There are not too many family-owned business with ties that go back to the founding fathers left in the watch industry today. Audemars Piguet is among the few brands (Carl F. Bucherer is a notable other) where the fourth generation of the founding family still takes a close interest in the business.

During Art Basel earlier this year, we had the opportunity to have a leisure chat with Olivier Audemars, the vice-chairman of the board of directors at the company and great-grandson of co-founder Edward Auguste Piguet. Here are excerpts from the chat.

The historic Audemars Piguet manufacture in Le Brassus

On his childhood in the founder’s family

When I was growing up, Audemars Piguet was a small company with about 40 people, it was just someplace that my grandfather worked in the Vallée de Joux. I was very close to him and we spent a lot of time together during holidays and weekends. As a kid it was frustrating to watch him spend time at home with these intricate watch movements, but I remember being vowed as a 5 year-old when he showed me how an escapement came alive like a beating heart after the movement was assembled.

I was asked to join the family business because they thought it was important for someone with an intimate knowledge of the company to be involved. I still have memories of what my grandpa had showed me. When I joined the business in 1998-99, we were still a small company of about 200 people. We are now at about 1,500.

On lessons learnt at the dinner table

During my youth I remember hearing stories from my grandfather about the struggles the company went through. For example, in 1928 our US agent responsible for more than 50 per cent of our turnover went bankrupt. It nearly killed the company. We went through a really tough few years as this happened just before The Great Depression. Years later when the Chinese market was really booming, all the big brands focused heavily on the Chinese market. Everyone thought this was going to last forever.

We didn’t do that, we didn’t want to put all our eggs in one basket. So we continued to develop the US market, Europe and Middle East – markets which at the point were much more difficult to develop than the Chinese one. We did this because we remembered the lessons we had learnt in 1928. My point is that when you are a family-owned business, there are things you learn along the way, things that are discussed at the dinner table.

The Valley and Audemars Piguet

The valley as shot by photographer Dans Holdsworth

You cannot separate Audemars Piguet from the Valley. If you look back at the history of the Vallée de Joux, it is a beautiful but hostile place comprising mostly rocks, dark forests and long winters. The first settlers wanted to be independent, they preferred to have a free life in a harsh place like the valley than a comfortable life elsewhere. They only needed a find way to earn a living here. And they did so by making beautiful movements and watches. Similarly, our independence is important to us. All our watches are an expression of our freedom and independence because it is through this craft that people in the region were able to lead a good life that would have been very hard to inhabit otherwise.

On preserving the region’s watchmaking heritage

Over the years, transmission of knowledge in watchmaking was mostly done through the master watchmaker and apprentice system. During the Quartz Crisis, a chunk of the middle-aged generation lost their jobs or quit the trade but when things started to get better, we found ourselves in a situation where we had watchmakers over 50 and young watchmakers - there was a generation missing. 

We had to do a lot of work to convince the older, more experienced watchmakers to transcript their knowledge so that the younger ones could follow in their path. Some of the older watchmakers were initially not interested in talking to the younger ones.

A rendering of the planned museum next to the historic building

We had to rediscover old traditions that were about to be lost. We have a restoration workshop that works on historic AP models as well as other watches from the valley. These brands don’t exist anymore, but are part of the region’s heritage. When they work on these old models, they discover new learnings and then pass this on to other departments. Maintaining this knowledge is important.

On their association with contemporary art

Artists and watchmakers make things that speak more to the heart than the mind. You don’t need a mechanical watch; a phone or a smartwatch does the job much better. So in a manner of speaking, artists and watchmakers speak the same language.

Second Nature designed by Sebastian Errazuriz at Art Basel 2017

Artists have this ability to see things differently. So for us, it is good to sometimes to borrow the glasses they use to see the world and see what’s different in ours. Our work with photographer Dan Holdsworth was supposed to be a one-off project but we have been working with him for 5-6 years now. Audemars Piguet wouldn’t be the same brand had it not been for that chance encounter with this photographer. It helped us understand ourselves better and how we talk about the brand internally as well as outside (marketing). 

On keeping the business in the family

We think in terms of this business being a craft that allows our staff to do interesting things that enable them to lead a good life and make other people happy. We think this tradition is worth continuing. It’s more a notion of stewardship than ownership, because this company belongs to them too, it belongs to the valley too. The big challenge, however, is in readying the next generation. The best thing to do - as my grandfather once did - is to show the next generation the value of what we do at the valley, show them the value of this company, show them that this craft is worth preserving and make them feel proud of the company. So when the day comes, they can be convinced about continuing this business. We’ve been doing it for four generations now and I will do my best to ensure the next four follow as well.

On the enduring legacy of the Royal Oak

In the Sixties, people who wore expensive watches were extremely careful with their watches. We knew that this wasn’t going to happen in the future. We make beautiful, complicated yet fragile mechanisms. We had to find a way to protect this better if we had to continue in the age of Quartz watches. The Royal Oak was a result of this pursuit.

Assembling the the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar

There is this tension between complexity and strength in the Royal Oak. The first prototype of the Royal Oak was made with white gold because it was easier to machine white gold because it was a softer metal than steel. Basically, it would have been cheaper to make the Royal Oak in white gold.

To launch a stainless steel with sharp angles and visible screws with an integrated steel bracelet with the same price as a gold Patek Philippe or ten times the cost of Rolex was crazy, it could have killed the company. It was as perceived as being as something completely against conventional rules but it was actually completely in line with the long-term object of the company which is to perpetuate a legacy of making complicated watches.

The Royal Oak was a sports watch when it was launched but it has evolved into a classic watch because it can be worn with anything now. The thing is that it is so linked to our brand DNA that people perceive us mostly for the Royal Oak.