Guilio Papi’s perpetually inquisitive mind has created some of the most
beautiful watch movements in modern horology; his incredible career started when he was barely out of his teens.
If you mention the name of a watchmaker, designer or CEO to another in the industry, you are likely to be greeted with a polite smile and a comment to the effect that yes, they know each other, have worked together, are old friends and so on and so forth. However, when you mention Giulio Papi’s name, that smile invariably reaches the eyes. One of the most talented people in the watchmaking industry, Papi’s down-to-earth demeanor and sincerity means that popularity is also high on his list of attributes. A winner of the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (2008) and the Gaia Esprit d’Entreprise (2015) for contributions to watchmaking, he admits that it’s not the watch itself that fascinates him, but the way it functions as a ‘little machine’. Fascinated with machinery, technology
and engineering from an early age, he launched his own movement manufacture Renaud & Papi (with Dominic Renaud who has since retired) in 1986, at the staggeringly tender age of 21 and has presided over some of modern watchmaking’s most astonishing watches and complex calibres. He has made movements for Audemars Piguet, IWC, Harry Winston, Breitling and A. Lange & Söhne, as well as playing a pivotal role
in the launch of Richard Mille’s business. The horological lab he started is today called APRP (Audemars Piguet Renaud Papi) with a majority stake having been acquired by Audemars Piguet in 1992 at a critical time in the business’ growth. With Papi overseeing
a stable of more than 100 watchmakers, it continues to be a source of innovation, producing and developing watches for a host of brands.
What is it about watches that fascinates you?
I’m not a watchmaker because I like watches; I like mechanics in general. I like engines, cars, bikes and airplanes. For me, it’s just magical to design a machine and to make and fi t the components together and make it move without electricity. A watch to me is not just a watch, it’s a little machine that gives you information. A car transports you from one point to another point, but a watch gives you information. How it gives you an information is what I am passionate about.
Why did you alight on watchmaking at a time when the industry was stagnant?
I don’t know why I decided to study this. Well, I know why, because it’s a passion. I began my apprenticeship in 1980. I was the only one in my classroom, because nobody wanted to learn this job because of the Japanese quartz crisis. Most people had lost their jobs and people didn’t believe in the future of the mechanical watch. I thought why not, I love
to repair, to create. After my apprenticeship I wasn’t sure of the future, so I learned another job at evening school, which was to be a software analyst. Eventually I was hired to work at Audemars Piguet. I learned quickly; I made skeleton watches and learned the secrets of finishing, polishing, satining. After 18 months I asked the human resources department if it was possible to work on a complicated watch. And I was told I had to wait 20 years, because only ‘old’ watchmakers with experience could be hired to work on complicated watches.
How did you gain knowledge and experience so quickly?
During my apprenticeship, the teachers had time just for me alone because I was the only student. They taught me more than was usual for normal classes; they taught me everything! I believe that I learned the equivalent of six or 10 years of study in four years – I was very demanding and asked the teachers a lot of questions.
After feeling frustrated that you couldn’t progress as swiftly as you wanted to, you decided the only way forward was to set up your own movement manufacture…
Yes, with Dominic Renaud, there was the unique possibility to create our own workshop. The idea was to make one, two or three complicated watches in a year. And we had a lot of success, we were the first laboratory to design new complicated wristwatches at this time. There was a demand among collectors, which we didn’t know about until we started, for new wristwatches with complications. My first job when we started was to
create a software to design the watches. I had learned how to make the software at night school and the existing software was really expensive. So I made my own.
And then in 1992, Renaud & Papi was acquired by Audemars Piguet…
We were independent from 1986, but we needed a fi nancial partner as we needed money to hire people, to buy machines, to have an atelier, to pay insurance and the bankers didn’t want to help. We made a deal for Audemars to own the majority of
the shares, and they in turn agreed to respect our technical and commercial
strategy, such as allowing us to work for other brands and to spend a portion of the profits on research and development, to transform profit into knowledge. It’s so important to work for other brands, because in doing so we learn another point of view, another way to think, other values and new challenges. Only in this way can we
add to our bank of knowledge.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m proud of a lot of my watches because they have all different stories. My first job was a minute repeater for IWC and they still use it today. Another project was the first tourbillon Pour le Merite for Lange & Söhne. When the Berlin Wall came down Mr Blümlein wanted to revitalise the brand and I was asked which kind of complication we should make to erase 50 years of inactivity of the brand. I’m also very proud of the fi rst small minute repeater for Audemars Piguet in ’92. Maybe my favourite is the Grand Sonnerie (not the Super Sonnerie of this year) that we launched in ’98. It’s a small wristwatch and the dial is small with hours, minutes and seconds however inside there is a complex mechanism. I spent a lot of time and energy on that and learned a lot. Finally, of course I am proud of the different models for Richard Mille… I am proud of a lot.
Will we see a Giulio Papi branded watch?
I have thought about doing my own watch of course, but I had small children, and when you create a new brand there is so much work, such as public relations, marketing, and travel around the world, all to sell the new product. I knew I would spend all of my time away from home and I preferred to see my children grow up. I thought – I have time. So I have waited and I’ve tried to keep a young face and mentality and now that my children are 18 and 16, I can try and accelerate that idea. But I am not sure that now is the right time in the market. It’s something I am thinking about, but I am not in a rush.