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Collabs as Moonshots: Bridging a Century-Long Divide

This week, Audemars Piguet released the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar Openworked limited edition (reference 26585CM.OO.D301VE.01) in collaboration with Cactus Jack, a music label founded by artist Travis Scott.
The Cactus Jack "takeover" of Audemars Piguet's NYC Boutique. It was in this space that the most recent collaboration was released.
The timepiece is priced at $201,000 with a 41mm case in brown ceramic. There are various bold design elements at play in this timepiece. For example, the "stitchmarks" on the moonphase complication are an embellishment that evokes the Cactus Jack "Smiley Face" emblem (they're also reminiscent of the animated character Jack Skellington in Tim Burton's movie A Nightmare Before Christmas).

The dial of the AP X Cactus Jack collaboration, note the "smiley face" moonphase and the handwritten style of dial typography.
An additional distinguishing design element is the dial's typography. It has a "hand written" vibe that was derived from a "model" that Travis Scott created for AP's design team. This element also connects to work dating to early 2019 by Hong Kong-based artist Gabe Lau. Lau's Instagram account @labeg features handmade renderings of luxury watches. Most recently, he captures the essence of timepieces using cardboard, giving his creations a 3D effect. So compelling is his work that brand Watch Experimental Unit introduced a number of "hand drawn" dial styles as part of their Green Label collection. The watches are so popular that they regularly sell out (see photos below).

Top: WMT's GP10010C, Bottom: Labeg's recreation of a Daytona. Photo credits WMT and Labeg.
As is often the case with watches that push the limits of design, I heard some "prickly" responses to the AP X Cactus Jack collab (pun intended). I witnessed similar responses following the drop of the two Royal Oak Concept collaborations with Marvel (ie the Black Panther and Spiderman releases). So here I would like to explain why each of these design-forward watches fall both within the tradition of the Royal Oak and are key to the future of Audemars Piguet as a brand.

Let's begin with the creator of the Royal Oak design itself: Gerald Genta. He was no stranger to design controversy. In 1984, Genta was forced to remove his new watches emblazoned with cartoon characters (Pink Panther, Popeye, and Mickey Mouse) from a trade show. Moreover, as Genta's daughter has explained, the maestro went through a hip-hop phase during which Genta played rap artists like Snoop Dogg in his design studio. Seen from these perspectives, the AP X Cactus Jack collaboration is squarely within the tradition of the Royal Oak canon.

This collaboration is also vital for the future of Audemars Piguet as a brand. Drawing the younger generation into the world of watch collecting is a bit of a "moonshot" exercise. How do you convince the Tik Tok generation that they should spend large sums of money on a non-essential bit of kit first widely adopted in the 1920s? Responsible watch brand leaders will each do whatever they can to prevent the possibility that watch collecting may become passé. Doing otherwise risks the longer-term survival of the industry.

Working with Travis Scott and Cactus Jack is likely a very valid method for connecting with younger generations.
Caseback of the AP X Cactus Jack collab.
Similarweb indicates that 68% of visitors to Scott's website are aged 18-34. What's unique about Scott, though, is that he can create a permission structure for younger generations to adopt mechanical watches. Scott embraces technology from past eras. In a recent YouTube video published by GQ entitled "10 Things Travis Scott Can't Live Without," we learn that Scott uses a casette tape player. He picks up an analog Contax T3 35mm film camera to take pictures. For a phone, he uses a Porsche Design Blackberry in 24 karat gold (rumored price $25,000 in 2013, only 25 were released and Scott apparently owns number 13). This phone retains a physical keyboard beneath a small touchscreen. For Scott, "old tech" is worth embracing, a sentiment that watch enthusiasts generally identify with. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that many watch brands are more than a century old and they all must determine how they will bridge a long divide between their origin and the present.

Time series of Google searches for Audemars Piguet.
Finally, it is irrefutable that the AP X Cactus Jack release was highly effective. I came to this conclusion after reviewing Google Trends data on searches for Audemars Piguet before and just following the watch release. Searches quadrupled on the day of the release and stayed above pre-release levels for at least three days after. This effect is similar in magnitude to the effect of Watches and Wonders on searches for Rolex and Vacheron Constantin in 2023 (see my post here). Think about that: a collaboration with one man and his team was as effective as a multiday trade show involving 49 brands.

It remains to be seen if AP will continue with these collaborations. The reason? The release with Travis Scott also featured a handover of the reins from François-Henry Bennahmias to incoming CEO Ilaria Resta, who will, no doubt, have her own vision for drawing in younger generations of buyers without alienating longstanding brand faithful (I wrote about Resta's selection here). Given the long lead times required of watch releases, it is likely that there are still a few high-profile collaborations in the pipeline. What comes after those is an open question.

All photos provided courtesy of Audemars Piguet.
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