In the conservative world of fine watchmaking, Audemars Piguet CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias is known for doing things a bit differently. While most of his contemporaries invariably wear tailored suits at events and interviews, Bennahmias typically shows up in more relaxed, smart-casual ensembles. True to form, he is wearing a leather jacket over a casual dark outfit on the day we meet him at the Audemars Piguet (AP) boutique at Liat Towers.
The industry veteran of 25 years took a similarly bold approach when launching AP’s all-new collection of round watches named Code 11.59, at the Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) last January. The brand is best known for the Royal Oak, its signature octagonal-bezelled watch released in 1972. Many horology brands – especially ones with as much history as Audemars Piguet – take baby steps when it comes to launching new collections, letting clients and fans warm up to them, one or two new models at a time. Not so for Bennahmias, who unleashed 13 new Code 11.59 references all at once.
Online reaction was swift, and mostly negative. Bennahmias’ reaction? To double the number of Code 11.59 timepieces AP will produce this year, from 2,000 to 4,000 pieces. Says the CEO: “You will always have people who hate things, no matter what you do. But don’t forget, the brouhaha during the fair just touched the watch world, and the watch world is a tiny island. When Justin Bieber wears an Audemars Piguet on his wrist when he gets married (as the pop star did last October) and the photo appears worldwide – that’s noise.”
Next, the outspoken watch chief’s thoughts on reaching new audiences, unsolicited celebrity endorsements, and closing the retail loop.
How has the Code 11.59 been selling since its controversial launch?
We now have one dial supplier; initially we had two, but one gave up because the dial – with its raised applied logo – was too complicated to make. We were having dinner with our dial supplier and he said, “Francois, I just got your order for next year. You guys must have made a mistake. You went from 2,000 to 4,000 pieces.” I said, “Yes, that’s correct.” The Code is selling well, and what we know about the buyers is that they are mostly between 25 and 35 years of age, and 52 per cent are new to the brand. Which is good news – and what we were aiming for.
What’s the best reaction you have received about the new collection?
The best reaction was: “Finally, you’re back.” As in, why did we stop doing round watches? Because Audemars Piguet has existed for many more years without the Royal Oak than with it. Also, the 48 per cent of Code 11.59 buyers, who are our existing clients, like that the Code has all the DNA of the brand. And instead of going to another brand to get a round watch, they can now get it from us.
AP has been streamlining its retail network for years, and you have mentioned that you aim to sell most of your watches in monobrand stores that could be operated by AP itself, or in partnership with retailers. Why is it important for AP to sell its timepieces in monobrand boutiques instead of multi-brand boutiques?
Everybody wants to know their clients, no matter the prices of the items they sell. We are the last industry on the planet that sells items for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars without knowing who our clients are because of the fact that we have multi-brand retailers – or sometimes distributors – in between. This is history. We need to know our clients. When you buy a song on music platforms for 99 cents, they know who you are. If you use apps and pay a monthly fee, they know who you are. We don’t. We want to speak to people who have bought our watches, and have the chance to create a connection with them.
Another area that AP has been focusing on is having greater control over your own pre-owned market…
Right now, we are not taking trade-ins, but we are going to start to launch the sale of pre-owned watches and see how they do. We’ll take watches that have been worn by staff and present them at events to see the reaction. We’ve tried this in Geneva, where we sold 160 pre-owned watches last year. The response was very good. We sold all kinds of our watches and the biggest surprise was that we did not have to give crazy discounts on the original retail prices to sell them.
AP showed at the SIHH fair for the last time last year. What’s in store this year?
We will launch watches in several cities, including one in Switzerland soon that’s linked to the reopening of our museum. In March, we will introduce new editions of the Code 11.59 during Art Basel in Hong Kong. And in June, there will be an announcement about our partnership with a well-known brand that’s not related to our industry. That will make some serious noise.
Speaking of noise, did AP have anything to do with the fact that one of Justin Bieber’s wedding photos featured the super-popular singer wearing the Royal Oak?
I found out when everybody else did. We didn’t have anything to do with it. Zero. Suddenly, the photo was everywhere, and people were asking me: “How did you do that?” I said, “I don’t know.” A lot of musicians wear AP, but whomever we choose to work with, there has to be a real relationship. It won’t work if someone says, “Pay me $2 million a year and I’ll say I love Audemars Piguet”.
Do you wish Bieber had been wearing a Code 11.59 watch instead?
(In a joking stage whisper.) He’s not there yet. But he’s going to come around.