisms,” Audemars explains. 

“The other resource they had in abundance was time. You have a lot of time on your hands when you’re confined to your home for six months of the year due to the snow. So instead of just making simple watches with two hands, they started to develop extremely complex mechanisms.

“That’s how they managed to live freely where they wanted to, even if their resources were limited.”

This, he says, is the real significance of the valley, and its contribution to the Swiss and global watch industry. 

“That’s how they managed to live freely where they wanted to, even if their resources were limited.”
Olivier Audemars

When the Americans industrialised watch production in the 19th century and manufactured watches by the thousands, the Audemars Piguet founders created the firm to resist that trend, which was spreading across Europe too. “The two founders didn’t want to follow that path. They wanted to continue to make watches that were made by human beings and not by machines.

Audemars explains, “They saw that by working together they would increase the chances of this tradition surviving. Thus starting the company was a continuation, not a beginning. That’s something that is as important to us today.”

In this sense, Audemars says, the company doesn’t really belong to them. “It belongs to the Vallée de Joux, it belongs to the people working for the company, and it belongs to the region. We don’t see ourselves as owners, but as tools.

“It’s a bit like we’re building a long chain that started much before our own time, and we have to make sure that the next link, the one that we’re working on, will be strong enough to also support the following ones. We play a very small role in a very short period of time, but it is important because if we don’t do it well, then we won’t be able to continue into the future.”

That’s the company’s purpose, says Audemars: “To maintain this tradition of making beautiful watches.” 

audemarspiguet.com

Eduan R. Maggo
7 Articles | View All
 

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