François-Henry Bennahmias from Audemars Piguet on his Marvel collaboration
François-Henry Bennahmias, CEO of Audemars Piguet, is in a relatively happy mood as we sit down for a virtual conversation, at first joking that they forgot to tell me that the interview will be in French, before to rotate his camera to show me the massive collection of Yoda models he keeps in his office. It’s no secret that he’s a fan of the little Jedi Master in the Star wars franchise, and collectors and colleagues often offer him figurines.
Bennahmias loved comics from a young age and still keeps the Mickey Mouse magazines his father collected at home. He liked Star wars from the first time he watched the movie and adored Yoda for his miniature size and demeanor, and ultimately for the power he wielded. “In The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda said, ‘Do or don’t. There is no trial, ”which is the motto of my life. You either do it, or you don’t. You have to take risks, you take risks. You can fail and it’s okay to fail as long as you don’t fail twice with the same mistake, ”he says.
You can see how much this adage really dictates the way Bennahmias has run Audemars Piguet in recent years. In general, the story Swiss watchmaking houses are traditional, firmly anchored in their beliefs and heritage, and slow to take bold action or push for change. Not Bennahmias – he started a collaboration with Jay-Z long before other brands started making hip-hop and rap stars ambassadors.
The recent launch of the Royal Oak Concept “Black Panther” was another must-see. In fact, Bennahmias first went to Marvel around 16 or 17 years ago, but was turned down. “But the brand wasn’t what it is today either,” he explains. “I would say it was my lucky encounter and relationship with Don Cheadle that made the deal in 2017 to release a watch in 2021.”
When news broke of the release of Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Concept Marvel series, the internet went haywire, first with amazement at the amount of money for which the unique version of the Black Panther watch had was auctioned off – an overwhelming $ 5.2 million was raised, more than 30 times the retail price of the standard model; and secondly with anger as social media criticism weighed in on his design.
Bennahmias seems completely unfazed with the comments. He is unfazed by the ordeal, calling opponents “usual suspects” and critics “cute”. “I find them very cute, because you have this tiny chunk of people chasing us no matter what. But we sold 150 watches in five days. This has never happened before.
Of commentators who called the watch design a bold move from Audemars Piguet, Bennahmias was quick to step in and say the opposite: “We haven’t created anything new in this regard.” Cartoons appeared on watch faces as early as the 1930s, and Gerald Genta’s Fantasy watches of the 1990s saw characters of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck painted on the dials. The latter has been a major influence for Bennahmias, and it is perhaps no wonder that the Black Panther watch is not so far on the approach, featuring a detailed, hand-painted, three-dimensional white gold effigy of the superhero on the dial.
“It was impossible that we had just imprinted the character on the dial,” insists Bennahmias. “We wanted to show the know-how, the finishes, everything that Audemars Piguet does, while respecting the integrity of the character.
Bennahmias is also bluntly honest about his collaboration with Marvel, revealing that endless NDAs need to be signed for them to move the process forward. “You’re talking about a monster brand called Marvel and a very high-end exclusive brand called Audemars Piguet,” he says emphatically. “You talk about billions in revenue every time they release a movie and you watch what, 40,000 views a year. He’s a monster and we’re a tiny little thing.
“We signed our lives in the blood because they were going to share their launches for the next five years,” he said. “It’s crazy what these guys are working on. We were shown six options and we watched the Black Panther – OK, what does that say? It’s a family matter. It’s about technology. It’s about thinking about the future. It’s a matter of materials… it’s AP. We decided this was the perfect profile to kick off the relationship with Marvel.
Now we know that this is not a one-off watch; the second version is in preparation. “What I can tell you, without telling you much,” he said. “You can feel the character come out of the watch – he’s not even in the watch anymore. It’s crazy.”
However, what excites collectors the most is not the watch itself, but what it implies for the Royal Oak Concept line. The new watch comes with a redesigned 42mm titanium case and black ceramic bezel, with a flying tourbillon complication at 6 o’clock. The redesign of the case was important for Bennahmias, who, despite having a large wrist, did not find the old case design particularly comfortable. His directive was simple: ergonomics were the future of watchmaking.
“Watches have to fit perfectly,” he says. “That doesn’t mean they all have to be very thin, but the ergonomics have to be perfect. We will adapt and change it in the future. A 42mm Concept-only tourbillon watch at a lower price point will undoubtedly be a huge hit – if it’s in the pipeline. Bennahmias will not say anything on the subject, except – and with a knowing smile – “There will be something very special in 2023 that would make a lot of noise. »Take it as you want.
The watch isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure – no brand has a range that is universally appealing to all collectors. However, there are many who recognize the strategic steps taken by Audemars Piguet and applaud the brand for its courage to explore different ways to appeal to the younger market. “It’s a smart decision,” says a collector. “Collaborations are the way to go. Another said, “Brands have to evolve and innovate to stay relevant. ”
And evolve he has. Audemars Piguet has long been known for a singular product – the Royal Oak, in particular the references 5402 (the original version from 1972) and the 15202 (the contemporary Jumbo), are both highly sought after in the market and continue to soar. in auction prices. The brand turned the tide by publishing a book on its vintage complications, exploring reissues inspired by its vintage pieces and, at the same time, developing new complications and new collections, experimenting with new materials and concepts.
AP had a stellar lineup this year, including a new Platinum Jumbo with a bright green dial and a new reconditioned Offshore Diver in a 42mm size and in three splendid colors.
Today, at auction, perpetual calendars (such as Ref 25829ST and Ref 26574), the Double Balance Ajourée (Ref 15416) and limited editions such as Ref 26607 are on the rise. There is also a slight increase in collectors looking at vintage pre-Royal Oak models: the Ref 5548 perpetual calendars and the Star Wheel complication, for example, are making the rounds on social media.
According to auction specialists, watches that were not commercially successful in their time may in the future become sought after. Look at the Rolex Paul Newman Daytona and even the Royal Oak’s first PA series, where they started and where they are now. So maybe, in the words of Bennahmias’ favorite character, “You must have patience, my young Padawan.” If the world has yet to understand Bennahmias’ vision for Audemars Piguet, it is only a matter of time.
This story first appeared on Prestige Hong-Kong
All images: Courtesy of Audemars Piguet