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“Today’s vintage is the style of people who have no ideas of their own”

INTERVIEW WITH JEAN-CHRISTOPHE BABIN

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April 2018


“Today's vintage is the style of people who have no ideas of their own”

With one foot in jewellery and the other in watches, Bulgari’s CEO Jean-Christophe Babin interprets the radical changes taking place in the industry with a sharp eye. Since this time our folio is devoted to the disruptions currently facing the watchmaking industry, we thought it only logical to look at where the future is leading – between 3D production, digitalisation and omni-channel sales.

A

t Europa Star we’ve compiled a folio of 12 fundamental disruptions affecting the watchmaking industry and its future. We’re not going to ask you to find as many, but if we asked you to identify any waves of change that are likely to overtake the industry…

I’d mention three! First of all, we shouldn’t underestimate the capabilities of 3D production, which is set to challenge traditional manufacturing production, especially of watch cases. Current manufacturers are advised to think very seriously about it. 3D allows you to design very light structures with great flexibility. That is going to transform the whole appearance of watches. We already produce jewellery using 3D.

Another wave of change is the digitalisation of the world of luxury – including watches. Today, there’s nothing really conclusive in the way of digital watches, even if genuine watch brands like TAG Heuer, Frédérique Constant and Montblanc are also making smartwatches. In my view, the overall offering has expanded, with 15 million Apple Watches sold every year, but that’s ‘on top’. Even at Bulgari we’re continuing our projects for secure wearable devices with our partner Wisekey, but we’re waiting for a standard bank protocol for e-payment.

The third aspect I’d like to highlight is omni-channel retail, with the idea that brands can at last go back to making direct contact with the end customer. This direct contact had vanished, but it did exist during the first generation of industrial watchmaking, into the 1930s. After that, the brands became international, used intermediaries and lost this direct link. But at the same time, it means they’re going to have to cope with potentially losing control of their exclusivity through the new digital sales platforms.

Jean-Christophe Babin
Jean-Christophe Babin

According to management consultants Bain, online sales of luxury products will have levelled out at 25% by 2025. What does Bulgari actually sell online today?

Very little. We only have online sales platforms in four countries (China, Japan, US, UK). So the market is partially covered, and only recently. Secondly, watches aren’t made for selling solely online, because the aspect of trying the product on is still important. Most customers need to see the watch for themselves, they come to the boutique, make their choice, and after that they may finalise the purchase online. That’s why you can’t talk of ‘purely’ online sales.

It’s true that we’re more excited by the idea of expressing ourselves in a dynamic way, rather than picking up historic codes and revamping them all the time.

In China, Longines has announced a partnership with Tmall. Is Bulgari already present on these platforms, or is it about to be?

Bulgari is a brand that seeks a certain exclusivity, so we’re cautious about these mass sales platforms. We don’t need hundreds of millions of potential customers. A few thousand suffice!

How do you manage the customer data you gather via your online and offline platforms?

Bulgari sells tens of thousands of watches a year, but we also sell perfumes to millions of customers. So we have a ‘staircase’ starting with more accessible products, like perfumes and accessories, and moving up towards watches and jewellery. That also means that the brand has a slew of data today, even though its ambition is only to sell tens of thousands of watches. The pool we already have, and that we generate every year, is dynamic, and more than enough in relation to our watch-selling ambitions.

Lucea Tubogas in stainless steel and rose gold and diamonds
Lucea Tubogas in stainless steel and rose gold and diamonds

In the press releases we’re receiving in the run-up to Baselworld, we’re seeing two trends: a downsizing of dimensions, and vintage. But at Bulgari, the design seems to be more futuristic than vintage...

The advantage of Bulgari is that we are real watchmakers, we don’t mess around with copying. Today’s vintage really is the style of people who have no ideas of their own. We’re lucky: our watchmaking past doesn’t stretch back very far – the Bulgari Roma was created in 1975 – so we have to look towards the future. That’s what prompted us to make Octo, Serpenti (created in 2010 and nothing to do with the jewellery Serpenti of 1940-1960), and Lucea in 2014.

It’s true that we’re more excited by the idea of expressing ourselves in a dynamic way, rather than picking up historic codes and revamping them all the time. Ah, I’ve just thought of a fourth disruption that you can note down: Daniel Wellington, it’s a brand which is a disruption in itself, since it was created online and has been a huge hit with millennials, with its neoclassical associations, its flat, gilded case and fancy strap. It’s the first watch brand to make a massive breakthrough with millennials, with prices in the 250 CHF range.