The surprising new watches emerging from famed Italian jewellery house Bvlgari suggest an exciting new era of innovative and experimentation, but as CEO Jean-Christophe Babin explains to The Luxury Report editor James Buttery the company has always looked at things differently.
Considering Bvlgari’s New Bond Street boutique is just a few hours away from hosting a glittering launch party with brand ambassadors Carla Bruni Sarkozy and Luke Evans as guests of honour, everyone looks incredibly calm. It’s not a huge stretch of the imagination to assume that Bvlgari stages quite a few glittering bashes, but even so it’s a little unnerving.
The boutique has undergone a complete redesign courtesy of Peter Marino; everything is rich, sumptuous and tactile. One can even feel the uneven nature of the interior’s marble mosaic floor tiles underfoot. Marino’s intelligent design sets out to stimulate the senses and it succeeds in firing the subconscious.
Bvlgari has selected the London boutique to house a concept that’s still fairly new to the brand, a room dedicated to men’s watches. The idea was first trialled in the brand’s Via Condotti boutique in Rome and proved such a success that is was decided to roll it out to other stores that were large enough to house a dedicated room without altering their overall character.
“Everything starts from the acknowledgment that men tend to shy away from a ladies’ boutique,” Bvlgari chief executive officer Jean-Christophe Babin tells me. “Obviously when you’re a jeweller you are permanently perceived as a feminine brand and rightly so; all of our jewellery is meant to be worn by ladies. We felt it was very important to provide for our male clients, whether they came by themselves or with their wife, with a room that they felt more familiar with, to break the overall feminine atmosphere of the store.
“Men are very important in our business, be it for themselves if they want to buy a men’s watch or to give something beautiful to their fiancée or wife. So to have them feeling good was a type of hospitality.”
It’s hardly surprising that the LVMH-owned brand is treating itself to this kind of lavish refurbishment considering the success it has enjoyed in the last 12 months, described in its parent company’s annual report as ‘an excellent year’. Each of Bvlgari’s five businesses – which includes hotels and, of course, watches – improved on the previous year and gained market share.
“Watches have been part of it, remarkably in the sense that watches were not a growing market, we know that the Swiss luxury market has been a bit stable over the last three years, even declining a bit last year. In that context we took market share on watches and it has been because of two things.
“First thing has been the success of the Lvcea collection, introduced late 2014. It has been our single most successful launch collection ever, not only because it scored very good sales levels, sell out mostly, but also because it has come mostly as an addition to our existing ladies business. The fact that B.B ladies [Bvlgari.Bvlgari] and Serpenti have kept growing after the Lvcea launch has really sped up development of the ladies business.”
Babin reveals that the second contributing factor to the growth of Bvlgari’s watch business has been the expansion of the Octo into a fully fledged men’s watch collection complete with manufacture movement.
“Octo has really gained traction, this was already in 2014, but has really become something substantial in our portfolio as a men’s line in 2015. Combining the two you can really see why we’ve had such a success in watches.”
The revered luxury brand’s recent success is made all the more impressive given the troubled economic landscape it has been operating in. Traditionally strong global markets the world over have beaten a hasty retreat in the face of China’s economic slowdown.
“As Bvlgari we are quite balanced,” explains Babin. “Which is the beauty of operating five different businesses. You might be more or less penetrative in one market, which is then compensated by another business. Our watches in particular came quite late to China compared to some other big names therefore, yes, China accounts for a substantial percentage of our sales, but not as much as you can see from others. Conversely jewellery has maintained very strong traction in China, and with the Chinese generally speaking, so our growth in China was generally strong even though it was less driven by watches and much more by jewellery and accessories.”
But Chinese consumers have also moved away from branded luxury goods following an ongoing domestic crackdown on corruption and Bvlgari’s main core collection – the Bvlgari.Bvlgari – was the first watch to ever wear its branding on its bezel. As such, when Babin joined Bvlgari in 2013 from LVMH stablemate TAG Heuer, the first project he took control of was an exercise in conveying the essence of the brand without the need for overt branding.
“The key point of Lvcea was to create a non-logo watch that embodied Bvlgari. So it was more to target clients that do not love big logos and offer something more understated, while keeping very strong character of Bvlgari in a shape which is reminiscent of the snake.”
The Luxury Report’s sister publication WatchPro was quick to identify Lvcea’s potential, naming it the title’s Women’s Watch of the Year 2015, citing the balanced implementation of its bimetal construction and wonderfully geometric form.
“To confess a secret,” Babin admits. “This was born right when I joined the company. There was a project, but when I saw it I was a bit uneasy, because the construction of the project was only single [metal] compatible. So I said why don’t we stop it and reconsider the project, to start conversely with the first ever steel and gold watch, and then if it’s a good steel and gold watch we will probably end up with a good full gold look or a good full steel look.
“So I think in the history of Swiss manufacturing this was the first ever creative which was born with a steel and gold brief rather than steel and gold coming two years later as an adaption of an initially steel watch. I had so many difficult experiences from my previous brand, all the time starting in steel and making the steel and gold later, it was very difficult to express.”
To remind him of the difficulties involved in making an aesthetically pleasing bimetal watch bracelet, Babin still wears a single steel bracelet link from his former employer on a string around his wrist.
Under Babin’s leadership not only has Bvlgari taken an innovative approach to watch design, it has also taken a bold stance on the issue of how to introduce technology into its mechanical watches. Very soon after smart watches announced themselves on the scene, Bvlgari revealed a prototype system that dealt in digital data security rather than daily step counts. Partnering with Swiss security specialist WISeKey, Bvlgari announced a version of its Diagono model with a Near Field Communication (NFC) chip within its case that opened up many 21st century digital possibilities, including contactless payments and military-grade data security.
Babin explained the situation: “How can we be technological without being gimmicky? How can we be technological without jeopardising the integrity of a manufacture watch. This led us to take a totally different direction than the Android-powered watches, because if you go that way you challenge your mechanical integrity to the point where cannot be mechanical, plus you cannot differentiate. The platform is the same for everyone.
“Our way with WISeKey and the NFC approach is to provide a true, new consistent service to our clients which is ultimate security, security of their payment if they pay with Mastercard, security of their digital ecosystem if they use Bvlgari vault. This is really a concept based on cyber security, which personally I feel is far more innovative and exclusive than what an Android or Apple watch can provide you with today.”
Rather than a direct competitor to luxury mechanical timepieces, Bvlgari’s CEO sees the smart watch as the natural successor to quartz.
“Quartz was considered something that was not considered real to Swiss watchmaking and now if you look at the Swiss export statistics the majority of volumes are quartz watches. So for me the fact that from quartz you become digital, offering new services is not shocking, not potentially jeopardising the industry.
“This new electrical generation of watch will run in addition to Swiss watches first and, if there is cannibalisation, probably at the expense of the quartz watches. So probably electricity of the latest generation will only take a share out of the electricity of the former generation. It’s not a big revolution, it’s an evolution which will be a challenge for the quartz-only brands.”
Babin explains that innovation such as WISeKey has always been at the core of Bvlgari’s approach, whether making jewellery or watches, as witnessed when the brand first committed itself to introducing a core watch collection in the mid 1970s.
“We entered with something very daring, the Bvlgari.Bvlgari watches or Bvlgari Roma,” says Babin. “Most watches were extremely classical, round cases, so Bvlgari has never played in the watch market in a classical way, we have always tried to combine the Roman Italian design dimension – which distinguishes us from Swiss brands – together with true Swiss knowhow. You see it in Lvcea, it’s not a classical ladies watch, it’s bold, it’s powerful, it’s volumetric. Everything we do in watches tries to fuse those two dimensions.”
This was also where Bvlgari made its entry into watches for men, at a time when, as Babin sheepishly explains, the vast majority of its clients were men buying for women, almost as an apology for how that sounds today, he adds: “…it was the 70s”.
“To thank them for their loyalty Bvlgari decided to create a gift that was meaningful to them and they created this Bvlgari Roma digital watch. It was very daring at the time because it was the Bvlgari name on a man’s watch, which we’d never done before. The gift was not sold, it was presented. But it was so successful they asked if they could have more and then they decided to turn it into a commercial product. However Serpenti and Lvcea were all born from a blank page to become ladies watches only. In that sense we are very different from the pure players in Switzerland who mostly started from men’s watches.”
To say that much more effort goes into today’s Bvlgari watches for men would be something of an obvious understatement. The brand’s headline piece at this year’s Baselworld was the Octo Finissimo, the world’s current thinnest minute repeater with a movement just 3.12mm thick. Perhaps more important than its world-beating specification is Bvlgari’s choice of materials and approach to design. Minute repeaters are traditionally traditional, utterly classic in their approach to design.
“Before Bvlgari in my previous position I was chasing the fashions of time,” says Babin. “But offering those fashions of time in pretty advanced designs. But I never understood why in 99% of cases, haute horlogerie should be synonymous to very shy and classical design. You can be a genius reinventing a movement or a complication but why should you somehow cast a shadow on the beauty of your animation by encasing it in a very déjà vu design.”
The Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater is perhaps the most modern take on the complication yet produced, sculpted from titanium – then sand-blasted matt – with a skeletonised dial which gives the briefest glimpse of the movement beneath.
“Why shouldn’t a minute repeater be a cool watch?” He asks. “I think our Minute Repeater is a very wearable – daily wearable – cool watch. This is what you want most, you don’t buy a minute repeater to keep it in a safe and only look at it and wear it very occasionally, why shouldn’t you wear it every day. This is why we did 50m waterproof, not necessarily to div,e but at least to take a shower, not to be afraid of wearing something you cherish. Like the Ferraris of nowadays, they are no longer the cars you keep in your garage 330 days a year and drive only in summertime when it is not raining. Now people in London drive their Ferraris every day.”