Talking Watches

11.59 Minutes With Audemars Piguet’s François-Henry Bennahmias

AP’s CEO discusses the brand’s new Code 11.59 collection and reveals some plans in the pipeline

11.59 Minutes With Audemars Piguet’s François-Henry Bennahmias

Response to the Code 11.59 was huge but divisive when it was first unveiled. Was this expected?

Yes, and we were prepared for it. What we weren’t ready for was for the response to be so aggressive and personal. It’s one thing to say you don’t like a watch or to make fun of it, but another thing entirely when you start attacking my character and the brand. At one point, I even saw something about my mother! That was when the team had to hold me back a little; otherwise, I could have gone crazy.

However, we refrained from retaliating and adding fuel to fire; we didn’t respond and funnily enough, those comments stopped. We let our clients respond on our behalf; they came to our defence and said, “No, you have to look at the watch in person, you need to try it, it’s good because of this and that.” Now that we are eight months into the launch, the watches are performing really well and half the customers are new clients that we’ve never seen before, aged between 20 and 35. Because of such encouraging news, we will be doubling our quantities next year from 2,000 to 4,000.

Was it your intention for Code 11.59 to capture a brand-new demographic?

Absolutely. And it was also to remind people that there’s a lot more to Audemars Piguet than the Royal Oak. For starters, the Royal Oak collection is 47 years old, but the brand is 144 years old. For many years, we lost a whole market segment to the competition even though we have legit expertise in that fi eld as well. We worked and took longer to prepare the right watch to ensure that when we eventually launched, it would be as close as possible to “right”.

Was there one model that did particularly well?

All the complications received a great response. Between the automatic and chronograph, the automatic with the white dial is our number-one seller. It’s funny that a year before we launched the watch, everyone thought that it would be the one that would sell the least.

Will we see Audemars Piguet retailing online soon?

We are looking at it and have talked about it for years. We will at some point enter e-commerce, but as a tool and not as a means to an end, meaning that if we make 50,000 watches tomorrow, I will never tell you that I want to sell 25,000 on the Internet. Absolutely not. There are two reasons why.

First, we are already selling watches “online”. Our boutique in New York sells about 1,000 watches a year, out of which 500 are sold over the phone. Clients call the store to enquire about a watch and when or if it’s available, wire the money to our account before we ship the watch to them. That’s online except it’s not e-commerce.

Second, when you look at the results of all these e-commerce businesses, that part of the business is not making money. If Amazon didn’t have the Cloud today, it would be in the red. As for companies like Farfetch, Net-a-Porter and other e-commerce companies that I’m sure deliver great service — are they making money? Not yet. The way I see it, e-commerce will be used as a tool to facilitate an engagement with clients who, for whatever reason, are unable to visit our boutique. We will do it eventually but will it even make up 5 to 10 percent of our sales? I doubt it.

What about sustainability practices? Audemars Piguet has a sustainably developed manufacture and the Foundation champions environmental protection; will we see this approach translated into your watches?

We are looking into this subject as we speak. There is a new law that states that as of January 1, 2020, California will be banning the sale of crocodile and alligator skins. I’m sure this is going to go beyond the Californian border. Other materials we are looking into are gold as well as diamonds. We’re working with different suppliers, who will also need to reinvent themselves. We’ll see.

2020 is an important year for Audemars Piguet — that’s when it no longer presents at Watches & Wonders (previously known as SIHH). What prompted this?

We wanted to make things simple. It’s like a nutritionist telling someone who’s trying to lose weight: stop having huge meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Instead, spread your meals out and have them in smaller portions. This is exactly what we plan to do. And it means that as brands, we can’t all launch at the same time; nor can we, as a brand, launch all products at once. From next year onwards, when we have a watch in stock, we will communicate this through the right channels, launch the watch and deliver it. And instead of having one big party (which was SIHH), it’s going to be several parties all over the world.

When can we expect to see Nivachron being used?

I would say 2021. That’s when Nivachron will start showing up on some of our watches.

This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue of A.

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