Interview Wednesday, October 24th 2012
Production, distribution, new technologies… a look back at the last 25 years at Audemars Piguet, one of the few remaining independent watchmakers, in an interview with Jasmine Audemars, Chairwoman of the Board of Directors.
Jasmine Audemars, Chairwoman of the Board of Directors, Audemars Piguet © Audemars Piguet
A graduate in Social Science and Economic History from the University of Geneva, Jasmine Audemars joined Swiss daily Le Journal de Genève – now Le Temps – in 1968, rising to the position of editor-in-chief by 1980. She left in 1992 to take over at the head of the Board of Directors of the watch company which her great-grandfather, Jules-Louis Audemars, co-founded in 1875, having held a seat since 1987. Asked about her 25 years with the firm, she offers an insightful analysis into developments within the watch industry as a whole.
What does your role as Chairwoman of the Audemars Piguet Board of Directors entail?
Jasmine Audemars: My duty and that of my colleagues is essentially to define group strategy and hand over its implementation to people with the capacity to understand and preserve the brand's DNA.
What have been the most important developments over the past 25 years?
Upstream, we have brought home expertise and vertically integrated production to safeguard our independence. Operations are spread across three sites: Meyrin, where our subsidiary, Centror, develops and manufactures cases; Le Locle where Audemars Piguet Renaud Papi (APRP) designs grande complication movements and conducts research into new materials; and Le Brassus where we have our main production site at the Manufacture des Forges, opened in 2008.
Fifteen years ago we were still working with agents. We've gradually brought distribution back within our control and a few years ago started opening our own stores. This coincides with an increase in staff numbers, from some 300 to 1,200 today.
What does this imply in terms of organisation?
At production level, we require more qualified staff whom fortunately we've had no problems finding. The marketing, communication and sales divisions have also expanded quite significantly. Developments in new technologies such as the Internet, Facebook or Twitter have profoundly modified how we engage with the end customer, who is increasingly well-informed. Training sales staff is of the utmost importance, particularly for grande complication watches such as the "Equation of Time". We must instil a watch culture among our customers, which implies having a watch regularly serviced, for example. And after-sales service is taking on growing importance.
What about the economic climate?
The major change has come from the developing markets, particularly China, where twenty-five years ago only a handful of brands had any exposure. The steady rise in living standards among China's middle class has had a game-changing effect.
A year ago, China was widely thought to be the new boom market for watches. What's your view?
I was putting a damper on enthusiasm, as the Chinese still make a lot of their watch purchases in Hong Kong and Europe. The recent slowdown in China's growth is also impacting sales. I personally believe we must strike a balance between Europe, Asia and the Americas, and not become dependent on one market.
And the financial context?
With today's means of transport, our customers are widely travelled and play on exchange rates to purchase the model they want at the best price. At Audemars Piguet, we implement stringent cost controls but this doesn't shield us from sudden currency fluctuation, such as the Swiss franc against the Euro in 2010.
What do you do in those cases?
We grit our teeth and as a last resort adjust our prices.
What about products?
The collections stay true to our DNA. We manufacture watches whose aesthetic fits perfectly with the technical characteristics of the movement. With more than a hundred years to our name, we have a legitimacy in watchmaking that no one can deny.
On the subject of history, you are the great-granddaughter of one of the founders. What does this heritage mean to you?
Firstly, I feel a responsibility towards all that has been achieved and what remains to be accomplished. I'm also aware of the good fortune I share with all those who work at Audemars Piguet, and who dedicate themselves to the firm. I've always believed that a company's success depends more than anything on the talent and motivation of its staff. ■
Jasmine Audemars was talking to Anaïs Georges du Clos