Benjamin Comar: The Piaget CEO on a new era for the luxury watchmaker

23 May 2022 | Updated on: 27 Sep 2022 |By Richard Brown

Piaget’s recently-appointed chief executive on producing ultra-thin timepieces, the pitfalls of profiling, and why a brand should never try to pick its customers

Benjamin Comar has some big shoes to fill. Appointed CEO of Piaget in the summer of 2021, the luxury industry veteran follows in the footsteps of Chabi Nouri, who, on her own appointment in 2017, became the first female chief executive within Richemont’s various watch and jewellery brands – a portfolio that includes Cartier, Chloe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Net-A-Porter and Montblanc, among others.

Under Nouri’s stewardship, Piaget went from periphery player to leading luxury name. One of Nouri’s first acts in charge was to launch Piaget’s own e-commerce platform in the United States, before overseeing the company’s entry onto both the Net-A-Porter and Mr Porter websites, the first hard-luxury maison to be carried by the YOOX group. The online move paid dividends, helping Piaget navigate its way through the pandemic while other brands scrambled for a digital solution.

In something of a mic drop, shortly after Nouri took up her new role as strategic advisor to Richemont Group CEO, Jérôme Lambert, Piaget won two of the top awards at the 2021 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie, the most important awards ceremony in the watch industry. The brand’s Limelight Gala Precious Rainbow was announced ‘Best Ladies’ Watch’, while the Altiplano Ultimate Automatic was named ‘Best Mechanical Exception Watch’.

By the time the awards were announced in November, Comar already had his feet planted firmly under the table. Yet he deflects any praise in the direction of his predecessor. “Personally, I can take no credit for these incredible accolades. The team at Piaget and Chabi Nouri should take all of the credit. What I can say is that it is incredibly rewarding to be recognised not only for our expertise in ultra-thin watches but also women’s watches.”

Comar started his career at Cartier in 1992, before becoming fine jewellery director at Chanel in 2004. Prior to Piaget, he was based in Paris, serving as chief executive of disruptive Italian jeweller, Repossi. Piaget had always been a company that Comar had respected from afar, so when Richemont came knocking he didn’t have to mull over his decision.

“It’s a dream for any CEO to work for a brand they admire – and I have admired Piaget since starting off my career at Richemont, more than 25 years ago. I have discovered an ultra-creative and fighting spirit within the teams here, which are all dedicated to creativity and innovation.”

One of the first jobs of any incoming chief executive is to evaluate the core customer base of their new employer. However, in a highly-global post-pandemic world, Comar is quick to point out the pitfalls of profiling. “I don’t really believe there is one type of customer anymore. There is no more gender, age, nationality. Above all they [the Piaget customer] have a love of craftsmanship, creativity and attention to detail – they choose the products that match their preferences.”

It’s a point I’ve read Comar make before – that it’s the customer that chooses the product, not the brand that chooses the customer. What, I ask, is the danger of a brand attempting to do the latter? “I think the ‘marketing’ approach of producing collections for a specific customer underestimates the sophistication and fluidity of today’s luxury consumer. Customers buy pieces not because they need them but because they love them, and their feelings and moods can change rapidly. We are not an FMCG company. We are creating and selling dreams to an unpredictable, highly-sophisticated customer.”

Today, Piaget’s men’s watch offering is anchored to a brace of collections: the brawny, go-anywhere Polo sports watch – relaunched in 2016 after a hiatus of almost 40 years – and the Altiplano, with which Piaget (usually) chooses to display its panache for manufacturing mind-bogglingly slim in-house movements.

Last year, Piaget debuted the Polo Skeleton, a timepiece that’s 30 per cent thinner than the next leanest Polo. Refiguring a propriety movement to accommodate an off-centred micro-rotor, Piaget was able to trim down its automatic 1200S calibre to a thickness of just 2.4mm. The watch’s 42mm case now measures only 6.5mm deep. This year, the brand dropped a new Polo Skeleton encrusted with 1,746 brilliant-cut gemstones.

If the idea of a movement measuring 2.4mm thick strikes you as impressive – and it should – hear this: in 2018, Piaget unveiled a timepiece whose entire girth – movement, case, bezel and all – amounted to a bewildering 2mm in total. The Altiplano Ultimate Concept, officially the world’s thinnest mechanical watch, has since entered production. Its latest iteration, the La Côte-aux-Fées Edition, uses pioneering technology to layer the watch’s bridges in a verdant forest-green atomic coating – a nod to the trees that surround the brand’s workshop in La Côte aux Fées, Neuchâtel.

If you’re into your watches, you’ll know that the other big player in ultra-thins is Bulgari, which, through its Octo Finissimo Collection, currently holds a number of records for ridiculously lean watches. Records that Piaget could once claim itself. When you’ve made coin-thin timepieces your shtick, I ask Comar, how important is it to come out on top in the battle of ultra-thin watches? “It is not a battle,” he says. “Piaget is simply showcasing its long-established expertise in ultra-thin watchmaking, for which we are recognised the world over. We are following our own motto – ‘always do better than necessary’ – it is not a question of world records or breaking records, but pushing the limits.”

These days, watches tend to be launched with the help of an army of A-list celebrities. At the 2018 Salon de Haute Horlogerie, a Geneva-based watch fair that’s since been merged with Baselworld to form Watches & Wonders, I attended a press conference in which Nouri introduced Ryan Reynolds and supermodel Doutzen Kroes. The following year, I sat across a table from Michael B. Jordan at a gala dinner attended by fellow Piaget ambassador Hu Ge and ‘Friend of the Maison’ Olivia Palermo. More recently, owing to the pandemic, the brand has had to rely on pushing press shots of Jordan, Palermo and Dutch DJ/ producer Shiva Safai Houweling on social media.

Now that the world has reopened, will the ‘Piaget Society’, as the brand chooses to call its celebrity harem, remain such an integral part of the watchmaker’s communication strategy? “It goes well beyond a communication strategy,” says Comar. “Bringing clients and friends together is at the heart of the Piaget maison and the Piaget Society will be very active in the coming years. Of course, celebrity ambassadors can play a role – but the relationship needs to be real.”

Comar and I are talking a few weeks before Geneva will host Watches & Wonders, as of this year, the industry’s biggest get-together. In 2020, citing reasons of spiralling costs and myopic mismanagement, Rolex, Patek Philippe, Hublot, TAG Heuer and Tudor announced they were quitting Baselworld, the industry’s other major trade show, in favour of Watches & Wonders. The move proved to be the death knell for what was the world’s oldest watch meet.

Comar won’t be drawn on the downfall of Basel, and whether he had any sympathy for the newly-installed management team that was given little time to save a ship that might not necessarily have sunk. He does, however, throw his weight behind the concept of physical trade shows in general. “Clearly the world had to adapt in these past two challenging years,” says Comar, “but I am very much looking forward to meeting the press, our trade partners, our friends and our colleagues in the industry face-to-face – nothing can replace shared moments.”

So what did Piaget present at the first major watch powwow for two years? “This year will centre around the Limelight Gala collection,” says Comar, “but we’ll also be paying tribute to our expertise in ultra-thins.”

Not that it’s a battle, or anything.

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