(Bloomberg) -- Before she was revealed as the new chief executive officer of Swiss luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet, Ilaria Resta went mystery shopping.

The Swiss-Italian national popped into the brand’s boutique in Geneva with a friend. Without revealing her identity or new job, Resta told the salesperson she knew little about the company and its watches, which sell for an average of about 50,000 francs ($56,497).

She wasn’t being totally disingenuous. Resta spent most of her career, more than two decades, at consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble Co., and was only a casual buyer of timepieces to mark significant milestones in her life. Before her visit to the Audemars Piguet boutique, she said she was intimidated by the high-end Swiss watchmakers.

It’s a notoriously opaque sector and a key pillar of Switzerland’s economy — with just a handful of women occupying top executive roles. As the head of one of the five biggest brands by sales, Resta is arguably the highest-ranking female executive in the Swiss watch industry.

“I’ve always believed the best leaders are the ones who learn and not the ones who know,” she said in an interview in Le Brassus, Switzerland, where the 149-year-old family-controlled firm is based. 

Resta is taking over the top job at a challenging time for both the company — now best known for its Gerald Genta-designed Royal Oak sports watch — and for Swiss watchmakers in general. 

Demand for pricey timepieces such as the Royal Oak has begun to wane after surging during the pandemic, when cash-flush consumers — stuck at home and inspired by social media — splashed out on established luxury models. 

Prices of these so-called hype watches, which included Patek Philippe’s own Genta-designed sports watch, the Nautilus, and Rolex’s Daytona chronograph, soared to unprecedented heights on the secondary market in 2021 and 2022. 

At the same time, waiting lists for new models at authorized dealers ballooned. Interest in smaller independent Swiss brands such as F.P. Journe, MB&F and watchmaking upstart Rexhep Rexhepi’s Akrivia also caught fire.

In response, brands raised prices and released new models and a slew of collaborations, vaulting Swiss watch exports to successive records in each of the past three years. 

But higher interest rates, a strong franc and wars in Europe and the Middle East have begun weighing on the market. Demand for new watches has slowed and second-hand prices have largely skidded back to pre-Covid levels. 

A pre-owned Royal Oak Jumbo Ultra Thin that was fetching more than $138,000 at the peak two years ago can now be bought for about $64,000, according to the Bloomberg Subdial Watch Index, which tracks secondary market prices. That’s still about double the retail price. 

Resta’s predecessor Francois-Henry Bennahmias, who steered Audemars Piguet to record sales of about 2.4 billion francs last year, told Bloomberg News in November that he never expects to see the likes of the Covid-era boom again.

Given this backdrop, Resta said her job is to maintain, manage and strengthen innovation at the Audemars Piguet brand for its private family shareholders, whatever the wider industry conditions. The company intends to remain independent, she said, even as potential suitors such as Bernard Arnault’s acquisitive LVMH luxury conglomerate have circled. 

“Uber-qualitative watchmaking. That is the mission,” said Resta, who took the helm on Jan. 1. “I’m not driven by growth that is aligned or not aligned with the market because at the end of the day, the market dynamics are not a reflection of our strategy.” 

Analysts at Morgan Stanley and Swiss industry consultancy LuxeConsult said Resta’s challenge as CEO will be to maintain positive momentum, but she’ll have to rely on organic growth as Audemars Piguet’s shift to selling directly to consumers in its own boutiques is largely completed.

Resta’s mission is to stabilize the brand and capitalize on its transformation from a watchmaker to a luxury house, the analysts wrote in a recent industry report.

Audemars Piguet is adding to facilities in Le Brassus and building an additional plant in Meyrin, near Geneva, to produce cases and bracelets, but Resta said not to expect significant production increases this year. Instead, the brand will double down on complications, quality of materials, finishing and craftsmanship. Prices will reflect costs, research and development and labor.

“I don’t have pricing as a factor of my business strategy,” she said. “For me, what drives is the ultimate goal of sustainable long-term independence.”

In one of her first executive decisions, Resta said she would extend Audemars Piguet’s industry-first service program that guarantees to replace or repair watches that are stolen or damaged for two years from the date of purchase. Watches bought in 2024 will now be eligible for the service. 

She also confirmed the brand is working on a certification program that will see it get involved in buying and selling its own used watches. Industry giant Rolex’s foray into officially certifying its used models at the end of 2022 marked a legitimizing moment for the second-hand market. Resta declined to say when its program might begin. 

Bare Concrete Walls

Her sparse but sprawling office is a testament to her mission. The walls are concrete and bare. Four full-sized desks have been pushed together for her executive team to gather round for work on a jumbo-sized computer screen. The only accessories are a few coffee-table books on watchmaking and the history of Audemars Piguet. 

During her time at P&G, Resta oversaw and built brands ranging from hair care products to the category-creating-Swiffer broom. She then took on a senior leadership role at Geneva-based Firmenich as head of global perfumery and ingredients.

Luxury watch collectors and enthusiasts, she said, aren’t so different from the army of Swiffer devotees who can elevate a product to legendary status through passion and loyalty.

At her anonymous visit to the boutique in Geneva, Resta and her friend talked with the salesperson about the history of watchmaking and Audemars Piguet for more than an hour. Only then was a potential purchase discussed. 

“His mission was to turn these two women into people who are passionate about watches,” Resta said of the employee. “He passed with flying colors.”

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