Changing times for Bulgari
The Week Portfolio speaks to the brand's enigmatic CEO, Jean-Christophe Babin
Encouraging a luxury watch and jewellery brand to adapt to modern consumer behaviour is easier said than done, but Jean-Christophe Babin hasn’t let a little thing like heritage hold him back. Bulgari, a brand whose very name recalls images of Elizabeth Taylor dripping in diamonds, emeralds and sapphires, and one which is indelibly linked to Rome's dolce vita years, is not stuck in the past but adapting to today's fast-paced, technology-led world. Thanks to Babin, the company is going about it in a smooth and sophisticated manner, finding new ways to translate the idea of reputation, lineage and craftsmanship through digital means.
In 2015, the LVMH-owned brand revealed its prototype Bulgari Diagono Magnesium concept watch – not a smartwatch in the true techie sense, but a classic style equipped with an NFC (Near Field Communication) chip that links to a special app on your smartphone or mobile device. The Bulgari Vault app stores and protects your personal data using a system developed by WISeKey, an industry leader in cybersecurity. The idea is that this 'intelligent' watch, which is complete but not yet available to buy, can unlock encrypted personal information stored in the 'vault' and facilitate everyday tasks such as instant payments (via your wrist), even unlock your car and disable your house alarm.
While such innovations are headline-grabbing, the brand is not about to lose its way in a world of gadgetry. "Bulgari is very much about elegance," says the amiable Babin in the VIP room of its impressive stand at Baselworld, the annual fair in Switzerland where watchmakers traditionally unveil their big releases for the year ahead.
The Paris-born CEO, who also holds Italian citizenship, is adamant that while Bulgari is moving with the times, the core values of the brand remain set in stone; quite literally when it comes to its superb high-jewellery pieces. "Our message has always been very consistent. With Bulgari, there is always this connection with the art, the culture, and lifestyle of Roma," says Babin. "We really believe that the first thing you must expect from a watch or a piece of jewellery is joy and excitement."
This means no compromise on style and craftsmanship, but, as demonstrated by the Diagono Magnesium, Babin is keen to give contemporary relevance to Bulgari’s heritage – especially through more accessible pieces that sit within the luxury price bracket of €4,000-€10,000 and are, he says, "at the heart of the market".
"You'll be surprised to hear that our clients are very 'mix and match', one evening wearing a €2,000,000 necklace around their neck, the next morning wearing jeans with a steel Serpenti watch. It’s not that the high-jewellery client is a kind of superhuman. Yes, they are richer and accessing different luxuries, but they also often buy into these, shall we say, 'mainstream' offerings."
Mainstream is Babin’s byword for aspirational: he is conscious of the fact that a watch priced at around €5,000 will ultimately also appeal to a younger generation of consumer; one not so concerned with the concept of investing in a traditional ‘heirloom’ piece to pass down to future generations. Immediacy is part of the modern vernacular, so it stands to reason that Babin is keen to harness this aspect of contemporary life with clever new offerings.
Today, the CEO is surrounded by haute-jewellery pieces priced €300,000 and above, but he’s patently more excited about Bulgari’s new online bespoke service, which allows customers to 'create' their own women's Serpenti watch. "What this borrows from our high-jewellery heritage is the colour concept of the different straps, because we are famous for our coloured gemstones. And also there is the idea of 'the bespoke', usually reserved for haute-jewellery, made-to-order designs."
Sportswear brands such as Nike and Converse were early adopters of online customisation, but for a jewellery house such as Bulgari, established in 1884, this is a daring move indeed. Online shoppers will be able to pick their preferred strap, dial, bezel (from diamond-set to simple pink gold) and even type in a personalised engraving for the back of the case. "You can have the word ‘amore’ or 'love', depending on how Italian you want to be," laughs Babin. With 300 possible variations, it’s estimated that the watch will be delivered within two to four weeks of an order being placed, which is about the same time it takes to receive a pair of own-spec NikeiD trainers.
But why this move into personalised women’s watches specifically? For one, it’s safer territory as these colourful offerings are closer to fine jewellery than to timepieces; the global market of the former has remained strong by contrast to the Swiss watch industry, which has endured a two-year downturn in sales and exports. But Babin is also pushing the watch division into new and exciting directions, and not just through integrated microchips.
The new Octo Finissimo Automatic watch, which was also unveiled at this year’s Baselworld, has set a new world record as the slimmest automatic on the market with a total thickness of 5.15mm, a little over twice that of a £2 coin. The Finissimo, along with the new 'design your own' Serpenti technology, is proof that innovation – the non-cryptic kind, understood by all – is very much part of Bulgari’s directive under Babin who, for 13 years, was CEO of TAG Heuer, another LVHM brand with its eye on the digital-age consumer.
"With the Finissimo, the look is very cool; it is of very good pedigree!" says Babin of the elegant timepiece, which draws inspiration from the linear architecture of ancient Rome. “[Worn] with jeans, it is fantastique, and with a very dressed-up suit it is equally elegant. It is not like the classical complicated watches that look more like collectible pieces.
"You know, in the ’60s we were using yellow gold and coloured gems when everyone else was using platinum and diamonds. It was as high in terms of preciousness, but it was meant to be more everyday, more informal than this strict look. Today, we want to reinforce the luxury feeling, but it is still a luxury that can evolve. Like the new Serpenti watch, it is playful while staying very exclusive and unique to you. It is not something that you lock in a safe for special occasions; it is something that, ideally, you wear often."