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Renaissance Stories: Audemars Piguet

James D. Malcolmson

Audemars Piguet’s latest Royal Oak Offshore model, the Alinghi Polaris chronograph, is a compelling piece because, like many of Audemars’ recent releases, it contains a unique feature: a regatta countdown mechanism, which is the company’s homage to Alinghi, the America’s Cup winner that it sponsored. The watch also includes a new caliber. More significantly from a collector’s perspective, these items are produced entirely in-house, and done so by one of Switzerland’s last independent watch companies.
 
Less than 10 years ago, Audemars Piguet was a troubled manufacturer. Its flagship Royal Oak model was more than 20 years old, and the brand was struggling to compete against Panerai and other newer, flashier marques. The situation was direst in the United States, where lagging demand and an aggressive gray market created a vicious spiral of discounting that eroded collectors’ confidence in the brand that Jules-Louis Audemars and Edward-Auguste Piguet founded in 1875 in Le Brassus, Switzerland. In the late 1990s, rumors swirled that Audemars Piguet, one of the so-called big three traditional manufacturers (along with Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin), was on the verge of being acquired by a luxury conglomerate. Instead, however, Audemars Piguet financed its resurrection by securing capital from one of them.

Among Audemars Piguet’s prime assets in the late 1990s was a 40 percent ownership stake in neighboring manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre, which had become the object of a furious bidding war in 1999. When Compagnie Financière Richemont ultimately took control of Jaeger, Audemars walked away with a windfall worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
 
Audemars used the money to expand its own movement manufacturing capacity, bringing in-house the production of many calibers that it previously had purchased from Jaeger-LeCoultre and other suppliers. It also purchased a controlling stake in complicated specialty house Renaud et Papi. Audemars Piguet thus elevated its standing with watch connoisseurs who value both innovation and authenticity in their complicated timepieces. The company also took the unprecedented step of buying out its distribution in the United States and other key markets, stanching the flow of transshipped, discounted watches that were damaging its image. Serendipitously, Audemars Piguet’s revitalization synced perfectly with the growing popularity of brawny sport watches, a trend perfectly suited to the company’s updated Royal Oak Offshore line.

“Being independent is about more than just keeping control of our shares,” says George-Henri Meylan, CEO of Audemars Piguet. “It is maintaining control of our products and production without reliance on the big groups. This way we have assured our independence not just for the next few years, but for the next generation.” 

Audemars Piguet, 212.688.6644, www.audemarspiguet.com

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