It may be a man’s world in watchmaking… but it would be nothing without the women who keep the industry ticking. Revolution shoots the breeze with Audemars Piguet’s legendary chairwoman – as well as one of the brand’s female master watchmakers – to find out what they really think of haute horology’s macho image, and women’s place as both buyers and makers
By Rachel Silvestri
I first catch sight of Jasmine Audemars weaving her way unassumingly through the throng crowding the Audemars Piguet lounge at this year’s Art Basel – the brand has been global Associate Partner of the mammoth event since 2013.
Demure in a dark pantsuit and sporting a subtle ladies’ Royal Oak, I track her neat silver bob as she sneaks past the flashier-dressed guests who remain oblivious to the giant of watchmaking loitering beside them.
She comes to a halt at the workshop-style desk where an AP watchmaker is demonstrating the unique engraving technique responsible for the Royal Oak Frosted Gold’s signature shimmer. She shares a few words and a wry smile with the craftsman, clearly most comfortable in the presence of the workers now responsible for the continuation of her family’s storied reputation. After all, she has spent her lifetime bearing the pleasure – and the weight – that the Audemars name brings.
“To be a 4th generation is both a responsibility and a challenge,” says Jasmine. “Responsibility towards all the people who work for Audemars Piguet and also to the region where the company is based. At the same time it is an exciting challenge because we have to remain innovative while being true to the origins of the company. When I see the commitment of all the people working for Audemars Piguet I am very optimistic for the future.”
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Extra-Thin.
Quite right too – it’s a bright future that Jasmine and her company are heading for. After all, as one of horology’s ‘holy trinity’ along with Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, AP’s future as one of the world’s most sought-after watchmakers is secure. But it’s not only the company’s elevated status that makes it differ from the rest – until recently, it was the only haute horloger with a female at the helm.
“Watchmaking is indeed a man’s world but things have evolved since I first started. The new CEO of Piaget is a woman, for instance,” says Jasmine, referring to Philippe Léopold-Metzger’s protégée Chabi Nouri, who took the reins from him at Piaget earlier this year. “I think we are going to see a lot more changes in the years to come.”
However, any other woman in the industry will have to work very hard indeed to live up to Ms Audemars’s reputation. Only spoken about in the most revered and hushed tones, Jasmine Audemars embodies the relaxed, low-key approach that makes Audemars Piguet such a pleasurable company to visit and interact with. She lists her special interests within horology as ‘design, communication and humans’. Her workers whisper of her unsnobbish attitude, her commitment to the company and even about the humble little run-around she uses to drive to and from the manufactures. So does she have anything to do with the discreet and unpretentious feel of the company – or is it the company that has shaped her?
“Your description of Audemars Piguet is the description of the culture of Audemars Piguet,” says Jasmine. “I do not think gender has an influence. We were all born into that culture, the next generations are also educated in the same culture. It is true we work in high-end watchmaking, but it does not mean we are allowed to be snobbish.”
See what I mean? She couldn’t be more down-to-earth if she had roots. And perhaps that’s it – her roots in watchmaking go so deep into the fertile soil of Le Brassus that they must surely reach the steadfast bedrock of the Alps beneath.
So what of the women who now make up a significant chunk of Audemars Piguet’s buyers? Tellingly, both workshop demonstrations at Art Basel – the other desk featured the intricate individual gem setting technique responsible for the sparkling blue peaks of the Diamond Outrage – concerned women’s timepieces, clearly a market that’s important to the brand.
“There are more and more independent women who make their own choices, decide on how to build their life, run their own companies… And obviously buy what they want for themselves,” says Jasmine. “The watch they choose to wear depends on their personality, their activities, their agenda. I think this evolution will continue. At Audemars Piguet 30% of our customers are women who buy more mechanical watches every day, but you can’t put them in boxes and decide that from now on they will only buy mechanical watches. We all have different facets and we should embrace it. Hand wound, automatic, quartz… Why not all?”
A fantastic question, and one I’ll have to remind my husband of the next time I’m mulling over which timepiece to set my sights on. And while the female watch enthusiast is coming more to the fore in a market sense, there is plenty of scope for women in the manufactures themselves too.
“If there are young women watchmakers that are talented and want to work with us, we will be all too happy to welcome them,” says Jasmine. “But the most important thing is to attract young talents who want to work in high-end watchmaking.”
Audemars Piguet is seemingly groaning with feminine horological talent, both new and more experienced, while women watchmakers are making an impact on other brands too. Most notably, Carole Forestier-Kasapi, Cartier’s highly-respected Director of Movements, has had a career that’s seen her move through the ranks at Audemars Piguet subsidiary Renaud & Papi, Van Cleef & Arpels and Piaget, as well as scooping the Best Watchmaker prize at the 2012 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève awards for her work at Cartier.
“The process of watchmaking includes design as well as all the technical parts and women are very much involved both in the design part and also in the mechanical part,” says Jasmine. “There are more and more young and talented women watchmakers these days. Take AP craftswoman Vanessa Bardet who, having begun her watchmaker apprenticeship at just 16 years of age, has spent the past 20 years in horology.
“We are two women among the five watchmakers working in the Audemars Piguet Grandes Complications workshop,” says Vanessa. “My day-to-day work consists of executing all necessary steps by hand in order to deliver a functional and beautiful Grande Complication. As a reminder, at Audemars Piguet a Grande Complication is a timepiece featuring at least a split-second chronograph, a perpetual calendar with moon phase and a minute repeater. The activities are very varied; they imply files, burnishers and screwdrivers but also buffers, polishing pastes and many other accessories and instruments.
“Many have a false impression of the amount of women active in watchmaking. While it is true that a majority of men follow watchmaking educations, later in life the proportion of women active in the field increases significantly. The main difference lies in the profile; men often learn the trade during an apprenticeship or in a watchmaking school while women are frequently trained on the job. And yet women work just as well as men, sometimes even better. Those who have chosen this profession really want it, something you feel later in their work. That said, times do not really change. There is still a majority of men choosing this occupation.”
So perhaps it really is still a man’s world. But as more female buyers become dissatisfied with simply wearing a miniature quartz version of their husband’s favourite montre, instead seeking the same mechanical complexity and beauty that has traditionally attracted the male collector, the tables are indeed turning on what makes a ‘woman’s watch’.
Whether it has the heft and weight of a man’s timepiece, the intricate beauty of female-led design or the stand-out spangle of haute joaillerie examples, women are free to choose almost any watch their heart desires – no matter who it’s aimed at. Bad luck, boys – looks like it’s a woman’s world, after all.