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After a decade and a half at the helm of Piaget, Philippe Léopold-Metzger is preparing to ramp up the Swiss watchmaker’s production of jewellery, increasing the company’s focus on an important battleground for the industry.
In recent years, luxury groups such as LVMH and Richemont have devoted significant resources to expanding their jewellery brands. Johann Rupert, the founder and majority shareholder of Richemont, the Swiss luxury group that owns Piaget, has said he is keen to invest in the area.
“It is obvious that today the jewellery market is expanding faster than watches,” says Mr Léopold-Metzger.
“Now, the opportunity is huge for us to revamp the jewellery business, moving much more into medium and high jewellery.”
“If you look at our watches, we have some that cost SFr7m ($7.7m). The perception among the public is that Piaget is a beautiful brand, very exclusive …and this allows us to offer more expensive jewellery.”
With Piaget expecting the jewellery market to grow faster than the watch market in the near term, the company’s production, which analysts reckon is roughly balanced between watches and jewellery, could tilt towards jewellery.
Mr Léopold-Metzger declines to give targets and precise numbers for current output, which analysts put at about 24,000 watches a year, and about 20,000 pieces of jewellery.
However, he does concede that Piaget is running short of capacity. As a result, the group is planning to increase the space at its main base in Plan-les-Ouates, the watchmaking hub on the outskirts of Geneva, by 50 per cent. The group’s ancestral site in La Côte-aux-Fées, in the northwest, will increase by 25 per cent, he adds.
This might seem like a bold move at a time when the combination of an economic slowdown and a clampdown on corporate gifts is weighing on the luxury market in China, which has powered global sales over the past five years.
Mr Léopold-Metzger declines to say how Piaget, which has a strong presence in Asia, has been affected by that slowdown, but concedes that the double-digit growth rates enjoyed by the industry over the past 10 to 15 years may not be repeated.
Yet despite this, the 59-year-old Frenchman remains optimistic about the prospects of the industry he entered more than 30 years ago – a career path which he says was pure chance.
In 1981, after an MBA in Chicago, Mr Léopold-Metzger was back in his native land working for a US conglomerate that sold vitamins and plastics, among other things, when an acquaintance suggested he consider switching to Cartier, the Parisian jeweller.
The international aspect of the luxury business was attractive to a man who had already worked on two continents. And selling watches and jewellery seemed more appealing than purveying plastic – so Mr Léopold-Metzger changed course, and threw in his lot with Cartier.
“I thought that working in such a beautiful environment and selling to jewellery stores would be a much nicer thing to do,” he says. “And my wife would be much happier visiting jewellery stores than visiting kitchen and bathroom retailers.”
After nearly two decades at Cartier – interrupted by a four-year stint at Piaget in the early 1990s – Mr Léopold-Metzger moved back to Piaget in 1999 as chief executive and has held the post ever since.
The company was initially known for making movements – a watch’s mechanical heart. However, by the time Mr Léopold-Metzger took the reins, the group, which was taken over by Cartier in 1988, was better known for its glitzy, jewel-encrusted women’s watches.
Mr Léopold-Metzger set about building up Piaget’s capabilities in the field of men’s watchmaking, as well as re-emphasising the technological prowess of the brand.
“I thought that it was necessary for us to go back into the men’s business – with a difference,” he says. “That’s why we decided really to emphasise the ultra-thin side of the business. We always had [watches for] men, and we always had ultra-thin [watches], but we really went with a vengeance.”
Thirteen years on, the fruits of this drive are clear. Piaget has 35 of its own calibres, 23 of which are ultra-thin. The thinnest, the Altiplano 900P, measures just 3.65mm in depth – a modern echo of the ultra-thin models that Piaget first produced in the late 1950s.
At the moment, says Mr Léopold-Metzger, there is no thinner watch on the market. “But it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be tomorrow,” he adds with a self-deprecating smile.
His caution is justified. Other brands are increasingly producing their own similarly delicate models, with the likes of Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe and Graff all releasing ultra-thin timepieces over the past year.
However, Mr Léopold-Metzger is sanguine about the competition.
“It’s always great when you are validated by your peers,” he says. “The more people come to the segment, the more the segment is going to grow. Maybe we will lose a little bit of market share, but the pie will get bigger.”
1954: Born in New York
1979: The French-American citizen joins Cyanamid, the US conglomerate after completing an MBA in Chicago
1981: Joins Cartier
1992: Moves to Piaget as corporate second-in-command
1996: Returns to Cartier to oversee its Asia-Pacific operations
1999: Piaget chief executive