Head honcho of watchmaker Audemars Piguet unfazed by strong reaction to its new Code 11.59 collection

SINGAPORE - Mr Francois-Henry Bennahmias straightens up in his seat, squares his shoulders and thrusts out his chest.

"How would you describe me as a person? Would you describe me as somebody who is weak or a fighter?" asks the flamboyant head honcho of luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet at the brand's two-storey boutique in Liat Towers in Orchard Road.

Clad in a snazzy blue leather jacket, he is responding to a question about the brouhaha which surrounded the launch of the Code 11.59 collection of watches at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie Geneve (SIHH) watch fair earlier this year.

Audemar Piguet's first new collection in more than two decades, the Code 11.59 - comprising 13 models and six movements, three of which are new - provoked a reaction so strong that some pundits called it a s***storm.

It was unusual for the independent watch titan, which has an annual revenue exceeding 1 billion Swiss francs (S$1.4 billion) and is synonymous with the Royal Oak, one of the world's most iconic timepieces (buying one entails getting on a wait list).

The derision extended beyond the watches, with naysayers telling the 55-year-old Frenchman he should quit.

"We were expecting a reaction, but did not expect it to be that strong and that bad. You know when you start to see things which basically goes up to my mother... Come on, guys. Really? That's when you draw the line and say, 'It's okay. If you guys want to have fun...'"

Proudly, he says neither he nor the company responded to any of the comments - not even one.

"The good news is our clients, people who bought the watches, took over. 'I bought the watch, I'm wearing the watch, it grows on me more and more.' Or 'I've finally found a piece I like'. They said so many good things."

He holds out his right hand, using his thumb to press against the tip of his pinky.

"In the end, the brouhaha that you're describing is a brouhaha in a very, very tiny island called the watch-making world."

A real brouhaha, he says cheekily, is Canadian pop star Justin Bieber flashing his Audemars Piguet at his wedding to American model Hailey Baldwin recently.

Bieber bought the gold vintage Royal Oak as a wedding present to himself and proudly flashed his new acquisition in wedding photos he posted on Instagram. Each of the photos attracted more than eight million likes.

Got my self a lil wedding gift ... thanks @jadellebh
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Got my self a lil wedding gift ... thanks @jadellebh

A post shared by Justin Bieber (@justinbieber) on

 
 

The personal insults were distasteful, but did not shake Mr Bennahmias' confidence.

Comparing himself to a fighter and the episode to a match, he says: "Before a boxing match, it's not unusual to see the two opponents going at and insulting each other.

"But at the end of the match, there's always one guy standing and raising his hand. I'm a firm believer that only time will tell if the collection is such a complete disaster or if it actually is genuinely good.

"If people come at us in any way, shape or form, let them. It's okay. Today, there's not a single brand, even the top ones, which has not been crushed when they launch something. But how long is a crush? Months? Weeks? Days? Hours? And then people will move on to the next one."

The ruckus has died down, he adds, and what matters is that people are buying the Code 11.59.

"We are selling the watches and pretty well globally, not just one specific region. In fact, we're doubling the (production) volume for next year, from 2,000 to 4,000."

While it is by no means a success ("we won't talk about success before three or four years anyway"), it is a good start.

Sales of the new collection over the last 10 months have also given the company new insights into their customers.

"One, more than 50 per cent of the clients are those we didn't know before. They are aged between 25 and 35," Mr Bennahmias says.

Another insight? Of this new group of clients, only 15 per cent are women even though the watches are meant to appeal to both sexes.

"That is not so good. We made a mistake. The straps in special colours for women only arrived in June," he says with a grimace.

The company will continue building the Code 11.59 collection.

Mr Bennahmias is coy about details, but lets on that new references, new colours and a new calibre will be added to the collection next year.

Meanwhile, other things have been keeping the chatty chief executive, who cut his professional teeth as a golfer, busy.

One is the opening of the new Audemars Piguet Museum at its home in Le Brassus, a small Swiss town in the picturesque Vallee du Joux, next April.

"It's going to be spectacular. It's 1,200 sq m with not a single wall and the whole roof is held by glass. It's an achievement because it's extremely complicated to put together," Mr Bennahmias says, referring to the futuristic spiral building designed by Danish studio Bjarke Ingels Group. "We will have a new watch to celebrate the occasion."

Then there are launches of new models in different parts of the globe.

After nearly 20 years, Audemars Piguet left the SIHH this year because it felt the trade fair was no longer relevant to its new business strategies.

The company is doing away with third-party retailers and will sell to consumers directly through its boutiques and a new retail concept called AP House, essentially beautifully appointed luxury apartments where customers can chill, dine and hold business meetings.

"It's a really nice evolution to retail," he says, adding that clients are likely to spend nearly three times more in a home setting than a store.

There are now AP Houses in several cities, including Milan, Madrid, Barcelona, Hong Kong and Munich. The one in London officially opens next month, while one is planned for Bangkok next year.

Mr Bennahmias adds: "We're working on New York and, at some point, I wouldn't be surprised if we see one coming here."