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Octavio Garcia is something of a modern-day renaissance man. The current Chief Artistic Officer of Audemars Piguet, Garcia was born and raised in Chicago before moving to Switzerland. Garcia’s love for art started with drawing and graffiti and would eventually land him at Art Center College of Design European campus where he studied Industrial Design. Having moved to Switzerland for his studies, his degree in Industrial Design would be the launch pad for his foray into the world of fine timepieces. A stint at Swatch Group working for Omega would open the doors to Audemars Piguet, where he now oversees design. We caught up with Octavio Garcia at this years Art Basel in Hong Kong to discuss his role at Audemars Piguet, why design is so important in watches, and the new partnership between AP and Art Basel.
Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started in the watch industry?
Born and raised in Chicago. Studied Industrial Design at Art Center College of Design which created a satellite in Europe. I was very much interested in European design and in 1993, I came to Switzerland to study design at the school. I was very much interested in the school, it’s one of the top schools for industrial design and being in Switzerland, I was naturally exposed to the watch industry. A couple of my buddies were hired by top brands and although I had intended to go to the States to work for Nike or something, I quickly realized that there was potential in this industry. I realized that the watch is a very emotional product and that’s what really attracted me to the industry.
How has your Chicago upbringing influenced your design?
Growing up in a predominantly Latin community, I was exposed to urban culture really early on in my life — tagging and graffiti — and also American culture in general, particularly comic books. One of my escapes was drawing. I started drawing very young and then I moved onto graffiti and that was my art base. That’s where I got the spirit of art, if you will, and with school I refined that into something more structured and with method.
How important is design in the watch world?
Actually, I think the industry realized quite soon the potential that design had to differentiate in the marketplace. It sort of opened the way for the industry at large to really start exploring, and get out of the dogma of these simple round, gold watches which was sort of the norm at the time. I think Gerald Genta, the designer of the Royal Oak, really broke the mold and Audemars Piguet realized the strength of having an in-house design team and having fresh creativity in-house to be able to transmit company values and at the same time, push the brand forward.
“I think the industry realized quite soon the potential that design had to differentiate in the marketplace. It sort of opened the way for the industry at large to really start exploring, and get out of the dogma of these simple round, gold watches which was sort of the norm at the time.”
Octavio Garcia speaks about the importance of design in the watch world
How do you balance looking back with looking forward in watch design?
One of the key elements that we’ve been working on these past few years is what I call brand revitalization. That is to say, for many years we were very focused on product communication and particularly the Royal Oak. What happened was on the one hand, it allowed us to create an iconic watch, not only by its design but also from a communication and marketing standpoint. At one point we realized that if we wanted to shed light on our other products that could address other audiences, we would have to start speaking about the brand first. One of the things that we’ve done recently is revitalize the brand by asking ourselves “Who is Audemars Piguet? What does Audemars Piguet stand for? Where is Audermars Piguet’s place in the world?” By doing that we’ve actually opened to new audiences because you don’t only identify yourself with the Royal Oak anymore, you identify yourself to the brand. So step one is the brand itself. Step two, like I said before, we have a wide range of products that address audiences and also address occasions. Even a guy who wears a sporty watch is going to want something a bit more formal for an evening occasion. We have watches that are created for those occasions whether it’s our Jules Audemars collection or Millenary, which is a bridge between the Royal Oak and our Classique collection. One of the key elements to appealing to different audiences is speaking more about the brand. Ultimately, people that can relate to our values are going to discover all the different collections and what they offer.
Which do you think are some of the greatest/most important Royal Oaks in AP’s history?
Obviously the first one from 1972. They just broke the mold with it and it underscored the importance of design as a business tool. So much so that today Audemars Piguet has found design so important that they have created a role of Chief Artistic Officer who oversees a holistic design approach of the brand itself. Other groundbreaking pieces include the Royal Oak Concept watch. I remember seeing it while I was working for another brand and it was an earthquake for me. You had this exposed movement that you could see from the front, a linear power reserve, Alacrite, and a Kevlar strap. Also, the Cabinet No. 5 from the cabinet series, which is a series of eight pieces with 20 examples of each. I had the opportunity of working on that particular piece and it features several groundbreaking technologies such as the direct impulse escapement, which doesn’t need lubrication. In terms of design we captured a new formal language with the caliber where we were working with negative space and now it has given birth to a core collection product that is more accessible but still takes styling cues from that Cabinet piece.
With the Royal Oak now in its 40th year, how do you see the model evolve going forward?
In 2012 we launched eight new pieces for Royal Oak so the idea there was really to contemporize the collection but just with details. It’s such an iconic piece and I didn’t want to shake things up too much so it was really just refining it. We added two millimeters on the case, before it was 39mm now its 41mm and the indexes have been refined. We’ve kept the original Jumbo and put it on a pedestal. It’s only available in one dial color now, like the original. We’ve sort of structured that collection, it’s very clean and clear. We’ve also reinforced the Offshore collection with a new 44mm Offshore using our forged carbon technology on one piece. That’s one part of it — consolidating our position as the leader in the sports-prestige segment. That is going to give us the opportunity to focus on other areas that still need to be reinforced. There are two that I have in my mind: the first one would be our Classique collection, which we are working intensively on now, and the second would be ladies pieces. But to get back to your question, Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore — there’s a lot of exploration going on with calibres. If you take the Concept Watch for example, we’re building a series. We started with the original and in the meantime we’ve done a tourbillon chronograph; we’ve also done a GMT tourbillon and the tourbillon chronograph in carbon, which is a piece that Pharrell wears. So we see still a lot of potential in exploring that collection. In the near future we’ll see some crazy mechanics based on that Concept Watch.
“One of the key elements to appealing to different audiences is speaking more about the brand. Ultimately, people that can relate to our values are going to discover all the different collections and what they offer.”
Octavio Garcia speaks about balancing looking back with looking forward in watch design
What sets Audemars Piguet apart from its competitors?
I think the strongest differentiating factor is that AP is always striving to be cutting edge and all of our products are going in that direction, even our Classique collection will reflect this. We’re forward-thinking and not afraid to take risks. Our ad campaign says it all: “We’ve mastered the art of watchmaking and now we’re breaking the rules.”
How does Audemars Piguet still uphold its family-run values and why is it important that it remains a family-run business?
That is a key element (of Audermars Piguet). It is the last of the high watchmaking brands that is still in the hands of a family and it shapes the character of the company. For example we’ve built a manufacture that is the most eco-friendly in Europe — the entire manufacture is wood-heated. This can only come from a company that has a strong understanding of and respect for the region that it was born in. That respect, I believe, comes from the strong ties that the family has with the Valle de Joux and Le Brassus.
Which watches do you have in your personal collection?
I love Speedies. The Omega Speedmaster is a great piece and I had the privilege of working on a few. Richard Mille makes some very cool watches — he’s one of my favorites. I wear watches depending on occasions. Classic pieces are lovely — I’m a big fan of minute repeaters. I don’t really have an extensive collection. I’m not a collector kind of guy, just the pieces I need for different occasions and a couple of more emotional pieces like the Speedmaster.
Did your watch history start in Switzerland or prior to that?
It actually started when I moved to Switzerland. Really going in-depth with a company as big as Omega was a great starting point for understanding the industry. That gave me the background I needed to begin creating for a company like Audemars Piguet.
Is watchmaking as much an art as it is a craft?
Since the beginning, Audemars Piguet has had a true artistic sensitivity. It is obviously a craft and I think that this combination that Audemars Piguet has cultivated through design and craft really transforms our pieces into true works of art. It’s this understanding of design as an artistic expression within an industrial framework, which is probably what distances us a bit from what you see here at Art Basel. Despite that, there is still this creative drive that pushes us. It’s sort of the engine that pushes us to constantly think forward. So in that sense, I think there is a real fit with this venue.
“Since the beginning, Audemars Piguet has had a true artistic sensitivity. It is obviously a craft and I think that this combination that Audemars Piguet has cultivated through design and craft really transforms our pieces into true works of art.”
Octavio Garcia speaks about watchmaking as an art and as a craft
Could you tell us a little more about the partnership between Audemars Piguet and Art Basel?
It kicks off now (at Art Basel Hong Kong) and it’s a partnership that was born through a mutual respect for our respective fields. I think that when Marc Spiegler, who is the director of Art Basel, visited us at the Valle de Joux; it really confirmed the relevance of the partnership because he saw the passion. We’re obsessed with finish, we’re obsessed with quality and excellence so in that respect it really confirmed this idea that the partnership fit. We are official timekeepers of the event and will be at this venue, Art Basel and Art Basel Miami.
Are there any grail watches or seminal timepieces you would love to own?
The seminal pieces for me are really minute repeaters. It’s a complication that’s only mastered by very few manufacturers and I think when it’s done right it’s just magical. Those would be the pieces I would be most attracted to. When you hear the chiming of these pieces it’s very emotional and each piece, despite the fact that they are in the same case with the same calibre, each piece will sound slightly different.
“We’re obsessed with finish, we’re obsessed with quality and excellence so in that respect it really confirmed this idea that the partnership fit.”
Octavio Garcia speaks about the partnership between Audermars Piguet and Art Basel