WATCH: SPROUTS OF HOPE
During a recent trip to Hong Kong as part the UBS Philanthropy Forum of Asia, Olivier Audemars of Audemars Piguet explained to The Peak why forestry is so closely intertwined with the legacy of the historic, family-run watchmaker.
Oliver Audemars of Audemars Piguet explains why forestry is so closely intertwined with the legacy of the historic, family-run watchmaker
It’s likely you’ve read several interviews with Olivier Audemars in which he talks about watches. After all, he’s vice-chairman of the board at Audemars Piguet, the Swiss watchmaker that has been in his family for four generations since 1875.
During Art Basel Hong Kong, where the brand has a prominent presence as a sponsor and an exhibitor, you may also have read widely about his growing appreciation for contemporary art and photography.
But chances are you’ve not heard about his involvement with the Audemars Piguet Foundation. You may not even have heard of the 25-year-old forest conservation initiative.
But that, says Audemars, was exactly the principal upon which it was conceived. The Audemars Piguet Foundation, which was founded in 1992, seeks to encourage reforestation through education and environmental protection and is headed by the brand’s chairwoman Jasmine Piguet – the greatgranddaughter of the company’s co-founder EdwardAuguste Piguet.
“We’ve always differentiated the foundation from Audemars Piguet; we’ve always been very firm on separating marketing from our philanthropy,” says Audemars. “I’m always shocked by people who brag about the charity work that they do. We don’t want to be involved with that. The projects are never selected for promoting the image of the company, but rather, for the cause itself.”
“WE’VE ALWAYS BEEN VERY FIRM ON SEPARATING MARKETING FROM OUR PHILANTHROPY”
While Audemars Piguet maintains its social outreach work isn’t about exploiting good causes or stamping their logo onto pamphlets and banners, the inception of the foundation did come from a place of self-interest, albeit on a more intimate, personal level – one that’s closely linked to the very existence of the 142-year-old maison.
The Audemars Piguet factory is located in the village of Le Brassus, in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux, where the Swiss art of watchmaking germinated. The first watchmakers who thrived here were actually farmers, who turned to watchmaking as a source of extra income, as well as a way to pass the harsh winter days. “They had extremely long winters, so they made watches to pass the time,” explains Audemars. “They then became more complicated, because these farmers had so much time to develop new ideas.”
These farmers respected the valley’s rich forest, which provided space to graze their animals and fuel for their fireplaces, as the source of their livelihood. “They understood that it takes centuries to grow a tree but only a few minutes to take one down,” says Audemars. “They didn’t want to destroy what gave them the chance for survival.”
The foundation’s work now extends far beyond that of Vallée de Joux; working with a network of over 1,000 government and NGO members as a part of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the foundation has been involved with everything from the prevention of desertification in Brazil to creating parks in urban areas to strengthen the relationship between the younger global generation and nature.
“Over the past 25 years, we’ve been involved in over 100 projects in 36 countries.” Audemars recalls. For one of the foundation’s early initiatives in 1999, a group of youngsters served by the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children were invited to plant trees in public urban spaces.
When the Audemars Piguet board first decided to create a foundation to preserve and maintain the ecological balance of forests around the world, there was very little resistance. That, Audemars tells us, can be attributed both to the brand’s inherent appreciation for nature and the fact that, as a family-run company, decisions by the board can be handled quickly.
He thinks back to another time when the Audemars Piguet family made a decision that would have taken other houses with a more corporate structure years to confirm. “The launch of the Royal Oak [in 1972], was a high risk and challenging decision,” he says. “The watch had visible screws and strong lines. It was in stainless steel but cost the same as a Patek [Philippe] and ten times that of a Rolex.”
In hindsight, it was obviously the right decision; the Royal Oak became one of the maison’s most iconic contemporary creations and unofficially kicked-off of the era of the stainless steel sports watch; becoming the inspiration for numerous watchmakers who would follow suit with their own versions of non-precious alloy sports watches.
Audemars believes that this swift decision-making ability is only one aspect of a family-run business that makes for more responsible and socially conscious enterprise. “We are always looking at the long term good of the company,” he says. “Whenever we make a decision, we think in terms of generations; what would my grandfather have done 50 years ago, and how will my grandchildren handle this situation 50 years later?”
This perhaps is one reason why conservation initiatives are clearly so dear to his heart – Audemars believes that sustainability will help in preserving the brand’s heritage and legacy for future generations. And, much like the 19th century famers who first settled in Vallée de Joux to pursue a pastoral life intertwined with the fine art of watchmaking, Audemars Piguet’s legacy thrives only when the land that drives its existence does.