ThePuristS Interview
Georges-Henri Meylan


by AlexG
(c) November 2004





Audemars Piguet is always considered an important part of the great Swiss triumvirate of great horological brands, the other two being Vacheron Constantin and Patek Philippe.

Founded in 1875 when Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet, two talented master watchmakers, joined forces in Le Brassus, it was only 7 years later, in 1882, that the "Audemars, Piguet & Cie" brand was officially registered at 12 noon on December 6th. The same year the manufacture created its first watch with minute repeater, perpetual calendar displaying the phases of the moon and split-second chronograph.

From that date on the brand has marveled collectors in creating highly complicated pocket and wrist watches. It may be little known but Audemars Piguet was the brand that produced the first automatic tourbillon wrist watch (1986) and who created the first Grande et petite Sonnerie Carillon wrist watch (1997) and the first to create a perpetual calendar wrist watch with time of sunrise and sunset as well as an equation of time (2000).

Georges-Henri Meylan, the Managing Director of Audemars Piguet shares with us his views on the brands past and future within the watch industry.

 


The Interview

The Purists (TP) : You have been with Audemars Piguet for almost 20 years. What brought you to the brand?

Georges-Henri Meylan (GHM):: I arrived in 1985. One day the old boss called me to join the brand, which needed young blood, as an industrial director. I have always worked in the watch industry and started at Jaeger LeCoultre and Vendome (now Richemont).

TP: In what situation was Audemars Piguet at the time?

GHM: Our revenues were 1/4 of what they are today. We had a very diverse collection; we were not very integrated and worked with many sub-contractors since we were not making so many elements inhouse as we do today with the integration of Renaud & Papi.

TP: Can you manage to truly separate what Renaud &Papi do for Audemars Piguet and what they sell to other brands?

GHM: More or less but itís not very easy. We may even have them work only for us in the future.

TP: How do Renaud & Papi work? On order or do they develop a new model/complication and submit it to Audemars Piguet?

GHM: We work very closely together. We define certain main axes of reflection but leave creativity to the engineers; the designers are not the only creative ones!

TP: The last few years you have put your energy and production on complicated timepieces.

GHM: When we bought Renaud &Papi, which was on the brink of bankruptcy, our goal was to develop further our presence in the niche market of complicated timepieces. You may not know it but Audemars Piguet is the brand with the widest range of chiming watches! We actually make between 15-20 Grande Sonneries per year. We make about 1000 complicated pieces (perpetual calendars, tourbillons and repeaters) per year. Itís not a high production number but represents a high figure in terms of turnover.

TP: Talking about complicated pieces. You present this year the Cabinet Piece nį 4, have you already finalized the final 4 models?

GHM: No, not yet. Numbers 5 and 6 we know more or less what we will be doing more but numbers 7 and 8 yet have to be defined. Today, all the existing complications are featured in the Cabinet Pieces and by the time the others are ready we will have perfected and or created new ones.


(Cabinet Piece nį 4)

TP: : Remaining on complications, apart from the Royal Oak, you donít even have a simple perpetual calendar watch?

GHM: We donít have one anymore. Historically, we were the ones to re-launch this complication about 25 years ago. However the perpetual calendar became like the tourbillon today with 40-50 brands having at least one model in their catalogues, our sales were declining and there was no reason to continue. Thatís why we had the idea for the Metropolis (perpetual calendar with world time) and the Equation of Time.


(Jules Audemars Equation du Temps in rose gold)

TP: You communicate mostly on the Royal Oak, are you not afraid that it may cannibalize your other lines?

GHM: It already does but we are working on changing things. We cannot depend on one model only: about 60% of our sales are Royal Oaks.


(Royal Oak La Boutique Limited Edition, in PVD stainless on strap)

TP: Are you going to continue using the cal 2120 now that you have your own in-house movement?

GHM: Absolutely, the 2120 is the base for many of our models and such a fantastic movement. Why deprive ourselves of it?

TP: I have heard that you are working on an in-house chronograph movement.

GHM: We will try to integrate a chronograph module in our in-house calibre. We are thinking of a totally integrated chronograph movement but for the moment its such a huge investment that we prefer to wait and see.

TP: How do you explain that Audemars Piguet was one of the rare brands to have not been affected by the economic turmoil of the past few years?

GHM: Many factors explain this and the first is that we had done a good job the previous years by creating a new image and rethinking our collection. We used to have a collection which was too diverse; the image of the brand was different from country to country and inconsistent. We concentrated on creating one unique image all over but we also had outside events which shed additional light on us, like our partnership with California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger; the Alinghi America's Cup winner; and the limited edition pieces we created for them. We had a 10% increase in our 2003 sales!

TP: What is your current production?

GHM: Approximately 19,000 watches per year and we hope to reach 20,000 in 2005.

TP: Looking back, you really had a fine idea sponsoring Alinghi for the Americaís Cup!

GHM: I believed in the team and the enthusiasm of the people behind the project. I did believe we would go far but not as much as winning almost all the rounds.

TP: What are the markets you wish to develop?

GHM: Our major markets are Europe and Asia representing 40% each and the Americas for 20%. In Europe Italy is number one and by far, followed by France and Spain. In Asia, India and China are two markets we would like to develop further. Russia has a huge potential and there is a high demand for complicated and jewelery pieces. In the USA we have developed our own distribution channels which enable us to be closer to our clients.

TP: This would also allow you to control the grey market.

GHM: Sure, but our real concern are replicasÖthey are getting better and better.

TP: You think that the person who buys a fake Audemars Piguet is actually a potential client for the real thing?

GHM: Not always, but sometimes people are conned. The guy who buys a $50 watch knows itís a fake but you have $2000 pieces out there where the buyer thinks heís getting something genuine. Unfortunately the only country which has decided to really fight the problem of fake luxury items is France. The others have yet to understand thisÖmany jobs are destroyed.

TP: How do you see Audemars Piguet in the Swiss watch industry surrounded by big groups?

GHM: We are not the only independent ones and have reached a certain size which enables us to finance our products, markets and growth without the need to be part of a bigger group. Iím not sure that creativity is more present in bigger entities!

TP: On ThePuristS.com we can see that our community members are quite attached to independent brands and artisansÖ

GHM: Audemars Piguet belongs to the Audemars and Piguet families. In fact 5 families (including myself) own 80% of the shares.

TP: I have heard that when Audemars Piguet sold its shares in JLC to Richemont you also granted a first rights offer where if ever Audemars Piguet was on the market Richemont would have first rights of acquisition.

GHM: True but limited in time. This offer is only applicable if the majority of shares are for sale. But we really donít want to sell, we are doing really well so why sell? We are here to stay (big smile).

TP: I had read an interview of Mr. Rupert (owner of Richemont) about a year ago where he stated that the Richemont brands should use AP as an example!

GHM: Iím very proud of this! To survive we need to create talk about usÖin a good way, of course. We need to distinguish ourselves from competition and donít have the financial means to invest 30% of our revenues in communication, like many do. So we chose another path - we took control of our distribution, created a coherent image and I think we are on the right track.

TP: You have excellent sales but how do you explain that the brand is so weak in the second hand and auction markets?

GHM: We need to work harder on this ground. However, regarding auctions, very few brands get great results at auctions: Patek, Vacheron, Rolex and Cartier, then there isnít much left! In the 20s-30s all these brands had a much higher production than we did. Audemars Piguet was very small then, thatís why there are so few watches that show up for auction. Maybe we need to create a stir, we are doubling the size of our museum in Le Brassus to show what we can do and I do believe that we should be more aggressive on the auction market since this will have a positive effect on our modern pieces.


(Jump Hour wrist watch circa 1927)

TP: This yearís exhibition has for its theme Femmes du Monde with many jewelery pieces.

GHM: We started with jewelery about 3 years ago, but itís a difficult market since our retailers are watch, not jewelery, shops. There is a demand for jewelery inspired by our timepieces but our business is to make watches.

TP: Do you still work with Repossi for your jewelery line?

GHM: No, we do this in-house with our own team.

TP: A few minutes ago you were talking about Haute Hologerie which is a growing niche market. It seems that today absolutely everyone wants to be part of it.

GHM: Itís a good business and I can understand that so many want a piece of the cake. However, history, competence and know-how cannot be bought. There is place for every one but only the best will survive. I think that it is good to have all these new comers; it prevents established brands to rest on their laurels.

TP: Talking about new comers, what are your relations with Richard Mille?

GHM: Richard is a friend, he has worked with us for some of his watches and we keep in touch and exchange ideas.

TP: Would Audemars Piguet be interested in buying the Richard Mille brand and developing into a small watch group?

GHM: Why not? But we have so much to do with Audemars Piguet; we have so much ambition for the brand that we need to focus our energy and resources on one thing at a time.

TP: Do you collect watches?

GHM: Yes, but only one brand: C.H Meylan (laughs). You can guess why! You know itís hard to work in this business and not like watches.

TP: Are you related to C.H. Meylan?

GHM: Probably! But you know, in the Jura region Meylans are like fleas on a dogÖall over (laughs)!

TP: Is there anything special you would like to tell the Purists community members?

GHM: I find that the discussions and articles are excellent and we even put a link on our website to the Cal 3120 article published on ThePurists (written by Suitbert Walter) since we couldnít have done it better ourselves!

TP: Thank you for your time and kind words, Mr. Meylan.  May Audemars Piguet continue to ever greater heights!


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Copyright November 2004 - AlexG and ThePuristS.com - all rights reserved
Original interview was conducted in April, 2004