For the traditional Swiss watch industry to grow, it must look to its future not its past, argues Antoine Pin, managing director at Bulgari.
“What happened in the 1990s and 2000s was that we saw a huge tribute to the past and high horology was more an exercise of repeating what people did in the past. In reality, the best watchmakers in the world have always looked forward, not backwards,” he tells WatchPro.
“We have a taste for vintage, but our industry can move forward if we are looking forward. I would rather embrace what the digital brands are doing — they should be inspiring to us in all sorts of ways,” he adds.
In reality, Bulgari does a bit of both. Its women’s watch portfolio draws heavily from past successes. The Serpenti can trace its lineage back to the 1940s and design elements like the hollow metal tubogas links, which it uses to make its bracelets, first emerged in the 1950s.
For men, the Octo is a more recent addition — first seen in 2012 — and it is a better example of the sort of new collection that can be built on long into the future. The hope is it could become a platform watch like Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, which can be stretched and extended in myriad ways without losing sight of its origin design.
Octo Finissimo, which holds several world records for its thinness, is like a concept collection showing how far the Octo platform can go. Most consumers will opt for more mainstream models, but that does not mean that Bulgari should be afraid of experimenting and throwing money at R&D. “We need to push ourselves. We must be prepared to fail in some aspects as we develop these collections; that is part of moving forwards and learning,” insists Mr Pin.
Sticking, or getting stuck, with what has worked in the past is a dangerous strategy, Mr Pin proposes. Just look at what is happening to Baselworld, he suggests while speaking to press on the shores of the Arabian Gulf during the LVMH Watch Week in Dubai.
“Six or seven years ago every company felt it had to be at Baselworld. The management of the show was so complacent and arrogant. They just increased prices every year by more than 10%. The price of hotel rooms was ridiculous. It was the same every year with nothing changing,” Mr Pin describes.
“Now everything is being challenged so quickly. Brands believe they can hold their own events, retailers wonder if they need to go when they are shown the watches before the show anyway,” he adds. “I am always concerned when I see rules and behaviour that is not challenged by common sense.”
One tactic that Mr Pin does not intend to change is maintaining a network of multibrand retail partners across the world. While the much larger jewellery part of Bulgari wants to narrow its channels to sell almost exclusively through its own boutiques, watches needs to be seen and sold alongside competitor brands.
“We have roughly 300 retailers working with us world-wide, and we will stick there for the moment. Being in multibrand retail is really key. We have to face our competitors, we have to face the feedback of retailers when they tell us that, for example, a particular watch is too expensive or not expensive enough. That is very important feedback,” Mr Pin says.
“We have to value our retail partners and not to be tempted to give priority to our own direct retail network. The temptation is there because the financial structure is different and we may believe we have stronger influence over our own sales staff in stores. That may be true, but that would be like backing away from the challenge,” he adds.
Bulgari as a group in its own right and as one of the biggest businesses within LVMH, has the money and global brand awareness to turn its watch division into world beater. Following the lead of other Bulgari divisions, which range from fragrances and handbags to hotels and jewellery, could help.
Bulgari Signature Style
And Mr Pin wants to draw inspiration from the Bulgari world around him.
“We have a clear signature that is very inspiring across the group, even for the watch business. Bulgari aims for a casual chic style of luxury that is very interesting and difficult to achieve. When you come to a Bulgari property, the staff should not be pompous in any way, but if the level of service is not up to the highest standard then what was supposed to be causal chic can come across as complacent. There is no compromise on service when you aim to have this casual attitude. Great, warm, welcoming Italian style works as long as the quality is maintained at the highest level, and that is what we are aspiring to across all divisions,” he describes.
“I find this super-inspiring. We can have very cool communications as a watchmaker as long as what we deliver in terms of watches is second to none in terms of quality. It forces us to really push on the quality side,” he explains.
The luxury industry is working out how to tell a story of sustainability and environmental protection, and it can look a little deaf and blind to the issues when it flies hundreds of executives in business class to Dubai for its Watch Week. On the flip side, mechanical watches are undeniably sustainable in comparison to the rapidly obsolete smartwatches that are churned out by the likes of Apple and Samsung.
Mr Pin recognizes this is one of many contradictions that Swiss watchmakers grapple with. “The beauty of our products is that they last, and we should highlight that. They are sustainable, and that is something we should speak about and we are working on that. At the same time, our clientele is hungry for novelty and we need to feed that demand,” he shrugs.
To be fair, the environmental impact of the $20 billion Swiss watch business is tiny compared to far more energy and resource intensive manufacturing industries like automotives or white goods. In some ways, sustainability is more about a state of mind that people should buy things that are built to last, and this is a genuine ace up the sleeve of the Swiss. Watches lasting many decades become part of their owners’ life journeys, and Bulgari believes it can ride shotgun by making it easier for people to trade-in and buy other watches over many years.
“One idea could be to provide more services throughout the lifetime of a watch, and to offer to replace watches for customers from time to time. We could then resell the watch that is returned to us, which is good for sustainability. We are digging into that concept and testing it in Japan,” Mr Pin reveals.
For 2020, Bulgari’s biggest announcement so far this year is a new Serpenti Seduttori Tourbillon, a watch that tells the brand’s female customers that they do not need to settle for less horological complexity than men. In fact, they get the best of both worlds: top end complications, an extraordinary level of miniaturisation and micro-engineering, and the gem-setting expertise of its jewellers.
This year’s Serpenti Seduttori Tourbillon models come in rose gold or white gold with diamond pavé and a leather strap or white gold with diamond pavé and a full diamond bracelet. In addition to the tourbillon models, Bulgari also added five other Serpenti Seduttori editions with new snakeskin-like bracelets. One is adorned with diamonds and another has alternating links of rose or white gold with steel.
Bulgari’s Divas’ Dream collection is also being extended with a green Malachite-dialed Minute Repeater, the thinnest it has ever made with this revered complication. The precious piece is finished with pave diamonds to make sure it gets noticed on the red carpet. Another addition to the family comes with a deep blue lapis lazuli dial and a third is adorned with a genuine peacock feather on its face represent the brand’s rich love of colour and devotion to unexpected materials.
For men, the record-breaking Octo Finissimo collection has been boosted with five new models made with innovative new finishes like sandblast-polished ceramic and satin-polished steel and rose gold. One of the most eye-catching is an Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater in rose gold, powered by the ultra-thin BVL 362 3.12mm Mechanical Manufacture Minute Repeater movement.
More commercial, and on trend in Western markets, is the Octo Finissimo Automatic Satin-Polished Steel, a black-dialed piece with a brushed steel 40mm case and integrated brushed steel bracelet.
Since WatchPro met with Mr Pin and saw these watches in Dubai, Bulgari first said it will not participate at this year’s Baselworld exhibition. Baselworld was then canceled until 2021 and Bulgari has fronted an effort to bring a small number of brands together to present 2020 collections at Geneva Days, a series of small events held in hotels around the city.