Whether he is investigating the role of Barbie in contemporary society in his capacity as the Chairman of France’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, or illuminating how beauty is one of the most potent remedies against the melancholia brought on by thoughts of our own mortality, Pierre-Alexis Dumas is a man with an expressive and communicative ability that is unrivalled.

His fierce brilliance, which has seen him lead Hermès to its biggest period of growth in decades, with sales in excess of €4bn in 2014, has nothing to do with expansionism or commercial avarice but everything to do with his capacity to be instinctively protective of Hermès’ core values while allowing his potent artistic and intellectual curiosity to roam free.

And while our conversation began with Dumas taking us through the journey of Slim d’Hermès, a watch so perfectly executed that it seems manifested from the collective desires of Hermès’ collectors and devotees, it soon became one of the most captivating discourses on the role of the mechanical watch and, in fact, beauty itself in human culture.

I like to think of a watch design being like the foundation of a house. Once you have the underpinnings, you are able to build onto it. This is precisely what we’ve done with the Slim, which we introduced last year. Because this watch has unique qualities, and it will take time for these to unfold. Now as you know, we have many different types of objects at Maison Hermès. And in some ways we’ve been a little bit misguided by the rhythm of renewal we have in other product categories.

We come from the world of leather accessories, which is very much linked to the rhythm of fashion. So every six months we would come up with something new. But it took a while for me to realise that when you make a watch, which is a small, apparently insignificant object, it actually takes much more time than anything else we make. In recent memory the only thing that took longer was the fountain pen we made with Marc Newson. But making a watch correctly, which includes developing the movement, takes years to do well. The Slim to me represents the perfect alignment of all our competences.

The way we organise ourselves at Hermès is that we have silo structures representing different savoir-faire. One of these is our watch manufacture in Bienne, where our movement team is based. There, Philippe Delothal [the Creative Director of La Montre Hermès] approached me and said he had a movement that was very thin that would allow a very slim watch that could enable us to make a new classic.

Something timeless that could be a new pillar for La Montre Hermès. But as someone who works across all silos, my question to him was, “How will this be a Hermès watch and not a Patek Philippe?” So my role is to remind and help every silo give a real expression of Hermès in every object they take part in creating. Immediately we discussed the coherence between the movement, the intention of the watch, and the typography on the dial. Because if you consider Arceau as one milestone in our story with watches, already you can see the importance of typography and the coherence between the numbers and the shape of the watch.

The way in which we tell the story of Hermès is through design. For a watch, a large part of this relates to the dial and how we use specific numbers or some types of decorative techniques. Right away we agreed we needed very powerful typography. In my capacity as Artistic Director of the maison I am fortunate to work with many different types of artists and craftsmen. But the challenge of the job is to connect the dots at the right time at the right moment. For example, with our pavilion at the Basel watch fair I knew we had to find a new idea.

At the time I was working with the Japanese architect Toyo Ito. And I asked myself, Do I dare to ask him to create something for us? I did and he said yes, and here we are. But it is about finding these meaningful connections to help renew a brand in a creative way. The creative process involves knowing the past as represented by our incredible archives and combining it with the potential that comes from meeting creative talents in all kinds of disciplines. It’s about connecting the dots at the right way and the right moment.

When I was thinking about the design of the watch, at the time I was working on designs for the logo for Puiforcat with Philippe Apeloig, and for me it was very much a lesson on typography. He arrived to the brief with 50 pages and showed me the entire process that brought him from our old logo to the new one.

And page by page he explained the entire journey. He absorbed me into his thought process. It was really interesting, because before he had showed me the last page I had already arrived at the same conclusion. Because he brings you along and you get to a point where you say, “Of course, this is the only solution”.

I consider him a genius. He is probably one of the best typographers in France, if not the world, today. He’s a very humble man and a very busy man. So I called him and asked, “Have you ever designed numbers for a watch?” And he said, “No, I haven’t”. So he came to the manufacture and then the two Philippes [Delothal and Apeloig] met and got along.

This was also important. There was no ego problem. They both were very respectful of each other, and for Apeloig, he was very happy to take up the challenge. I think that Apeloig did something that is really coherent and symbiotic with the shape of the watchcase. To me this makes the watch come to life and reflects the excitement and perfect fit of this creative process.

I feel there is an extraordinary potential for La Montre Hermès, regardless of the condition of the market. I think we are well poised to gain in terms of our share of the market, especially when you think that Hermès watches are still primarily sold to women. So the potential is huge because of the perception of the brand and, to be frank, the reach of the brand.

Do I think in 100 years the mechanical timepiece will still be relevant? Let me answer this in a different way.

I hope in 20 years I’ll be able to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Hermès. But let’s look at our history. We started by dressing horses. Then after 100 years our clients started to drive automobiles. So we started to transfer our know-how to make leather accessories for them.

We took our signature saddle stitch and we started applying this to accessories. And in so doing we made our saddle stitch and our savoir-faire relevant to the modern world. So, regarding watches and their future viability… While I have no idea how people are going to behave, and what kind of tools they are going to need in 20 years, I am convinced that we will always have watches — but for another reason than just the pragmatic function of telling the time.

It’s really ironic, but I think that time is really not the reason anyone has a watch. The reason why we like to wear a watch, the reason we consider it a beautiful object, is for a symbolic meaning. Look at it this way: as long as we are sentient beings aware of our mortality, a watch can be a reminder of that condition.

It is a reminder of our relationship to time, and that can make us slightly melancholic sometimes. Because, if you think about it, you don’t necessarily want to confront your mortality. So what we are looking for are remedies to this melancholy because we don’t want to just sit around meditating about how brief our lives are. And what are these remedies that combat melancholia?

They are examples of beauty. You see, we absolutely need irrational behaviour. We absolutely need beauty. Because it fulfils us. And the watch is that irrational object that is a remedy against the melancholy of mortality. In particular for men. I think for women it is very much a type of bracelet or a piece of jewellery. But for men, we need something more. We work hard but we don’t have very much to give us pleasure. But the watch is capable of creating so much emotion for a man. And beauty comes to us through our senses. It is the combination of a great idea and a sensual experience. An incredible emotion can be extremely brief and intense. It is very surprising how this works.

It is the same with art. Art serves exactly the same purpose as a watch. You can make an experiment with this. Ask yourself how many times a day you look at your watch. Or how many times a day you look at a piece of art. Any time I buy a piece of art I will test it. I will hang it in a place where I am sure that I am going to look at it many times a day. And if it can survive three months, it is a great sign. Because it means that it has enough inner strength to continuously give you emotion over and over again. This is the strength of a painting like the Mona Lisa. You cannot get tired of looking at it because it has mystery.

It is precisely the same with an object. If you wear the same tie for a few days you are going to put it aside. But if you look at it again at the end of the month and the emotion is still there, it is a good design. And I cannot explain this phenomenon in a rational way. It is all about sensation and emotion. Some objects, like some works of art, are able to continue giving you emotion over time — they continue to give you an experience of beauty over and over again despite their age. The results can be surprising. Something that you were very excited about initially may not continue to give you the pleasure you thought it might. With a watch you have to wear it, feel it and use it. And I’ve made some mistakes and I’ve bought watches impulsively and I’ll wear them 10 times or 20 times and then suddenly it doesn’t click. But I believe that the Slim clicks. It’s a real mystery how this works. But I suppose this is the wonderful thing about being human — the unpredictability of how we respond to things.

“You see, we absolutely need irrational behaviour.”

One of my favourite types of watches we create features métiers d’art, like miniature paintings in grand feu enamel and other crafts, on the dial. This, I think, is really incredible. It is our legitimate specialisation at Hermès to be craft-based. And Philippe Delhotal has done incredible work in this area over the years. He tells me he has infinite sources of inspiration from Hermès’ iconography. This is a really wonderful experience for me because, again, I get to connect the dots and meet some incredible talents in the worlds of these craft. And by the way, we thought a lot about this when creating the Slim.

We wanted it to be the optimal canvas for these crafts, which is why the dial has such a large diameter relative to the case size. It allows the strongest expression of these crafts. And there are many things we want to do. These pieces are true collectables. They are like a cabinet of curiosities and they have been so avidly received by the market. So we have to keep up with the demand.

It’s funny, because when we launched the Apple watch with our strap, people would say to me, “Wow, this is so disruptive”. But the fact is that it is not disruptive at all. Today our clients travel by plane, of course, but they travel through the virtual world with all kinds of devices. So we continue to accompany them.

Our collaboration with Apple on their watch reminds me of a picture of my grandmother from 1912. She is six or seven years old and she is wearing a pocket-watch, placed inside a leather case and strap made by her father. That is 100 years ago, and that is exactly what we did with the Apple watch. Do you see my point? This is our craft.

Our very original, fundamental craft. And I am very proud to be invited by Apple to put a strap on what is called a watch, but actually I consider to be a computer on your wrist. They wanted the best leather craftsman in the world to accompany them. It was a pleasure to do so. We don’t make these kind of objects, and we wouldn’t know how to, but we can dress them in the same way we used to dress horses. So you see it’s not disruptive, it is the same idea.

Funnily enough, many years ago we made a carrying case for an actual apple. It was a silver case made by Puiforcat, which we then covered in green leather. It was a delicate object and remarkable, as its purpose was to hold one apple a day for its owner. But it was most importantly a remedy against melancholy. Just like anything we create.

I am the new Chairman of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. And I have a lot of work to do.

The challenge I face is very simple. It is very basic and very down to Earth. We have to bring the number of visitors from 300,000 per year — which is ridiculously low for a major museum in Paris — to at least 700,000.

And this has to happen in the next three years. I cannot be more blunt. My vision is that this is the museum in the world where we are crazy about objects. And everything we do has to reinforce this idea and this perception.

We are next to the Louvre, which is about classic art. There are many contemporary art museums in Paris, which are about concepts and ideas. But we are the only museum that is about objects.

Objects are so fundamental and relevant in French culture, as well as global culture. But, at a time when we are producing the greatest amount of waste in human history, it is critical that we think hard about what objects are really about.

My vision is that this should be the platform in France where we question and investigate the beauty but also the meaning of objects. For instance, we had a show on Barbie, which the curators did a great job on. It was great for little girls but it was also great for adults. There was enough intellectual content to question the construction of Barbie and what it really does in society.