The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 12

January 2011


What is the common point shared by Robert Greubel, Stephen Forsey, Peter Speake-Marin, Andréas Strehler (who all have their own brands today), Carole Forestier (at the head of watch development at Cartier), Anthony de Haas (at the head of watch development at A. Lange & Söhne), and even Frédéric Garinaud (designer of the Opus 8)? These names do not even take into account all the countless managers of the various ateliers. Answer: they all worked at one time or another in the ateliers of Renaud & Papi, even Christophe Claret, whose first company, created in 1989, was called “Renaud Papi Claret,” before he repurchased all the shares in 1994 and launched out on his own.
“We became a training ground because we always wanted to hire young people. And they, as I myself did in 1986, would decide one fine day to exert their independence.” Giulio Papi smiles about this, even if perhaps a little nostalgic when he thinks of all the efforts expended in training them. Yet he does understand the reasons.
In 1986, he was one of the first to strike out on his own. He was only 21 and a bench watchmaker at Audemars Piguet when he understood that it would be a long time before he could even touch a grand complication. So, he decided to make one himself. Teaming up with Dominique Renaud, he founded his own company, thinking that they could make “two or three watches a year”. The watch market was regaining steam and the art of mechanical timekeeping was again in the public’s eye. Very rapidly, the demand increased, to such a point that, in 1992, they needed additional financing to enlarge the company and continue their adventure. But the banks, like they are today, were not ready to loan money. It was Audemars Piguet who came to the rescue. The brand was ready to supply the needed capital to develop their company but on condition that it obtain 52 per cent of the shares. The deal was made and, in 1996, Dominique Renaud sold his remaining shares and moved to the south of France. Then Robert Greubel, who still owned 4 per cent, decided to launch his own company and sold his shares to Audemars Piguet, which today owns 78.4 of Renaud & Papi. The remaining 20 per cent are still held by Giulio Papi with the small 1.6 per cent in the hands of Fabrice Deschanel, General Manager of Renaud & Papi.
In spite of the fact that the majority of the company is owned by Audemars Piguet, which plays the role of manufacturer for research and development, Renaud & Papi maintains total freedom to work for third parties. “Ideally, our order book is divided 50/50: half for Audemars Piguet and half for other brands,” explains Papi. And among these other brands is the very successful Richard Mille, for which Renaud & Papi “did practically everything”.

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 12 The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 12 Giulio Papi

Veritable industrial tool
Today, Renaud & Papi employs 150 people in Le Locle, working in facilities that are similar to their principal supporter: rigorously organized, ultra-functional, but warm and friendly. It is quite impressive. This veritable industrial tool allows Renaud & Papi to master the milling of its plates in all types of materials—even very hard ones—as well as to cut out its gears, screws, column wheels, barrels and all circular parts. It also has mastered the creation of the axes, pivots, teeth and pinions, as well as the electro-erosion of the levers, cams and springs. It also fabricates all its fitting tools and prototypes.
Situated in a single location, this impressive array of computer-controlled equipment is connected to other departments by a long hallway. The main building groups together the technical bureau (eight people working in development) and the very important procedures office. Both are directly attached to an office dealing with reliability whose task is to anticipate problems and analyse their source when they arise as well as to an office handling technical and aesthetic controls, in which each piece spends a minimum of one month.
Next door is a specialized atelier whose main role is to assemble the first ten pieces of a new model. It is here that the protocols for assembly, lubrication and other operations are precisely defined.
From here, we pass to the ateliers for assembly and encasing that employ nearly 40 people. Divided into small islands dedicated to one client or to a specific complication, each of these watchmakers is in charge of the complete realization of a watch. This task, on average, takes a full month.
Next to these workshops are the ateliers for decoration and finishing: chamfering, satining, circular-graining, Côtes de Genève, polishing, and skeletonizing. There are also units devoted to after-sales service, to training and one called the Office of Watch Concepts that, until quite recently, was directed by Frédéric Garinaud, the last on our list of having struck out on his own.

The Swiss watch planet in movement – Part 12 MILLENARY by Audemars Piguet

Cardinal value: reliability
When asked what the specificities of Renaud & Papi are, Giulio Papi responds: “…in no particular order, being able to propose ideas and then make them happen; being intransigent when it comes to the quality of finishing and decoration; and making reliable watches.” He insists particularly on this point: “We aim for zero returns, but let’s face it, to arrive at this point would be like finding the Grail. That has never happened to any watchmaker. In reality, we have about 10 per cent of new pieces come back and about 3 per cent returned after the models are stabilized, a number that we can still be very proud of. We make reliability a point of honour. It is a cardinal value in watchmaking. So, we never introduce a product that is not 100 per cent ready. We never sell anything based on images.”
What therefore does Renaud & Papi sell? “In the realm of calibres,” explains Giulio Papi, “we have three different regulating organs: thus three escapements—one traditional Swiss in-line palettes, a Swiss palettes for tourbillon and one that needs no lubrication, the famous Robin escapement reserved for Audemars Piguet, that we currently produce only in an artisanal manner. It is thus expensive but we could produce it on an industrial scale. These escapements are equipped with three different balances, with two different speeds, 21,600 vibrations/hour or 43,200 vibrations/hour. Moreover, we have two systems for energy accumulation, with one or two barrels, for power reserves of 48 hours, 72 hours, or ten days. We have a common winding system and time correction in all our watches, except for Chanel’s Rétrograde Mystérieuse, but that is another story (for this watch, see our Cover Story in this issue on Chanel). In terms of complete movements, we propose two different minute repeaters—one small, one large—two different integrated chronographs, a flyback, a grand sonnerie, and three perpetual calendars. And, using these bases, we offer all sorts of variants.”
We might add also that Renaud & Papi has made a name for itself with Richard Mille in the particular domain of ultra-light materials. We think notably of the latest RM 027, the ‘Nadal’, a tourbillon watch realized in a very special carbon and that weighs only about 20 grammes. “A victory”, in the words of Giulio Papi, “because the perception of value had been up to now always tied to weight—the heavier it is, the more expensive the piece. We have succeeded in reversing this axiom”. This experience was acquired with Audemars Piguet and its famous Royal Oak in forged carbon. But Giulio Papi, as fascinated as he is with new materials, remains very cautious, however, when it comes to silicon. “I am not criticizing the technology itself but all our escapements are made in traditional materials. Why? We know that in time silicon will no longer be used in micro-processors and that the equipment designed to work with this material will disappear. These are the same machines used in watchmaking. I am afraid that in 50 to 100 years, we will no longer be able to repair silicon escapements.”
How has the company weathered the economic crisis? “Since 2008, which was a record year, our turnover has varied only very little. For 2010, we expected a decrease of five per cent but we ended the year even. For 2011, we are also expecting a five per cent decline, but we will see what happens… It is not so serious for us since all our installations are financed and we have no current leases.”

Source: Europa Star December - January 2011 Magazine Issue