Piaget is a brand that loves to spring a surprise, with its quest for the exceptional in watchmaking and jewellery, whether ultra-thin watches, lavish cuffs in gold and precious stones, new applications of ancient artisanal skills, or the latest timekeeping technology. We had the opportunity of talking to Philippe Léopold-Metzger, CEO of Piaget, at the watch fair SIHH in Geneva in January 2016.
LUXOS: So which records have you broken this year with your ultra-thin watches?
Philippe Léopold-Metzger: I’m not too bothered about records, but we have attained our 15th world record for the thinnest high jewellery watch, based on the Altiplano 900, which is in turn the thinnest men’s watch at just 3.65 mm. The Altiplano 38mm 900D has 733 diamonds, 6 carats, and the whole movement is gem-set, bridges, screws, it’s a spectacular piece with a total thickness of 5.6 mm. We continue to break records, but it’s becoming more challenging. Ultra-thin watches represent a special challenge because there is less tolerance with respect to big watches. Our competitors are also very active. But in actual fact, we never strive for records in themselves. We make thin movements so that we can make beautiful watches, because when the movement is thin, you have more space to create a lovely dial.
LUXOS: You’ve been at Piaget for many years. What are the most important changes you have seen?
Philippe Léopold-Metzger: I’ve been in the business for 35 years, I started at Cartier, which was enjoying particular dominance then. Bulgari was also a key player on the market. But today there are a lot of brands. Many were sleeping, and now they belong to large groups. It’s become a sophisticated market, in which product remains the key. Distribution has changed from multi-brand stores to own-brand boutiques. Decades ago, a lot of brands subcontracted, but today, they want to control their own manufacturing.
LUXOS: On the subject of sleeping brands, we are seeing more and more cases of a company purchasing the rights to use the name of a 19th-century watchmaker, and immediately putting “Since 1850” on the dial. Do you think that this damages credibility for consumers?
Philippe Léopold-Metzger: It depends who does it, and whether they make a good job of it. The reason is clear: just consider that about 500 watch brands are created every year in Switzerland. Buying a name from the past adds something extra, but in the end, there are very few success stories. Most of these niche brands will die, but they create some excitement on the market and keep us on our toes.
LUXOS: Is China still an important market for you?
Philippe Léopold-Metzger: China is a big market for us, and for everyone else. Above all mainland China, but also the Chinese people travelling around the world. This has been the case for at least 40 years. If the Chinese decide to start visiting Finland, you can be sure that all brands will start opening boutiques in Helsinki!
LUXOS: Your customers include collectors, who buy piece after piece. In your experience, are they motivated by passion, or investment?
Philippe Léopold-Metzger: It’s a combination of both. As an investment, it’s a way of diversifying your assets. This happens particularly on the jewellery side, and in fact, the jewellery business is thriving today. The larger the centre stone, the more the purchasers enjoy the piece, and the higher the investment value. When it comes to watches, for most people it’s passion, even though they secretly hope to make money out of it. It’s a bit like collecting cars. One of our new products this year will be sold to collectors: the Piaget Emperador Coussin XL 700P, which combines an automatic movement with a generator that converts mechanical energy to electrical energy which in turn powers a 32,768 Hertz regulator that gives the watch a very high precision.
LUXOS: This piece is interesting because it’s an electronic device, but doesn’t need batteries, or charging. This feature sets it apart from other devices such as the Apple Watch, which has to be plugged in regularly...
Philippe Léopold-Metzger: I don’t think that the Apple Watch will have any effect on our products. You can’t really wear an Apple Watch all day long: when you go out in the evening, you put something else on. There’s no doubt that it will damage some brands, and it’s a technology that’s going to go much further. One day, devices like this will open your door, programme your coffee machine and much more, and so they could well become products that you can’t live without. Nonetheless, there is no short-term threat.
LUXOS: There will always be a demand for products that are simply beautiful...
Philippe Léopold-Metzger: Take this example, Piaget Limelight Gala, with a Milanaise bracelet. It’s where we started, with gold crafted in such a way to create an amazingly supple bracelet.
LUXOS: It’s an example of superb artisanal skill. Do you think, in today’s changing world, that there is a risk of such craft skills disappearing?
Philippe Léopold-Metzger: For us, it’s the reverse. We have so many ideas in the area of artistic excellence that we are constantly on the lookout for people who can do something new, things that have never been done before. For example, Rose Saneuil is an artisan who specialises in wood marquetry. The dial of the 38 mm Altiplano Wood Marquetry is made from 96 separate pieces of wood and mother-of-pearl. We are able to provide work for these amazing craftspeople. We also finance apprenticeships at the Fondazione Franco Cologni in Italy, to ensure that skilled artisans can pass their skills on to the next generation.
LUXOS: What would you say is the single most distinctive aspect of Piaget?
Philippe Léopold-Metzger: The whole concept of the brand is exclusivity. Even though we are quite a large business, we are still a low-volume producer: if you consider the single best-selling watch reference, we’re still under a thousand units for that one reference. For many of our references, we make just 20, 30, 50 or so pieces. So when you buy a Piaget watch, you are buying something exclusive and unique. Everything is done in-house, from design and development to production. We have a lot of creativity, and that is key in our market.