2016 has been a difficult year for Swiss watchmakers, with Richemont Group reporting a 13% drop in revenue for the six months ending September 30. But that won’t stop Richemont-owned Piaget from a major celebration in 2017 as it marks the 60th anniversary of the 9P ultra thin movement that made the Altiplano line of watches possible. How significant is the 2017 Altiplano to the future of Piaget? WatchPro’s Rob Corder spoke to Piaget’s international watch marketing and creative director Franck Touzeau to find out.
Valentin Piaget made a significant leap forward in 1957 when he unveiled the ultra-thin 9P manual-winding movement at the Basel watch fair of that year. At 2 mm thick, the 9P enabled a broader 20.5 mm dial opening that the first Altiplanos were designed around.
“When it came to life in 1957, the 9P calibre was the pinnacle of ultra-thin. Indeed at that time it was an extraordinary technical achievement of being only 2mm thick,” says Franck Touzeau, international watch marketing and creative director, for Piaget in conversation with WatchPro.
“There was no computer assistance or manufacturing programs to help in creating components sometimes as thin as a human hair. The 2mm thinness of the 9P is still today a limit under which it is very risky to go if you want the movement to keep being reliable in the long term,” he adds.
Piaget followed up on the launch of the 9P in 1960 with the creation of the 12P movement, a little thicker at 2.3mm, but including a 24ct gold off-centred micro-rotor offering efficient self-winding of the barrel-spring.
The two movements are revered in Piaget circles, according to Mr Touzeau, which is why the diamond jubilee in 2017 is such a big deal to the company. “The 9P set the frame of Piaget movements adventure. It clearly expressed that ultra-thin is part of the DNA of Piaget and initiated a family of ultra-thin calibres which represent today more than 25 movements,” he explains.
Mastery of ultra thin movements does not in itself lead to incredible watches, but marrying the new form to stunning case and dial designs certainly does. “The creation of the 9P calibre in 1957 gave life to a collection of ultra-thin watches which is today the Piaget icon: Altiplano.
“Ultra-thin movements allow the expression of the ultimate elegance. As they enable us to save space, we can do whatever we want. Designers and artisans are free to create the most creative timepieces with the use of hard stones, marquetry, métiers d’art techniques to decorate the dial, diamonds and other precious stones. Piaget jewellery watches and creative collections perfectly express this freedom enabled by the unique Piaget’s ultra-thin know-how,” Mr Touzeau says.
To mark the 9P’s 60th anniversary year, Piaget will be launching a limited edition collection of Altiplanos this month. First to be unveiled are two original models – one hand-winding and the other self-winding – inspired by the designs of the first ultra-thin watches.
The watches will feature the historic logo, the applied gold hour-markers and the signature cross as a nod to the line’s origins. The new models: Piaget Altiplano Self-Winding 43 mm (G0A42105) and Piaget Altiplano Manual-Winding 38 mm (G0A42107), will be seen for the first time at SIHH in Geneva.
Both have a sunburst dial in Piaget deep blue with white gold hour-markers and the slim baton-hands typical of the line. The 43 mm self-winding model houses a Calibre 1200P, the fourth generation of its ultra-thin self-winding movements that is 2.35mm thick. The 38 mm-diameter manual winding model uses the 2.1mm thick Calibre 430P.
Demand ebbs and flows for every style of watch, and ultra thin dress watches have not always been in fashion. Piaget is determined to ensure that 2017 is remembered for the classic, timeless looks of its slim Altiplanos, and sets a standard for years to come. “In 60 years of Altiplano, Piaget has progressively set the aesthetic codes which make the identity of the collection. Based on ultra-thin elegance and essential, these codes have reached timelessness and created a style. This style is recognised as a reference throughout the years and will keep being our asset for the next years,” Mr Touzeau suggests.
Luxury Swiss watchmakers have had a particularly difficult 2016, and there is not a great deal of optimism that 2017 will be much better. It has been eight years since the global financial crisis ushered in the period of austerity in the Western world that has had profound effects on the Swiss industry. However, Mr Tourzeau feels that brands like Piaget have to avoid being knocked off course by short term challenges. “In terms of style, there is no way to integrate influences: a true luxury brand has to follow its own DNA. Trend is not style … but we look closer and closer at our customers and consider their expectations and values, which do change. This is the way we set our direction: claim our style and offer our customers what will make them feel distinctive,” he replies in answer to a question about the effect of the global economy on watch design.
Piaget does not disclose figures for just its own sales, but it is part of Richemont Group, which has announced global sales falling 13% to €5.1 billion for the six months from April-September 2016. Profits fell 51% to €540 million.
“Sales and profits for the six-month period ended 30 September 2016 were significantly below the prior year’s level, reflecting the difficult global environment, the exceptional inventory buy-backs and challenging comparative figures in the first half of the previous financial year,” Richemont chairman Johann Rupert said in comments accompanying the latest financial results.
That buy-back programme was particularly painful for Richemont, but of crucial assistance to its distribution and retail channel. It is a situation that the group does not want to repeat. “Concerning watches, we will look to deal with overcapacity issues, adapting manufacturing structures to the level of demand,” Mr Rupert said.
Looking forward, the chairman believes the group’s stable of strong brands will bounce back. “We remain convinced of the long-term prospects for high quality products, in particular for watches and jewellery. Our Maisons stand for timelessness, quality and craftsmanship – values that are particularly sought after in uncertain times. Richemont, with its portfolio of long-established Maisons, strong balance sheet and worldwide geographic footprint, is well positioned to weather the current difficult environment and emerge stronger when global circumstances improve,” Mr Rupert concludes.