Like many major brands nowadays Audemars Piguet – the Swiss manufacturer of luxury mechanical watches – engages in the arts. Olivier Audemars, member of the board of directors, explains the company’s different approach, his personal passion for art and the Gallery Weekend in Berlin.

BETTINA KRAUSE Nice to meet you here in Berlin, Olivier. What is your relation to the city?

OLIVIER AUDEMARS I’ve known Berlin for decades and what I loved here in the 80’s was this impression of being in a nutshell. People really were living as if there was no tomorrow. I was here when the wall fell and it felt like the city was giving birth. West Berlin was a bit artificial but all those different dimensions coexisting were really unique. Today the situation is different of course. Berlin is still a creative city because there is a deep imbalance. On one hand it’s the capital of the most powerful state in Europe and on the other hand it’s always on the verge of bankruptcy. This kind of tension maintains creativity.

BK So should we work on keeping Berlin unbalanced?

OA It has to be something that is natural. If you force it it becomes artificial and that will not work. So I hope that somehow this unbalance will continue.

“I’ve known Berlin for decades. I was here when the wall fell and it felt like the city was giving birth.”

BK Did you always work at Audemars Piguet?

OA I am the great-grandson of one of the founders. As a kid I was extremely close to my grandfather, he taught me to ski, to build tree houses and sometimes he also showed me some watch components he was working on. I remember one day he asked me to touch the mechanism that launched the watch and I was like “Wow, this is magic!”. So for me the company was a place where my grandfather was involved but I never thought of doing something like that. I studied nature, physics. When the family Piguet asked me to join the family business I had my own company already and it was not an easy decision to make. But with those memories of my grandfather I joined the company. I’m still involved in my own company and I’m also the vice chair of a hospital. Those activities help me keep my feet on the ground.

BK How do you mean that?

OA Well in the luxury business there is always the risk that people may start thinking they are important. There is a huge risk of disconnecting. By still being involved in my company and the hospital I have a good view on the reality.

BK Audemars Piguet is quite involved in art, why?

OA Back in 2012 we clarified the company’s purpose and at that time we realized that artists have the capacity to see things from different angles. Like as if you have special glasses. There was this British photographer taking pictures of the Vallee de Joux where we are settled. It was very surprising to see his photos because although we had seen the Vallee every day, we could not see it anymore. We needed someone from the outside showing us a reality we had forgotten. So we felt that it could be very interesting to emerge into the world of contemporary art. The key question was how to maximize the chances to be surprised by the outcome.

“We don’t just collect art as a company – we want to be transformed by it.”

BK Surprised in which way?

OA Every year we invite a guest curator to select artists who come to the Vallee de Joux and the commission selects a project. I hope each time these projects help us to see something differently as they can open doors and possibilities. We don’t just collect art as a company – we want to be transformed by it.

BK Many big brands involve themselves into the art world, is that critical?

OA Many brands use art for their brand building. I think that they’re not trying to learn anything from this. They just want to be able to say they support famous artists that are worth millions. It’s more kind of ego trip. And that is detrimental for the art market because it doesn’t help new ideas or new concepts to develop. Most of the brands will not take risks, but safe bets. It’s also one of the reasons for those crazy prices in the art world. Because it pushes galleries and art dealers to burn artists. There is this game of increasing the value of an artist’s work in a very short period of time. Until the artist gets out of fashion. It’s not sustainable.

BK Which approach do you recommend to someone who’s not into contemporary art yet but interested?

OA Some of our customers are successful business people, not into contemporary art. So at Gallery Weekend Berlin, for example, you can go into really daring art but can enjoy more easily understandable art as well. Some people are very rational so you have to understand sufficiently what the people are in order to open their door to art. You can give them a gentle push to go through it but then they have to do it on their own.

BK What do you personally like about Gallery weekend Berlin?

OA We are going to see Alicja Kwade now as I was very interested in her work for quite a while. There are really a lot of interesting things to do. And its the only place where I have two days of only seeing art – I love that.