In Ancient Greece, authors competed at theatrical festivals with tetralogies, made up of three tragedies followed by a satyr play. Masks were an important prop in these performances, as depictions of the changing face of human nature: the same “crying Jean, laughing Jean” captured by Voltaire in his poem Jean qui pleure et qui rit. By analogy, visitors to the 2016 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) had no difficulty spotting the “tragic” masks that were worn in abundance in these times of collapsing financial markets, plummeting oil prices, eroded sales in Hong Kong and a short-winded Chinese dragon. In the midst of this sorry-looking crowd, a handful of professionals stood out, identifiable by the Cheshire cat-like grin on their face. A grin so wide, in fact, that anyone passing the Richard Mille or Audemars Piguet stands wouldn’t have been surprised to hear peals of laughter. A thumbed nose at the less than encouraging predictions for the months to come.
The first announcement by François Bennahmias, Audemars Piguet CEO since 2012, prior to presenting the brand’s new products, left no doubt as to the rude health of the manufacture, which is still in the hands of the founding families: “In 2014 we had sales of 700 million [Swiss francs]. Last year, during which the euro depreciated against the Swiss franc, sales climbed to 800 million with production in the region of 40,000 units. I’ll let you calculate the rate of progression which, and this is important, was also made possible thanks to support from our retailers.” Let’s do the math: over the twelve months of 2015, Audemars Piguet’s sales increased 14% when the profession as a whole dropped some 4% over the same period. François Bennahmias attributes this success to a number of factors, beginning with “reasonable” exposure to the Asian markets which account for no more than one third of sales. Other explanations are the “clear-out” ordered by the incoming CEO which drastically cut the number of references and reduced delivery times for the brand’s flagship products. Retailers were kept closely informed about this strategy and were quick to understand that putting their money on the Royal Oak, the Millenium or the Jules Audemars would reap returns.
Another aspect of the strategy now in place has been the gradual move upwards into the most exclusive segments. Unlike many other brands, which are seeking to bolster their market position with less expensive products, Audemars Piguet intends increasing its offering of high-end watches while production remains stable. The average price of an Audemars Piguet watch, currently around CHF 35,000, is therefore set to increase, a hypothesis borne out by the timepieces on display at the SIHH. Outstanding among them were the Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie, a minute repeater with exceptional sound quality that was first shown as a prototype in 2015, and Diamond Fury, a secret watch set with almost five thousand diamonds weighing more than 26 carats, and which follows on from Diamond Punk, distinguished at last year’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. These two pieces, worth more than half a million Swiss francs, set the tone. The other themes developed in the year’s collections, namely the tourbillon and openworked movements – perhaps best illustrated by the Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openworked with its patented geometry – make amply clear where the brand is training its sights. It also intends marking its territory with more own-name stores, with new openings scheduled to increase the number from 41 to 52 by the end of the year.
Around the corner from Audemars Piguet, another brand was on equally strong form. Asked last year about the impact the strong Swiss franc was having on business, Richard Mille declared it was all “water off a duck’s back!”. Figures for the year overall confirm that the brand has stood firm: sales for 2015 came to CHF 185 million, which translates to more than 20% growth, with CHF 70 million in operating profit. Production climbed to 3,200 watches for the year compared with 2,864 for the year prior. Nothing, it seems, can stand in the way of the brand, established in 2001 and which now employs 130 staff. The objective for the current year is to take production above the four-thousand mark and generate sales in excess of CHF 200 million. “Luxury needs to be highly technical if it is to enrich our lives,” commented Mr Richard Mille at the SIHH. “If we’re still progressing despite a dwindling market, it’s because right from the start, fifteen years ago, we positioned ourselves as an all-rounder in contemporary fine watchmaking.” And one with the specificities of a brand which immediately targeted the “extreme luxury” segment, synonymous with an average price of CHF 170,000. Richard Mille watches are all about innovation, as much in terms of materials as horological techniques and construction. It’s no coincidence that the brand enlists the services of sportsmen and women at the top of their game to put its products through the wringer. If they survive competition at this level, then they are considered fit for service, capable of enduring any kind of situation. Including a Formula 1 crash, after Felipe Massa’s RM 006 emerged unscathed following an accident at more than 175 mph during qualifying sessions for the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix.
The watches unveiled at the recently ended SIHH are of this ilk, beginning with the RM 50-02 ACJ for which Richard Mille worked alongside the Airbus Corporate Jet design studio. The result is an ultra-light skeleton chronograph with tourbillon escapement. Materials were taken from the aeronautics industry, including the alloy used by Airbus for its jet turbine blades. Colours are those of the airplane company; the case has the shape of an Airbus window and is made from a titanium-aluminum alloy with an inner bezel in ceramic. Functions are laid-out like information on cockpit instruments. A fine piece of work for this limited edition of 30, priced at… one million Swiss francs each. The RM67-01 Extra Flat almost pales in comparison. Almost, as once again attention to detail and technique are paramount. The 7.75-mm case, the thinnest ever from Richard Mille in its favourite tonneau form, is the result of 215 separate machining operations. It houses the CRMA6 skeleton automatic movement standing 3.6 mm high. Bridges and baseplate are in grade 5 titanium with grey and black electroplasma treatment. This is a watch with a long list of attributes that already has more than its fair share of admirers. Those who aren’t convinced are sniggering at the CHF 100,000 fountain pen which the brand is offering this year. Who cares, says Mille, as long as people are talking about us! In which case, it’s mission accomplished.