Exclusive: Audemars Piguet president on running the family brand

She’s at the helm of one of the most revered watch brands of all, one founded in 1875, and her surname is on the dial. Jasmine Audemars made time in her busy schedule to speak to watch-next editor Bani McSpedden in Geneva.

Jasmine Audemars
Jasmine Audemars, president of Audemars Piguet.

Jasmine Audemars speaks with dignity and rare insight as president of Audemars Piguet, one of the rare horological giants still in its originating family’s hands. She is the great-granddaughter of founder Jules Louis Audemars. So yes, she is steeped in timepieces, although this is in fact her second career.

Born on November 7 in 1941, Audemars frequented the family manufacture in the Swiss village of Le Brassus from an early age. “My grandfather and my father worked there and I often went to see them. I was fascinated by the shelves filled with numbered boxes containing dozens of sets of components, all these little parts.”

Despite this she didn’t immediately segue into watchmaking; leaving Le Brassus at 16, Audemars studied economics before embarking on a career as a journalist. By 1980 she had risen to take the helm of daily newspaper the Journal de Genève (later called Le Temps).

“I loved every minute of the job but at the beginning of the 1990s my father felt it was time for me to take over the presidency of Audemars Piguet,” she says. “I gave myself a year to make the transition. I had been chief editor for 12 years and felt I’d done what I set out to do. A new life was being offered to me.”

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Openworked - new for 2016
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Openworked – new for 2016.

Mechanical watch sales were by then booming again after the 1970s quartz crisis. It’s a reminder that ground-shifting challenges of the kind presented by the smart watch, the economic malaise in Europe and new, cheaper entrants have been faced before by companies as old as this one. That said, Audemars does not take the latest hurdles lightly.

“We are in a very challenging world for many reasons. There are new players like Apple and it’s very difficult to see what will happen,” she says. “I think the first to suffer will be low priced watches, but it might one day have consequences for us. For example, we all rely on suppliers and if something happens that affects them, if they are weakened by the smart watch, it will be a problem for everyone.

“Also, if the younger generation start to think of our industry as one that’s becoming obsolete we won’t have them wanting to become watchmakers, as happened in the 1970s.  If they don’t think there’s a future there could be a big problem.”

Right now Switzerland’s watchmaking schools are full, and timepieces of the Audemars Piguet variety remain highly desired luxury items.

“Maybe we can live together, but Apple will change,” Audemars says. “They are very smart, they will launch new models and they can produce watches much faster than us, in six months. For us a new movement takes five or six years.”

Audemars Piguet's iconic Royal Oak model, 2016 version
Audemars Piguet’s iconic Royal Oak 2016 model.

Apple has yet to produce a Royal Oak, the iconic steel sports watch launched by Audemars in 1972. The Royal Oak has now witnessed countless variations, including a refreshed range launched at the Geneva watch fair in January. Audemars says while history is important, being stuck in it is dangerous.

“There’s a vintage trend in fashion, furniture, everything. It’s not a bad trend but if it’s only to copy, no. It needs to be an inspiration,” she says. “While we’re custodians of the values of the company, one of the challenges is to grow within that culture. The other challenge is finding talented and creative people, which is the main thing in our business.”

A shorter version of this article appears in The Australian Financial Review Magazine, March 2016 issue.

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