Credits: Article and images by Wei Koh @ Revolution Watch Magazine. See the original article here - https://revolutionwatch.com/audemars-piguet-marvel/
François-Henry Bennahmias has, after his decade-long tenure at the helm of Audemars Piguet, assured his place in watchmaking leadership’s Hall of Valhalla. While the fact that he took Audemars Piguet from a 600 million Swiss franc a year business to a 2.01 billion Swiss franc business within a decade is already extraordinary, it is the way that he did it that separates him from the rest of the crowd. Because what Bennahmias has succeeded in doing is to transform the Royal Oak, a timepiece created by AP in 1972 as the world’s very first luxury integrated bracelet, sports chic watch, into an internationally recognized symbol for success.
The way he did it had its start before he took the reins of the company based in Le Brassus. It dates back to his tenure as AP’s head of North America, when he embarked on a brazenly daring rescue mission for the entire watch industry to assert its relevance in the culture of today.
Thanks to him, Audemars Piguet became the first luxury watch brand to forge connections with the worlds of hip-hop by partnering with Jay-Z, sports with then-emerging athletes such as LeBron James, and cinema with Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was basically thanks to Bennahmias that watches went mainstream, an effort he continues today with his collaboration with Marvel. The result was a level of desire for the Royal Oak and all other iterations including the Royal Oak Offshore and Royal Oak Concept that was unprecedented for any watch in our industry.
Bennahmias’ clear objective was to achieve the same level of desirability for his watches as that of Hermès handbags, creating a condition where demand far outstripped supply — so much so that secondary prices for Royal Oaks skyrocketed, ensuring that the waiting list for new watches only grew longer and longer. If you’re wondering who it was that created the current unprecedented popularity for watches, if you’re wondering who single-handedly elevated the integrated bracelet category to become the most popular luxury accessory on the planet, if you’re wondering why every celebrity on the red carpet is wearing a talking piece watch, the answer is simple. It’s because François-Henry Bennahmias willed this into being.
The following interview was part of his “farewell tour,” as he is now handing the reins of AP to a new CEO Ilaria Resta. But even then, he has put in place the next stage of accelerated growth for the brand, with a focus on becoming one of the most dominant players in women’s watches. The interview took place at the launch of AP’s second collaboration with Marvel, which resulted in the Royal Oak Concept Tourbillon “Spider-Man.” That evening, a pièce unique version of the timepiece, featuring Spider-Man in a black suit and luminous elements on the case, sold for a staggering 6.2 million U.S. dollars at a charity auction. The interview was conducted by multiple journalists, but I have amalgamated all the most relevant questions and answers here, which to me constitute Bennahmias’ masterclass on creating cultural relevance — something he has done better than anyone else.
So, how did the Marvel collaboration start?
OK, let’s flashback to 2003 and 2004. It was after we had made the partnership with hip-hop and I was looking for other ways to enhance our visibility. I saw that Marvel was more and more present in contemporary culture and I said, “That’s it!” So we went to their office in New York. Audemars Piguet then was not what it is today. And they were not interested at all. So I said, “OK, nothing is going to happen between AP and Marvel.”
Fast forward to the 2010s, we were the sponsor on the red carpet at the Tony Awards. Don Cheadle [aka Colonel James Rhodes in the Marvel movies] arrived. He was wearing a different watch brand and I said to him — bear in mind I didn’t know him at the time — “One day you are going to grow up and know which watch you should wear.” He asked, “What watch should I wear?” I said, “AP.” And he said “Tell me more about AP.” And that was how we became friends.
He started to wear our watches. We would talk a few times a year, then after a few years we sort of lost touch. But that’s normal life and we’re both busy. Then in 2014 I got a text from him. He asked, “Where in the world are you?” I told him. He said, “Where are you headed next?” “Paris,” I said. He said, “Me too”. So there we were in Paris, having a drink, and I told him that I had one regret and it was that we’d never worked with Marvel. He said, “What do you mean?” I told him that in 2003/2004 we had gone to see them and they said no.
Don took his phone out and on the spot called Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios. So, three weeks later, I was in Los Angeles meeting the Marvel team. Don came to the meeting as well. The rest is history.
How did you choose Black Panther and Spider-Man as the first collaborations?
Marvel chose the first two. At the meeting, they presented us six characters from the Marvel Universe. What is impressive about Marvel is how well structured their planning is. They know years in advance every movie, series and spin-off they are going to make with incredible accuracy. So they told us who they wanted the first two characters to be. Black Panther as number 1. And then the second had to be Spider-Man because he is really the powerhouse of the Marvel Universe.
The Spider-Man watch features a very cool sense of three-dimensionality…
I think there is a really amazing evolution in how we have dealt with the character and the three-dimensionality we incorporated into the Spider-Man watch. The new watch also features a completely different movement that is more skeletonized to really give the feeling of Spider-Man moving through the urban landscape. We really wanted to push ourselves in terms of innovation, including the pièce unique that will be auctioned off tonight. But for the third collaboration, Marvel gave us the opportunity to choose the character. The watch is already done and it will come out in 2025. And the name of the hero is… I forgot.
People talk about the opposition between the populist dimension of Marvel and the refinement of a brand like Audemars Piguet — that the two don’t mix. What do you say to that?
I disagree and I’ll tell you a story that demonstrates what I mean. In 2021, after the launch of Black Panther in April, I went to play golf in Megève [in France]. I wanted to take a golf cart, so I went into the pro shop and sitting there was a kid about 20 years old. He spotted the watch on my wrist straight away and went, “Woah, Black Panther!” And without thinking about it, I took the watch off my wrist and passed it to him. He was stunned and said, “Are you sure?” I said, “Go ahead, try it on, I’ll be back.” Before going to play I went back to the kid for my watch and he said, “You must be François of AP. I love your brand. One day I will get an AP!”
After playing I sat down for lunch. The waiter was another kid about 20 years old. He looked at the watch and went, “Woah! I love Black Panther.” He said, “I love AP, it is the best! I cannot afford it now but one day if I make money, I will buy an AP.” This is the answer. There is nothing wrong with appealing to millions of people, regardless of whether they can afford the watch. It’s like Ferrari. Everyone knows who Ferrari is. Not everyone can afford [the cars] but there is not a man on the planet that doesn’t dream of owning a Ferrari. Same thing for AP. Now the other thing to talk about is that there is a lot of craftsmanship and authenticity at the heart of this collaboration. We remain faithful to who we are with this highly complicated timepiece.
You were a pioneer in connecting with the younger generation by activating popular culture. Why is this important?
You may remember in 2015 when you came to see us at the SIHH when the Apple Watch came out, many of the world’s journalists kept asking us, “You guys realize you’re dead, right?” [They were] suggesting that the Apple Watch could wipe out the luxury mechanical watch business. The prevailing belief was that the new generation would be totally uninterested in conventional horology, that young people would only wear either no watch or exclusively smartwatches. But guess what? Exactly the opposite happened. To me, engaging the young generation is fundamental. Unlike some other brands, we find that young AP lovers are preaching the choir for AP to their parents and this is amazing.
Why do you think that is the case?
When I was growing up, there were only three ways to learn. Teachers, parents and books. Today, many parents are learning from their kids because kids have access to limitless information through the web and social media. So, the equation has changed. We saw an entire new generation arrive and absolutely fall in love with the craftsmanship and artistry of mechanical watches, and [they] preached the value of watchmaking to their parents. And one of the reasons behind this is the connection between watches and hip-hop, sports, entertainment, movies and, yes, Marvel. AP played a huge role there because it entered these fields before anyone else.
Is a comic character on a watch something radical and new?
No, we didn’t invent anything. If you look back at the 1930s, you can see the proliferation of comic characters such as Mickey Mouse appearing on wristwatches. Then in the ’80s, Gérald Genta had the brilliant idea to elevate these characters by putting them on the dial of his high-end watches. So, in the early 2000s, I wondered what is the equivalent of Mickey Mouse today? There was only one answer: Marvel characters! Watches should be fun ☺
It is like when Richard Mille created his candy watch collection, I thought to myself, “This is great!” It enters into the world of fun while still being savoir-faire driven. As long as we respect the integrity of our craftsmanship and the watchmaking tradition then why should we not have fun?
At AP, we always say we are a serious brand but we don’t take ourselves too seriously, meaning we have integrity but we want to have fun! Want another example? Look around this room. Fifteen years ago, this entire press conference would have taken place with us all wearing suits. Today, we are all dressed super casually. I’m wearing Spider-Man Nikes. Why? Because the biggest evolution of the last two decades is the merger between luxury and street style. Fifteen years ago, who would have thought Balmain and Balenciaga would be synonymous with sneakers or hoodies? No one. But that is the reality of today.
We always ask ourselves what we want the future to be. This is one of the reasons why we made RD#4: the most outstanding grand complication in AP history but so easy to use in order to live with our times and match our clients’ lifestyle.
What was one of your proudest moments?
In my office, there is a framed cutout of an article from 2005. It was the first time AP made it into the Financial Times. And it is the article about our collaboration with Jay-Z. At the time, no luxury brand had ever considered a partnership with hip-hop culture. So when I have guests from the music world coming to Le Brassus, I show them this article. And I tell them, you are here thanks to that. It definitely opened doors. You can enter watchmaking from multiple angles, through sports, music, craftsmanship, complications… it doesn’t matter. Every one of those pathways is legitimate.
Do you remember the launch of this collaboration?
We held the press conference for the collaboration with Jay-Z at 9 a.m. at the Four Seasons Hotel on 57th Street. I kept saying to myself, I don’t even know who is going to show up. It could be a disaster. But then 100 people showed up. It was insane. We only made 100 watches, 50 in stainless steel, 30 in rose gold, and 20 in platinum. All of them sold very quickly without any advertising beyond this press conference. And today it is very difficult to find any of these pieces.
There is a current Netflix series on Arnold Schwarzenegger that is blowing up in popularity. How important was the Royal Oak Offshore “End of Days” as the first watch created for a movie character?
I remember the start of this project very well. We were having lunch with Arnold in Malibu. He wanted to buy some of our watches. And at some point, I asked, “You are shooting a new movie. Should we create a limited edition watch to be featured in the movie, and auction one piece for your charity?” He replied, “I love this.” The Offshore was new at the time and I wanted to push it. Part of the watch’s success was definitely the association with the movie and with Arnold. It took off and for many years until 2011, the [Royal Oak] Offshore was selling much more than the original Royal Oak.
I’ll tell you something about the Royal Oak. In 2011, there were discussions, very serious ones, about discontinuing the Royal Oak Jumbo. We were making maybe 150 pieces a year. It was only thanks to the celebration of its 40th anniversary in 2012, by telling the story in the right way, that we slowly re-built the integrity of that piece. Eventually, the Royal Oak took off, and now you can see what it has become.
Do the haters on social media for the Marvel collaborations bother you?
Since I was young, I heard words like, “You’re not good enough.” So I’ve developed a very thick skin. But what I’ll tell you that in today’s world, people are always going to judge you. Some people will say this is the best thing ever, and some people will tell you it’s the worst. This is a game you have to get used to, because we are playing it every day. But in the end, there is only one way to judge the outcome.
It’s like a boxing match. The ring is always right. In the end, there is always only one guy standing. Many people judged our watch the CODE 11.59. The Black Panther. That’s fine. Now where are we as a brand today? We are much better than we were 10 years ago. From 600 million to 2.01 billion Swiss francs, we’ve increased the business by more than 300 percent. We have a high perceived value. So, somehow, we must be doing something right.
If you were a Marvel character, who would you be?
The Hulk. On any normal day, I am the nicest guy in the world. I am happy, I get incredibly touched by nature, by beauty, etc. But then if I see someone abusing power, I want to become the Hulk.
I’ll give you a hint about the third character of the collaboration: it was a new one to me. And the watch will not feature the figurative character, it will be done differently.
The competition today is out there everywhere: a new painting, a new car or a new boat. If the waiting time for a watch is one year, you might buy something else if you want to reward yourself immediately.
If I were to go back 40 years to my 18-year-old self, and you told me that one day I was going to run a two billion-dollar company and be in charge of over 2,000 people, that I would get to travel the world and meet so many incredible people, I would say, please, tell me where I sign! It’s been 29 years. I’ve been married to AP longer than with my two ex-wives. I leave proud to have built something special that will keep on going. Someone else is taking over and everything is there to keep on succeeding.
Am I correct that you want to become as big in women’s watches as you are in men’s watches — to surpass Cartier’s 2.75 billion Swiss franc turnover?
Yes and no. If you look at the watch industry, no one has achieved 50/50 parity between men and women’s watches. We want to get there eventually. One day, we met a couple. The husband had his Jumbo on and his wife said, “I want also a Jumbo.” I said, “But your husband already has one.” She said, “That’s his watch. I want my watch. We don’t share watches”. So I said, “You know what? You are absolutely right.” The [old] way of thinking [about watches] has to evolve. It’s not men’s or women’s, but just watches.
Credits: Article and images by Wei Koh @ Revolution Watch Magazine. See the original article here - https://revolutionwatch.com/audemars-piguet-marvel/