Audemars Piguet is the only existing Swiss watch manufacturer that has never left the hands of its founding families. And those families have history and legacy in spades, which the next generation is keen to preserve.
Olivier Audemars, 59, is vice-chairman of the board. He is also the great-grandson of Edward Auguste Piguet who co-founded the company. Instilled in him is a deep attachment to Le Brassus in the Vallée de Joux, the birthplace of the family business.
An engineer and economist by training, Olivier joined the brand’s Board of Directors in 1997. He later took over from his aunt as Administrator in 2000. We sit together in the Audemars Piguet booth at the 2019 Salon de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva. It is the last year that the brand will exhibit in the world’s premium watch fair.
In this setting, Olivier turns reflective. He shares memories of his grandfather, his intention of keeping the business in the family, and how he is transmitting the artistic savoir-faire passed down through generations.
You were born into a Swiss family of watchmakers in the Vallée de Joux. You must have some beautiful childhood memories.
I was quite close to my grandfather, Paul-Edward Piguet; he taught me how to ski and how to build tree houses. I remember as a kid, I was sometimes frustrated because quite often, he came back with his work. I couldn’t understand why he spent so much time on tiny, uninteresting pieces of metal.
One day, he came back with a watch mechanism that was fully assembled and asked me to touch the escapement. It came alive like a little heart, and the second hand began moving. I was like, ‘Wow, this is magical’. A few times, he asked me to come with him to the factory and to sit next to the watchmakers. I thought that they were magicians.
Then, I went to school and graduated as a material physics engineer. Later, I started my own company, a material physics laboratory, with my former professor. I think the reason why I eventually decided to join the family business was because of those memories that I had with my grandfather, where I developed an emotional link to Audemars Piguet.
What have been the main challenges you have faced in your career?
The decision to leave my operational position at the company to join the board was tough. When you have an operational position, it means you work with the people. You are directly involved in projects and drive them. When you are on the board, it’s a different situation. You must learn a different perspective, more of a long-term view.
There is this distance that is necessary between you and the team, especially the technical department, because you don’t want to short-circuit the management. It was an emotional change. I went from collaborating with people on a day-to-day basis, to having this distance. For a family business, it’s not easy because such companies are about the people — you take care of them, they take care of you.
What is at the heart of Audemars Piguet?
Making watches in the Vallée de Joux was the way people had found to make a living in a place that otherwise would be rather hostile. They moved there because they wanted to have a free life, so this notion of watches is a symbol of freedom. I make sure that we remain true to our values and will be able to maintain or develop the conditions that will allow us to continue our traditions.
How are you ensuring that the next generation will follow in your footsteps to keep the business in the family?
The next challenge is to prepare for the next generation. You know that one day, they will have a huge responsibility and that many people will depend on their decisions.
I think one way is to do this, is to do what my grandfather did. It’s to develop an emotional connection between the company and the children, so when the day comes, they will understand their responsibilities. They must understand that the company does not belong to them, that it belongs to the Vallée de Joux, to the people working there and their families.
They’re just here to forge the next link of a very long chain — and to make sure that this link is strong enough to sustain the next links. We’ve been able to do it for four generations, so I hope that it won’t be the fifth that will fail.
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