The many interactions between two worlds
ome of the most important watch brands have their roots in jewellery, a branch related to horology. Cartier, Bulgari, Jacob & Co. and Van Cleef & Arpels, for instance, were all founded by jewellers. The opposite path – jewellers with watchmaking origins – also exists; Chopard and Piaget offer well-known examples. Clearly, these two worlds are very close; they could even be called cousins.
As far as the dynamics of the current moment are concerned, however, watchmaking and jewellery are following very different trajectories. The jewellery industry has recorded higher growth in recent years, and has better weathered the pandemic crisis in 2020. Its destiny over the coming decade seems more promising. The takeover of Tiffany & Co. by LVMH, in addition to being the largest transaction in the history of luxury goods, at 15.8 billion dollars, also points to an impending jewellery boom.
As far as the dynamics of the current moment are concerned, watchmaking and jewellery are follow- ing very different trajectories. The takeover of Tiffany & Co. by LVMH- points to an impending jewellery boom.
In what is still a highly fragmented sector, where “no-name” brands dominate, the jewellery heavyweights – Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels – have opened hostilities with a view to establishing themselves internationally, by promoting their history and their most iconic products, particularly in China.
This consolidation is driven by the two luxury supergroups: Richemont and LVMH. Generalist luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Hermès and Dior are also taking a closer interest in this specialist branch, which for the time being represents only a minor part of their portfolio.
Generalist luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Hermès and Dior are taking a closer interest in jewellery, which for the time being represents only a minor part of their portfolio.
What does the good fortune of its cousin mean for the watchmaking sector?
Groups that have taken control of the destiny of an already largely consolidated watchmaking industry could choose to transfer their resources to a jewellery category with greater potential – even if this means shedding a few watch brands that have failed to deliver on their promise. Furthermore, watch brands or groups with little or no jewellery activity could decide to invest in the sector, either on their own or through alliances.
The positive dynamic of the jewellery sector will also inevitably influence retailers that represent both segments. One possible avenue of resilience for them is to develop their own jewellery lines, with the operational freedom and associated profit margins that go with them. Jewellery, the trendy cousin, has not finished shaking up watchmaking.
he oldest jewels in the world date back to around 130,000 years ago, during the Neanderthal period. Jewellery, you might say, is intrinsic to the human species. Since time immemorial it has fulfilled multiple functions: decorative, of course; erotic, enhancing certain parts of the body; religious; symbolic; utilitarian (when it fastens a toga or cape); but also social, indicative of status; fulfilling an identifying function, by showing affinity to a group; or a magical, sentimental, family or commemorative function... the list goes on.
One key term reveals how ancient the use of gold and diamonds is: the word “carat”. It comes from the Ancient Greek keration, denoting the seed of the carob tree, which has a constant weight of around 2 milligrams.
Diamonds are forever...
In our current civilisation, dominated by economic considerations, jewellery and gemstones can be regarded as a market for which demand will never die out. They constitute a global market that is difficult to evaluate in its entirety because it is split up between a multitude of players, often modest in size or even artisanal, working for a plethora of communities with different tastes. Various sources estimate these innumerable and anonymous players (anonymous except to the wearer of an item of jewellery, who knows where it came from) at 70 to 80 percent of worldwide jewellery sales. The remainder is divided up between the great global players, such as Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Bulgari, etc.
The figures are difficult to grasp because they differ significantly depending on the sources. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, one institute, Grand View Research in the US, estimated that the global jewellery market would attain more than USD 323 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, Euromonitor International estimated that the major luxury brands and international jewellery brands were worth USD 35.4 billion over the same period in 2020 (20% less than 2019, because of Covid-19). If we can believe these figures, the share of the major recognised brands would amount to just over 10% of total sales in the sector.
And the share of the biggest acquisition ever made in this sector – the USD 15.8 billion paid by LVMH for Tiffany & Co. – would alone be worth around 40% of the combined turnover of the big brands. In terms of the watchmaking sector, these figures are still staggering. The USD 15.8 billion paid by LVMH for Tiffany & Co. have to be considered in relation to total Swiss watch exports (declared export price, multiplied by three or four to obtain total turnover, excluding Switzerland). In 2019 this amounted to CHF 21.7 billion, and, with Covid, to “a little under 17 billion” in 2020, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. This says a lot about the economic attractiveness of the “eternal” jewellery sector.
When it comes to jewellery, the name, brand or label carries nowhere near the same weight as it does for watches. The act of purchasing an item of jewellery does not obey the same rules. Of course, status plays a significant role, in terms of how it is embodied in the jewel and assumed by the brand. But another, undoubtedly more important factor, is far more intimate in nature. Jewellery is highly personal: it is worn as close as possible to the skin, it forms one with the body, and it’s not encumbered by any capricious mechanism. Its brand or label is less important than the personal relationship one has with it, its interaction with an occasion, the mood of the day or the season, whether it’s daytime or night.
But the cake is huge; it covers the entire world, and the many and varied guests can all have a slice of it. And the intense manoeuvring in progress is evidence that the big names in global luxury are determined to take an ever greater share. Increasing numbers of watchmaking brands appear to be having the same idea.
It is said that John Warner, Liz Taylor’s seventh husband, wanting to rival Richard Burton, gave her a necklace adorned with a large “LIZ”, all in diamonds. “My name is ELIZABETH”, she replied, disdainfully rejecting the gift.
Major brands have maturity on their side
It’s abundantly clear that the companies that dominate the jewellery market today have the advantage of seniority in the trade: Tiffany & Co., founded in 1837 by the jeweller Charles Lewis Tiffany; Cartier, founded in 1847 by the jeweller Louis-François Cartier; Boucheron, founded in 1858 by Frédéric Boucheron; Bulgari, founded in 1884 in Rome by the Greek goldsmith Sotirio Bulgari; and Mikimoto, the Japanese king of pearls since 1893. Not forgetting Swarovski, created in 1895 by the Austrian glass cutter Daniel Swarovski, or a certain Van Cleef & Arpels, dating back to 1906.
Maturity is also a feature of other major players in the jewellery industry who came from other trades, such as Hermès, founded in 1837 by the saddler Thierry Hermès, Louis Vuitton, founded in 1854 by the trunk-maker of the same name, as well as the younger Chanel fashion house, created in 1910 by the dressmaker Gabrielle Chanel.
It’s worth noting that while most of these companies today have a foot wedged firmly in the door of watchmaking, that line of business took off only once their jewellery business was flourishing. There are fewer counterexamples – that is, companies that started out as watchmakers and successfully branched out into jewellery. One such company is Chopard, founded in 1860 by the watchmaker Louis-Ulysse Chopard; another is Piaget, founded in 1874 by movement manufacturer Georges-Édouard Piaget.
Even the Chinese giant Chow Tai Fook opened its jewellery-making business in 1929. Founded in Canton by Chow Chi-Yuen, it is still majority-owned by his descendants (nearly USD 3 billion in turnover in 2020). In short, it would seem that seniority plays a key role in the success of international jewellery brands.
But while the name plays a less important role than in watchmaking, the biggest names in jewellery have succeeded in becoming part of the collective unconscious, thanks to models that have taken on iconic status. Some examples at random: Cartier’s Panthère (1928), Piaget’s Possession series (1990), Van Cleef & Arpels’ clover-leafed Alhambra (1968), Chaumet’s Liens ring (1977), Boucheron’s Bohemian Serpent (1968), Chopard’s Happy Spirit (1970s), Louis Vuitton’s Idylle Blossom rings (a signature monogram dating from 1896), Buccellati’s Rombi lace (1920s), Bulgari’s Serpenti (late 1940s), Chanel’s Ultra ring, (2012), Tiffany’s Coeur Return (1969), or Hermès’ Collier de Chien cuff bracelet (late 1920s). [For more, read our interview with journalist Isabelle Cerboneschi.]
Thanks to this precious reserve of icons recognised by customers the world over, the biggest luxury brands have succeeded in occupying an increasingly large place in the jewellery sector.
LVMH Chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault pointed specifically to Bulgari – bought by the group in 2011 – when presenting the company’s results in January 2020. He noted that the Italian brand had “doubled its turnover and multiplied its operating profit by five.” [For more on Bulgari, read our interview with its CEO Jean-Christophe Babin].
It is a performance LVMH intends to replicate with its very recent acquisition of Tiffany & Co. So the grand manoeuvres have begun, with LVMH and its Bulgari/Tiffany & Co. duo, backed up by Chaumet, poised to take on the Richemont jewellery empire, the latter shouldered by the giant Cartier and flanked by Van Cleef & Arpels, not forgetting Piaget. The task is huge and will again require hundreds of millions in investments, mainly to modernise and transform Tiffany & Co’s 321 stores, including the flagship store in New York, which the former management decided to renovate completely at a cost of USD 250 million. It is therefore a mathematical possibility that the share of the jewellery market occupied by the large luxury groups will increase further in the years ahead, but without coming to dominate the market completely.
It is a mathematical possibility that the share of the jewellery market occupied by the large luxury groups will increase further in the years ahead, but without coming to dominate the market completely.
Structurally, jewellery and watchmaking differ significantly. The jewellery production centres are innumerable and exist all over the world, whereas watchmaking is much more concentrated, in a handful of countries; the artisanal production segment still has a bright future ahead, although the technical demands of watchmaking and the number of trades involved in making watches are a brake on purely artisanal production. Watchmaking was built on the central notion of brand as the guarantee of trust for the consumer, whereas jewellery is more easily able to do without this kind of recognition.
Watch brands and jewellery
The recent decline in the attractiveness of watchmaking – a phenomenon already visible even before the pandemic came along and added to the problem – has boosted the jewellery business of watch brands. All, or almost all, now offer collections enriched with diamonds and precious stones, or featuring dials with jewellery-like ornamentation. Stone-encrusted ladies’ watches have become a new watchmaking frontier, a potential reservoir of growth – starting at the mid-range up to the top.
Is the quest for growth percentage points making watchmaking more feminine? Several indicators suggest this, and a fai ly clear trend can be observed. For too long, creating a jewellery watch has all too often consisted in adding diamonds to a smaller version of a men’s watch. We are now witnessing – thanks, perhaps, to the presence of more women in the production teams? – greater attention to shape and decoration, and greater delicacy in the workmanship.
At the high end, Audemars Piguet, for example, has already shown extraordinary creativity with its high jewellery models, such as the ultra-contemporary Diamond Punk, Diamond Fury, Diamond Outrage and Sapphire Orbe. These jewellery watches have nothing in common, to say the least, with a Royal Oak (and so their origin, their name, are not obvious at first glance).
Taking a quite different approach, Jacob & Co, with its incredible wristwatches-cum-planetariums combined with spectacular stones, shows that high-end mechanical watchmaking can successfully walk the tightrope between horology and high jewellery. [Read our interview with Jacob Arabo].
Another recent example that remains closer to the grand tradition is provided by Vacheron Constantin, which has a significant jewellery history. Today, the company is betting strongly on a new, very classical but also very jewellery-oriented collection, Égerie.
But amid this growing competition, the Swiss, with their deep-rooted culture of watchmaking and engineering and their specific codes, are less familiar with the very different codes of jewellery and gemstones, which are closer to those of haute couture and fashion. The very act of purchasing a watch is different from the act of buying jewellery. The purchase of a timepiece is more rational, while that of an item of jewellery is more intimate, more emotionally charged. The fact remains that these two worlds are becoming increasingly permeable. And in this rapprochement, jewellery is exerting a strong pull on a watchmaking sector in search of eternity.
The fact remains that these two worlds are becoming increasingly permeable. And in this rapprochement, jewellery is exerting a strong pull on a watchmaking sector in search of eternity.
fter studying law and art history, Isabelle Cerboneschi was destined for a career as an auctioneer but, being “in love with words”, she became a journalist instead. For 15 years she was in charge of the special edition of the Swiss daily newspaper of reference, Le Temps.
Fashion, watchmaking and jewellery are the favourite subjects of this “lover of the professions of all things beautiful”,as she describes herself – a cross-disciplinary perspective she is now putting into effect in her own online magazine, ALL.I.C (in French and English), created in 2017.
Passionate, cultivated and selective, Isabelle Cerboneschi takes an informed, keen and personal look at the close relationship between watchmaking and jewellery.
Passionate, cultivated and selective, Isabelle Cerboneschi takes an informed, keen and personal look at the close relationship between watchmaking and jewellery. Europa Star met her.
Europa Star: At a time of great economic and financial manoeuvring in the jewellery world, and watchmakers’ growing interest in it, you remind us that it is useful to look to the past, where we can see that the link between these two lines of business was originally forged in Geneva – thanks, ironically, to the Puritan, John Calvin.
Isabelle Cerboneschi: When you look at the emergence of watchmaking in Geneva, ironic congratulations are due to John Calvin (1509-1564). He banned jewellery there, because he regarded it as futile and contrary to sumptuary law and the strict principles of Protestantism, but he allowed watchmaking as socially useful. The unemployed goldsmiths of Geneva consequently joined forces with the French goldsmiths and watchmakers, who were Protestant like them and had taken refuge in Geneva to escape religious persecution. Calvin prohibited jewellery, but not the ornamentation of timepieces. It was this union of watchmakers and goldsmiths that spawned the high-end watchmaking industry of Geneva.
“Starting in 1879 and for nearly 60 years, until 1938 to be exact, Vacheron Constantin formed a close alliance with the Parisian jeweller Ferdinand Verger to create truly sublime jewellery watches.”
Without going into the detailed history of this relationship and its consequences, one extraordinary example of the alliance between watchmakers and jewellers is especially enlightening – that of Vacheron Constantin. Founded in 1755, the company soon began to excel in ornamentation. Starting in 1879 and for nearly 60 years, until 1938 to be exact, Vacheron Constantin formed a close alliance with the Parisian jeweller Ferdinand Verger (which became Verger Frères in 1921) to create truly sublime jewellery watches. They are the result of close, genuine collaboration between Paris, its trends, fashions and jewellery craftsmanship, and Geneva with its mechanical watchmaking savoir-faire. It can be regarded as the originator of jewellery watchmaking.
Movements before jewels
Making a genuine jewellery watch is about more than just setting jewels into the bezel of an existing model. It’s the result of a genuine exploration of form stimulated by watchmaking technology and carried out in concert with it.
If we take a closer look at the great successes in the domain of jewellery watches, we see that the finest examples emanated from innovative movements that allowed new forms to emerge. Let me take two examples.
The first is Calibre 101, created by Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1929. This minute mechanical movement, the smallest in the world, appeared when women began wanting to wear a watch that was also a piece of jewellery on their wrist. Its tiny size – “the weight of two butterflies,” as legend has it – allowed Jaeger-LeCoultre to create sublimely beautiful watches. The fact that in 1953 Queen Elizabeth II chose to wear one at her coronation lent it an exceptional aura.
Another example is the ultra-thin 9P movement created by Piaget and showcased at the Basel trade fair in 1957. Just 2mm thick, this calibre made previously unthinkable creations possible. For example, the movement made it possible to produce the first dials in coloured gemstones (turquoise, lapis lazuli, coral, etc.), which marked the style of the period – and which certain brands have striven to relaunch. And let’s not forget that Piaget also had its own gold foundry in Geneva, so it had extensive knowledge of gold-working techniques.
“To my eyes, Piaget is the greatest of all jewellery watchmakers. One of those who, on the basis of their watchmaking expertise, succeeded in becoming real jewellers.”
In 1959, the Piaget manufacture at La Côte-aux-Fées exhibited jewellery creations for the first time, many of them rather extravagant. But although the company had been a movement manufacturer from its inception in 1874, the “purist” watchmakers regarded these “fanciful” items with suspicion. To their eyes, this was not watchmaking. To my eyes, Piaget is the greatest of all jewellery watchmakers. One of those who, on the basis of their watchmaking expertise, succeeded in becoming real jewellers.
Jewellers who became watchmakers
Looking at it the other way round, at jewellers who became watchmakers in every sense of the term, we can think of several jewellery companies who succeeded in “changing their spots” and now have a firm footing in watchmaking.
Take Chopard, their path was the diametric opposite of Piaget’s. In the 1960s, Karl Scheufele, basically a jeweller in Germany, was looking for movements for the watches he created. He came to Switzerland and bought the workshop and the name of Chopard in 1963. The Happy Diamonds watches launched in 1976 – the brainchild of Ronald Kurowski, a stage designer who also happened to be the designer of the Chopard stand at the Basel fair – proved to be game-changers. Their success was the result of a genuine interaction between watchmaking, micromechanics and jewellery, since each floating diamond is set in a kind of socket with a rounded base that makes it dance over the dial.
But it’s to Karl-Friedrich Scheufele that we owe Chopard’s transformation into a real watchmaker. Even before the Swatch Group announced its restrictions on movement supplies, he was convinced that he had to have control over his own internal industrial tool to gain independence and to endure. And so he opened a watchmaking manufacture in Fleurier in 1996. No one expected to see him move into that territory, and the whole thing was done in total secrecy. Since then, however, he has amply proved that he is capable of producing movements of the highest quality. And even of reviving a name like Ferdinand Berthoud, which produces highly complicated watches entirely in-house.
In the meantime, Karl-Friedrich’s sister Caroline, who was equally convinced that Chopard had a card to play in the jewellery domain, set off to conquer the Cannes Film Festival. In 1998 she redesigned the Palme award given to the winners, and it is her jewels and jewellery creations that adorn the necks and wrists of many a star. A double success.
Cartier is quite a different case. In line with its motto “Jeweller of Kings, King of Jewellers”, which suits it very well, Cartier the jeweller has gone through some extraordinary creative phases historically. I’m thinking especially of the Art Deco period, and the legendary designer Jeanne Toussaint, the woman behind the Panthère, who produced some extraordinary pieces between 1933 and 1970. Decades of intense creativity. I’m also thinking of the exuberant years of extravagant requests from certain customers, like the singer Maria Félix, for example, and her iconic Crocodile necklaces. Cartier has had great designers and great customers. An outstanding history.
But where watchmaking is concerned, Cartier has remained first and foremost a jeweller who also makes watches and reissues its iconic pieces – the Tank, the Baignoire, the Crash and so on – on an industrial scale. With the exception of one period, now over, during which Carole Forestier, when she was in charge of R&D at the Cartier manufacture, set up and led a genuine fine watchmaking department with which she designed some extraordinary models, I feel that Cartier has not succeeded in becoming a fully-fledged watchmaker, or has given up trying. And that’s despite its industrial tooling and its investment in the arts and crafts. But from the jewellery making perspective, what the company has produced since its inception in 1847 is still dazzling.
Bulgari followed a slightly different path, and today you could say that the Rome-based jeweller has grown into a genuine watchmaker. The foundations for the transformation were laid twenty years ago, with the purchase of Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth in 2000, but it was with the arrival of Jean-Christophe Babin, the ex-CEO of TAG Heuer, who was appointed head of both the jewellery and watchmaking arms, that Bulgari’s watchmaking business fully asserted itself with the exceptional Octo Finissimo series. Equipped with innovative, ultra-thin in-house movements, they’ve become the new watchmaking icons of the 21st century.
But the bridge to jewellery is the other icon, the Serpenti watch, which was designed in 1940 and lends itself to a thousand horological and jewellery interpretations. The Serpenti harks back to Bulgari’s grand jewellery period. The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence of jewels of extraordinary colour, with a mixture of materials, precious and semi-precious stones, in designs of exceptional taste. For me, Bulgari’s vintage jewellery is the most beautiful, the most dazzling, the most colourful. It’s truly emblematic of la dolce vita and the perfect counterpart to fashion like Pucci’s. Gianni Bulgari, who headed up the company from the 1960s to the 1980s, was an enchanting colourist.
From haute couture to jewellery and watchmaking
It’s not only jewellers that have become fully-fledged watchmakers. There are also a number of fashion companies that have succeeded in establishing themselves as quality watchmakers, unimpeded by the superego that sometimes constrains traditional watchmakers.
The best example of that is Chanel. In actual fact, when Karl Lagerfeld finally agreed – after two requests – to become Chanel’s artistic director in 1983, the company was in serious decline. He gave it phenomenal impetus by returning to the source styles of Gabrielle Chanel, strictly and systematically imposing her codes, the logo with the double C, on which he played, the black and the white, the camellia, etc.
Historically, jewellery was part of the legacy, so to speak, of Gabrielle Chanel, who loved playing with accessories and created her first luxury jewellery collection, Bijoux de diamants, in 1932 – much to the displeasure of the jewellers of Place Vendôme, who did all they could to have her exhibition cancelled. But it wasn’t until 1993 that Chanel launched its own line of jewellery. Since then, the company has put its signature to some beautiful designs in the high-jewellery domain, a department headed today by Patrice Leguéreau, such as the recent Escale à Venise collection.
“Gabrielle Chanel created her first luxury jewellery collection in 1932 – much to the displeasure of the jewellers of Place Vendôme, who did all they could to have her exhibition cancelled.”
Where watches are concerned, the real successes are of course well-known, not only the J12 but also the Boy-Friend, the Première and others, and we can appreciate the constant, steady way Chanel has built up its own production tool step by step. But what I remember above all are the company’s Métiers d’Art watches. The daintiest of them all has to be the Coromandel collection, inspired by the lacquer screens of the same name ornamenting the apartments of Gabrielle Chanel on Rue Cambon in Paris.
That’s the real bridge to haute couture, because Chanel has pursued a consistent and highly intelligent policy of buying rare workshops of dying-out arts and crafts, such as feather-working, embroidery and parurerie, costume jewellery, millinery, etc. Across fashion, haute couture, perfumery, jewellery and watchmaking, Chanel is truly consistent.
The jeweller of feeling
Given the recent news, we can’t not mention Tiffany & Co., the recent takeover of which by LVMH caused plenty of ink to flow. Tiffany & Co. is really a “jeweller of feeling”.
Tiffany & Co.’s enormous strength lies in the fact that it’s an emotional jewellery store, a jewellery store of tenderness. It’s a relationship that can start at birth and follow you your whole life long. Unlike at other jewellery stores, at Tiffany & Co.’s you can find literally everything: jewellery of course, including some iconic pieces, but also photo frames, tableware for babies, key rings, objects symbolising love or friendship – and watches.
That’s where the power of the brand lies. It’s a very American phenomenon that says: create a strong bond with the customer, a bond that endures. That’s what LVMH bought. At Tiffany & Co., you can start with some small item and then, via love trinkets, homewares, accessories, ascend to magnificent jewellery or designer pieces, such as the emblematic Bone cuff by Elsa Peretti, created in 1974, or the Fish collection designed by the architect Frank Gehry. Far from its conservative image, Tiffany & Co. also knows how to surprise.
“Far from its conservative image, Tiffany & Co. also knows how to surprise.”
When you wear Tiffany & Co. jewellery, you certainly manifest your affiliation to a certain group, but above all you express a taste that corresponds to a certain historical American conformism. Tiffany & Co. is also a dream that is accessible to everyone, or almost.
Originally a small souvenir shop, the company was founded in 1837 and was the first to use sterling silver, the purest kind of silver. As for the famous pale turquoise colour of the box, that has been used since 1845. And let’s not forget that the company specialised in diamonds from as early as 1848, and in 1871 became the diamond “king” when it bought the nearly 300 carats of rough yellow diamond that would become the Tiffany & Co. Diamond, for $18,000. That’s how legitimate a jeweller the company is.
Among its vast range, Tiffany & Co. of course also sells watches. But even so, it can’t be called a watchmaking company. At least not for the moment. But who knows exactly what LVMH intends to do with it?
Isabelle Cerboneschi created and hosts the online magazine ALL.I.C.
tanding at the crossroads of two worlds, Jean-Christophe Babin, ex-CEO of TAG Heuer and, since 2013, head of watchmaking and jewellery at Bulgari (as well as perfumes and hotels, among other things), has succeeded with panache in energising Bulgari as a watchmaker while simultaneously reaffirming its status as THE jeweller. We talked with him.
Europa Star: Historically, Bulgari was first and foremost a jewellery label. Now, it’s a watch- maker too. How did this development play out?
Jean-Christophe Babin: Bulgari sold jewellery watches from the start, notably in the 1920s. Then the first Serpenti appeared in 1940, followed by the Tubogas bracelets in 1955. But diversification into real watchmaking came about gradually at Bulgari. It was born of a very simple observation: in the 1970s, especially in Italy, women were not yet integrated into the world of work, as they are today. Jewellery was bought by men, who came to the boutiques with their wives and were bored. There was nothing for them.
That was how the very first Bulgari Roma came about, as a little added extra, a gift the man could treat himself to while waiting. First issued in 1975, this astonishing digital quartz watch was avant-garde at the time, combining classic design with an electronic beating heart. Then the first Bulgari-Bulgari came out in 1977, analogue but still quartz.
Without going into detail here, men’s watchmaking and watchmaking expertise developed very gradually at Bulgari, which founded Bulgari Time in Switzerland in 1980. But it was with the acquisition of Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth, and then several component suppliers, that Bulgari’s mastery of the watch movement began to accelerate. The first mechanical movement designed, manufactured and assembled in-house was released in 2010.
“It was with the acquisition of Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth, and then several component suppliers, that Bulgari’s mastery of the watch movement began to accelerate. The first mechanical movement designed, manufactured and assembled in-house was released in 2010.”
But making jewellery is essentially written into Bulgari’s DNA. How did the company move into men’s watches that are so radically different from the usual Bulgari codes of effervescence, colour and combinations of materials?
Bulgari has always been obsessed by design, it’s part of its “Italian” DNA, so to speak. What influenced us right from the original Octo, launched in 2012, was not jewellery but the grand architectural art you can see all over Rome, in the coffered, honeycombed ceilings of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, and the Pantheon. It was about grace and stability, architectural relevance and harmony. Thanks to its jewellery-making origins, Bulgari has been a master of watch exterior design for a century.
The difference came with its gradual mastery of watchmaking mechanics. The Octo Finissimo was born from the convergence of these two areas of expertise. As for the Serpenti, it’s a symbol of Bulgari across the board, through watches, jewellery, bags, etc. It’s glamour combined with something ancient and sulphurous. It carries all the stylistic heritage peculiar to Bulgari.
“Jewellery is based on gut feeling and it’s driven by couples. An item of jewellery is the vision of two people, the one who wears it and the one who looks at it.”
So, two parallel sources of inspiration, jewellery and, let’s say, architecture, but also two different price segments. Aren’t these two incompatible territories?
On the contrary, I don’t see anything incompatible about offering affordable watches at the same time as very exclusive watches. Take the most recent example: there used to be no Bulgari watches below the Bulgari Roma at CHF 5,600. In the CHF 2,500 to CHF 5,000 price range, there was nothing. The Aluminium watch launched last autumn is an improved version of a 1998 model. At CHF 4,000, it expands our customer base and opens it up to millennials.
Swiss watchmaking has been at a standstill for a few years now. We’re shaking it up a bit by offering a versatile design product with strong codes, in black and white – a watch that evokes a contemporary lifestyle.
“I don’t see anything incompatible about offering affordable watches at the same time as very exclusive watches.”
A jeweller is closer to fashion and haute couture than a watchmaker is. Seasonality is more important. Is listening to the customer important too?
Jewellery is a personal, intimate thing, even more so than a watch. Seasons pass, fashions change, customers express their tastes. Jewellers in their boutiques are obsessed with service, with what today we call “the customer experience”. Jewellers keep their ears open for specific wishes and react accordingly.
I’ll give you an example, which has nothing to do with watchmaking or jewellery, but everything to do with responsiveness. We had a room fragrance in our boutiques, a green tea fragrance that we kept in flasks by the litre. Customers loved the smell of this “service” and came back to ask us if they could buy it. So we packaged it in pretty little bottles and Thé Vert has become one of our best-selling colognes. The Aluminium watch, made in record time in the middle of the pandemic, also came about by listening to customers and trying to respond to the new needs or desires they expressed.
The Serpenti watch bridges the gap between watchmaking and jewellery. Today, these two lines of business are evolving at different speeds. While watchmaking is stalling, jewellery is performing much better. Is it possible to quantify their respective values?
It’s very difficult to quantify. But I estimate that the total value of the international brands, combined with that of the major regional brands, a Chow Tai Fook, for example, is nearly a quarter of that of jewellery [an estimated 50 to 60 billion dollars.]
Jewellery grows very organically, it follows demographics. Jewellery is based on gut feeling and it’s driven by couples. An item of jewellery is the vision of two people, the one who wears it and the one who looks at it. Its growth is also due to the massive influx of women into the labour market, which has led to their economic independence. This new purchasing power has also transformed the act of purchasing itself.
“The Serpenti is a symbol of Bulgari across the board, through watches, jewellery, bags, etc. It’s glamour combined with something ancient and sulphurous.”
But for all that, the overwhelmingly important factor is the independent jeweller, whether small, middle-sized or even national...
The market, which used to be mostly local, has become considerably fragmented. You buy your first piece of jewellery in your local neighbourhood, then on a trip, another in a duty-free shop, in a department store in a foreign capital, and so on. It’s a souvenir, an impulse purchase, a romantic folly, a celebration...
Neighbourhood jewellers are gradually losing the reference value they once had. It used to be a question of trust, habit, or even tradition. But now, with this fragmentation, with travel, trust has been transferred to the brands. And in our field, the notion of trust is very important.
“Neighbourhood jewellers are gradually losing the reference value they once had. Now, with this fragmentation, with travel, trust has been transferred to the brands.”
Do different places, countries and cultures still nevertheless have their own characteristic tastes or styles?
In the 3,000 to 15,000-euro price range, between one culture and another and between one country and another the choices are quite similar. Globally, brands also shape customers. We adopt identical codes almost everywhere. Differences exist, of course, and we do sometimes design specific collections suited to one region, but it’s quite rare. Depending on the country, we add or subtract references.
There’s one sole exception: India. India remains impenetrable. The jewellery tradition there is very strong, and millennia-old. Even the gold is different there, it’s worked at 24 carats. For centuries, the most fabulous diamonds have been extracted from India’s soil. The Indian jewellery-making tradition is truly ancient. And it’s the same with fashion. Asked to choose between a western haute couture garment and a fabulous sari, an Indian woman won’t think twice.
“We adopt identical codes almost everywhere. There’s one sole exception: India. India remains impenetrable. The jewellery tradition there is very strong, and millennia-old.”
LVMH, the group you belong to, has just bought Tiffany & Co.. What consequences will that have for Bulgari?
This purchase, and let’s also not forget Chaumet, makes LVMH the world’s leading group for jewellery, as it already is for fashion, perfume and champagne. As far as we are concerned, we’re absolutely complementary to Tiffany & Co. They occupy other domains than ours. Stylistically we’re very different and our areas of competition are few.
Tiffany & Co. is well known for the quality and breadth of its silver range and is certainly very international, but it’s strongly established in the United States, which accounts for 45 percent of its sales. Bulgari only works in precious metals, with some rare exceptions, and our customer base is mainly in Europe and Asia. Historically, our first subsidiary was opened in Japan. We have also had a strong presence in China for more than 25 years, and in the Middle East.
I would say that today, consolidation in the sector is finished. The die is cast. The remaining question is: will the major Chinese jewellers succeed in prospering over and above their very strong regional base and become international? It’s an open question. But for all that, the sector and trade are still accessible. Moreover, some medium-sized groups, such as Messika for example, are doing extremely well. It’s easier for new players to emerge in jewellery than in luxury watchmaking, which demands far more complex and diverse expertise.
“As far as we are concerned, we’re absolutely complementary to Tiffany & Co.. They occupy other domains than ours. Stylistically we’re very different and our areas of competition are few.”
What impact is the digital revolution having on jewellery?
At the global level, it’s still negligible. And habits vary enormously from one region to another. For example, Spaniards buy massively online, while Italians are much more hesitant and buy only 5% of their purchases online. The differences are not only cultural; they’re also dependent on factors like trust and existing logistics. That said, I think that overall we could achieve an online sales rate of 15 to 20 percent.
n expert in the world of luxury, author of a remarkable book on Chinese consumption (The Bling Dynasty), Erwan Rambourg has just published a new essay, Future Luxe: What’s Ahead for the Business of Luxury, which is full of predictions and analyses for the coming decade. At the heart of his book is the ever-increasing influence of women in luxury goods purchases, and the continuing demand from China.
This translates, among other things, into very high growth potential for the luxury segment of jewellery. For several years now, jewellery has outperformed other high-end product categories. And the purchase of Tiffany & Co. by LVMH for 15.8 billion dollars heralds a new era of consolidation around supergroups and global brands, in a sector that is still very fragmented. Erwan Rambourg answered our questions.
The purchase of Tiffany & Co. by LVMH for 15.8 billion dollars heralds a new era of consolidation around supergroups and global brands, in a sector that is still very fragmented.
Europa Star: In the first chapter of your new book, you present jewellery as the luxury segment with the strong- est potential for growth over the next decade. Why is this?
Erwan Rambourg: Over the next decade, I project that there will be an even greater luxury spending windfall generated by the female customer base, which will strongly benefit certain segments such as jewellery, but also cosmetics and accessories. In general, women will have increasing influence in the luxury industry, for several reasons. It is often said that “the future is female”: in the world of luxury goods, this expression has been used for a long time, but it is more relevant than ever!
On the one hand, the integration of women into the economy is increasing with the new generations: labour market participation rates are rising and wage gaps are narrowing – the “womenomics” will continue to grow strongly. On the other hand, changes in the family structure, with an ever later marriage age, sometimes counter-intuitively contribute to higher luxury purchases. According to MVI Marketing, more than 50% of women buy jewellery for themselves, whether to celebrate professional success, to indulge themselves or to invest.
For watches, on the other hand, you paint a darker picture...
All luxury segments with a strong male focus are experiencing difficulties. This doesn’t only apply to the watchmaking industry – I could also mention the men’s clothing segment. With the exception of certain dominant houses such as Rolex, Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, the growth of watchmaking seems destined to be much lower than that of jewellery.
Moreover, jewellery remains a very fragmented market compared to watchmaking. The influence of brands is still limited – which is due to the unique characteristic of a universal product that has historically been labelled in a very limited fashion, or unbranded. There is immense growth potential to be captured for global brands through iconic designs.
“All luxury segments with a strong male focus are experiencing difficulties. This doesn’t only apply to the watchmaking industry.”
Which jewellery houses are best positioned to capture this potential?
Four brands stand out today in terms of size and global reach: Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Van Cleef & Arpels and Bulgari. Each offers a different profile: the French brand Cartier, “jeweller of kings and king of jewellers”, is particularly popular in China; Van Cleef & Arpels is known for its romanticism and its pieces inspired by animals or floral motifs; Bulgari stands out as a colourful and exuberant Roman brand. Finally Tiffany & Co., the emblematic New York jeweller, is at the top of the list of con- sumer preferences in the United States. All four are likely to prosper over the next decade, but there is reason to believe that Tiffany & Co. will gain the most in market share.
Moreover, it is no coincidence that we are also seeing some major “generalist” luxury houses becoming more involved in jewellery, such as Chanel, Gucci, Dior and Louis Vuitton, which made several important announcements last year (including the acquisition of the second largest rough diamond ever discovered, called the “Sewelô” – 1,758 carats, the size of a tennis ball).
These brands are in a phase of recruiting new customers, particularly in China: local retailers such as Chow Tai Fook, Luk Fook or Lao Fen Xiang still dominate the jewellery landscape, but imported brands are on the verge of surpassing them. They bring a crucial element of trust as institutions that have been established for decades, enabling them to seduce new generations. According to De Beers, genera- tions Y (born between 1981 and 1996) and Z (born between 1997 and 2010) account for two-thirds of total diamond jewellery spending in the four largest markets for this category.
“It is no coincidence that we are also seeing some major “generalist” luxury houses becoming more involved in jewellery, such as Chanel, Gucci, Dior and Louis Vuitton.”
The takeover of Tiffany & Co. by LVMH caused an earthquake in the market. What does the American brand need to do to catch up with Cartier?
Mostly time and investment in marketing, product and retail. Exposure to Asia is certainly stronger at Cartier, and Tiffany & Co. is trying to catch up in this area. This involves expanding the distribution network in China itself, but also developing products that are better adapted to this clientele. The social identification factor is very important in China. This is why jewellery that is immediately recognisable is popular, such as the Love range or Juste un Clou by Cartier, the Alhambra by Van Cleef & Arpels or the B.Zero1 by Bulgari. There is of course the T1 from Tiffany & Co., but the brand still needs to accentuate its recognisable, iconic side. On the other hand, Tiffany & Co. is likely to take a more muted approach to bridal: not only do young people marry less, but Covid-19 has made this segment even more challenging.
What’s more, if you look at a brand like Cartier, it offers not only jewellery, but also timepieces, perfumes and accessories. For many young Chinese women, Cartier is perceived first and foremost as a watch brand that also makes jewellery! This is also their strength: you go into their boutique to buy a ring and come out with another luxury product. This diversification, which increases margins, is essential for Tiffany & Co.: they already offer watches, perfumes and accessories, but it seems very few people are aware of that.
Which jewellery brands are holding up best after more than a year of the pandemic crisis?
Unsurprisingly, the major brands outperform in times of crisis: this may be the case today rather artificially, but they will continue to assert themselves in the post-crisis period. Smaller brands such as Chopard, Boucheron, Fred, Harry Winston, Chaumet, Graff, Buccellati, Damiani and Pomellato are following, but they lack the critical mass to fully capture the growth potential that is opening up for global jewellery houses.
You also point to a strong opportunity for new entrants in the entry-level segment.
High-end jewellery remains a very difficult segment to conquer, which is why the major international houses are increasingly dominating this market: they need the financial strength to manage very valuable and expensive inventories that can remain unsold for years. The barrier to entry is high. On the other hand, there are a lot of accessible local jewellery brands, such as Agatha in France or APM Monaco in China. There are very few truly global brands in the entry-level seg- ment: we might think of Swarovski or Pandora, but they are positioned on niche products, crystals or “charms”. There are opportunities for players with global ambitions.
“High-end jewellery remains a very difficult segment to conquer, which is why the major international houses are increasingly dominating this market: they need the financial strength to manage very valuable and expensive inventories that can remain unsold for years.”
How fast is the jewellery industry going digital?
E-commerce is much more suited to the accessible niche than to high-end jewellery. Digital sales have certainly progressed during the pandemic, but I remain firmly convinced that the physical network will remain ultra-dominant in luxury jewellery, even if we may see pronounced differences from one market to another.
What potential do you see for lab-grown diamonds?
They are most popular in the United States at the moment, but I think they will become the standard for mainstream jewellery. It’s only a matter of time – not so much for environmental reasons as for the cost factor, in a very pragmatic way. Eventually, mined stones will become reserved for exceptional pieces or centre stones. Hybridisation might also happen, with the use of both categories of stones on certain pieces, each fulfilling a different function.
“Lab-grown diamonds will become the standard for mainstream jewellery. Eventually, mined stones will become reserved for exceptional pieces or centre stones.”
FACTS & FIGURES
THE RISE OF GLOBAL JEWELLERY DEMAND, 2009-2019 (in US$)
PROJECTED ANNUAL TURNOVER OF THE LARGEST JEWELLERY BRANDS, 2021 (in US$)
GROWTH RATE OF THE JEWELLERY CATEGORY VS. THE GLOBAL LUXURY INDUSTRY, 2005-2020
SHARE OF JEWELLERY IN THE TURNOVER OF LUXURY BRANDS, 2020
In Future Luxe: What’s Ahead for the Business of Luxury, Erwan Rambourg identifies the major forces and emerging trends that are set to reshape luxury over the next decade. The expansion of Chinese consumption and the boost in women’s spending power around the world will fuel continued growth in the industry. But, even more importantly, fundamental changes are on the horizon. To ensure his portrait of the industry has the depth and nuance of real-world experience, Rambourg interviews several CEOs from the largest groups and brands, including Kering, Cartier, Puma, and Moncler, in addition to drawing on his own observations from over two decades in the luxury milieu.
Future Luxe: What’s Ahead for the Business of Luxury, Erwan Rambourg Figure 1 Publishing, 272 pages.
s every admirer of the Chanel style (or Chanel “allure”, to use the technical term) knows perfectly well, the maison follows its own rigorous stylistic grammar, whose elements were established very early on by Gabrielle Chanel. These elements include the essential black and white, the famous Chanel beige, Breton stripes, the two-piece suit, tweed, quilting, pearls, lions, the camellia... as well as chains, brocade trim and buttons.
Yes, buttons. But, aren’t they a minor detail? No, they’re far more important than that! The Chanel button is not just a precious object in its own right, a diminutive jewel, exquisitely and artistically crafted – it is also rigorously functional, in accordance with the strict grammatical rules dictated by Mademoiselle herself: “Every button must have a buttonhole”.
“Gabrielle Chanel thus conferred on the button an unparalleled nobility,” explains Arnaud Chastaingt, director of Chanel’s Watchmaking Creation Studio. “She magnified an ordinary, unremarkable object and elevated it to the level of a jewel. For her, it was a canvas for creativity in its own right, but it absolutely had to retain its function.”
“Gabrielle Chanel magnified an ordinary, unremarkable object and elevated it to the level of a jewel.”
The exceptional variety of Chanel buttons created over the decades has attracted many collectors. In the very early days, button creation was entrusted to a talented craftsman, Georges Desrues, who in 1929 set up the company that bears his name, and which became Chanel’s primary supplier from 1965.
Every day, almost 4,000 buttons (each of which requires around ten operations) are moulded, sculpted, carved, polished, dyed, coated and enamelled in its workshops, using a combination of modern technology and traditional craftsmanship. Some twenty artistic crafts are employed, and Chanel was able to preserve them for posterity when it bought the Maison Desrues in 1984. “It is a unique tool in the world of luxury ready-to-wear,” con- firms director of operations Stéphane Berthélémy.
Every day, almost 4,000 buttons (each of which requires around ten operations) are moulded, sculpted, carved, polished, dyed, coated and enamelled in the workshops.
A watch born out of couture
“For me, the idea of a ‘button’ watch was one of those creative obsessions that I couldn’t let go of – it just seemed self-evident,” confirms Arnaud Chastaingt. “I had a dream of the button as timepiece.”
The dream is all the more unconstrained because, as he correctly points out: “30 years ago, Chanel came from the world of couture, and invited itself without permission into the closed world of watchmaking.” Onto this world, which at the time was stylistically conservative and highly segmented, Chanel succeeded in imposing its own grammar, beginning with black and white, gradually introducing the rest of its codes, and translating them into watchmaking. So, a button as watch... A watch born out of couture? What could be more natural?
“For me, the idea of a ‘button’ watch was one of those creative obsessions that I couldn’t let go of – it just seemed self-evident. I had a dream of the button as timepiece.”
Arnaud Chastaingt, obsessively pursuing his research, had the idea of “unpicking the sleeve of a jacket, and keeping only the cuff with its buttonhole.” And thus the architecture of the bracelet was born: a soft tweed cuff edged with a slim golden leather binding, that wraps around the wrist and fastens with... a button. The button is functional, as per the rule. But not only does it have a buttonhole, it also covers and conceals a watch. “Style comes first, time comes later, whether you like it or not,” concludes Arnaud Chastaingt.
This novel architecture, with its cuff and its button-watch, opens up a wealth of creative prospects. The precious button – and over the course of its history Chanel has created countless examples – lends itself to so many possibilities that the list is virtually infinite.
The Mademoiselle Privé Bouton watch will definitely not be a one-off. The collection opens with a selection of buttons created from yellow gold, diamonds, pearls and agate. It encompasses lions, camellias and the byzantine cross. The iconic profile of Mademoiselle Chanel appears as a cameo, carved from onyx. The tweed cuff is quilted and transformed into white gold, set with diamonds. In 2021, Gabrielle Chanel’s profile is revealed on a carved yellow gold button. The cuff is in black leather, with a quilted motif trimmed in golden calfskin.
This novel architecture, with its cuff and its button-watch, opens up a wealth of creative prospects.
The Bouton watch is the latest to take its place in the Mademoiselle Privé collection (whose name comes from the sign on the door to Gabrielle Chanel’s workshop). As Arnaud Chastaingt explains, Mademoiselle Privé represents “the most intimate side of Chanel haute horlogerie, the most feminine. And perhaps the least well-known.”
The Mademoiselle Privé collection, which was launched in 2012 as a showcase for the artistic crafts, includes some of Chanel’s finest and most precious watchmaking creations. Take, for example, the first Mademoiselle Privé watches, inspired by Coromandel screens, and reproduced in breathtaking enamel by Anita Porchet. There are camellias sculpted from mother-of-pearl, skeletonised or paved in diamonds, a parure of petals against a backdrop of enamel, mother-of-pearl marquetry, onyx and sculpted gold, labyrinths of diamonds, a camellia that rotates, or is picked out in gold thread and tiny beads, a soaring comet, aventurine dials...
The Mademoiselle Privé collection, which was launched in 2012 as a showcase for the artistic crafts, includes some of Chanel’s finest and most precious watchmaking creations.
The Mademoiselle Privé Bouton watch takes its place among these stunning creations, and will no doubt leave its mark on Chanel’s watchmaking. It is a perfect fit, because it is an utterly coherent stylistic interpretation of the Chanel codes. And its legitimacy is beyond question. Who other than Chanel could be behind the tweed, the buttonhole and its button, and all the symbols?
Arnaud Chastaingt naturally agrees, noting that the Bouton watch is “a curiosity, an uncomplicated creation in the watchmaking world, but an obvious next step in the world of Chanel.” It’s also an obvious next step for admirers of Mademoiselle Chanel.
“A curiosity, an uncomplicated creation in the watchmaking world, but an obvious next step in the world of Chanel.”
Mademoiselle Privé Bouton Perle
18K yellow gold button adorned with a half white Australian cultured pearl (15 mm). Outer 18K yellow gold cord set with 52 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.46 carat), inner 18K yellow gold cord. 18K white gold dial set with 142 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.52 carat). Gold-finished hands. Black and gold tweed cuff with a golden calfskin trim and a black calfskin lining. High-precision quartz movement.
Mademoiselle Privé Bouton décor Camélia
Limited edition of 55 pieces. 18K yellow gold button adorned with a camellia motif fully set with 50 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.38 carat) and a central brilliant-cut diamond ( 0.5 carat). Outer 18K yellow gold cord set with 52 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.46 carat), inner 18K yellow gold cord. 18K white gold dial set with 142 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.52 carat). Gold-finished hands. Black and gold tweed cuff with a golden calfskin trim and a black calfskin lining. High-precision quartz movement.
Mademoiselle Privé Bouton décor Lion
Limited edition of 55 pieces. 18K yellow gold button adorned with a sculpted gold lion motif. Outer 18K yellow gold cord set with 52 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.46 carat), inner 18K yellow gold cord. 18K white gold dial set with 142 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.52 carat). Gold-finished hands. Black and gold tweed cuff with a golden calfskin trim and a black calfskin lining. High-precision quartz movement.
Mademoiselle Privé Bouton décor Byzantin
Numbered and limited edition of 5 pieces. 18K yellow gold button adorned with a byzantine motif set with 1 cushion-cut diamond ( 1.5 carat), 4 cushion-cut dia- monds ( 2 carats), 4 pear-cut diamonds ( 0.65 carat) and 8 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.24 carat). Outer 18K yel- low gold cord set with 52 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.46 carat), inner 18K yellow gold cord. 18K white gold dial set with 142 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.52 carat). Gold- finished hands. Black and gold tweed cuff with a golden calfskin trim and a black calfskin lining. High-precision quartz movement.
Mademoiselle Privé Bouton Camée
Numbered and limited edition of 5 pieces. 18K yellow gold button adorned with an cameo depicting the profile of Gabrielle Chanel. Outer 18K yellow gold cord set with 52 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.46 carat), inner 18K yellow gold cord. 18K white gold dial set with 142 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.52 carat). Gold-finished hands. Black and gold tweed cuff with a golden calfskin trim and a black calfskin lining. High-precision quartz movement.
Mademoiselle Privé Bouton Ganse de diamants
Numbered and limited edition of 5 pieces. 18K yellow gold button adorned with a half white Australian cultured pearl (15 mm). Outer 18K yellow gold cord set with 52 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.46 carat), inner 18K yellow gold cord. 18K white gold dial set with 142 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.52 carat). Gold-finished hands. 18K white gold rigid cuff with a black coating and 18K yellow gold trim set with 316 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 3.89 carats). High-precision quartz movement.
Mademoiselle Privé Bouton décor Gabrielle
Limited edition of 55 pieces. 18K yellow gold button adorned with a carving depicting the profile of Gabrielle Chanel. Outer cord in 18K yellow gold set with 52 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.46 carat). Dial in 18K white gold set with 142 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.52 carat). Cuff in black leather with a quilted motif, trimmed in golden calfskin. High-precision quartz movement.
Mademoiselle Privé Bouton serti neige
Unique piece. 18K yellow gold button adorned with a byzantine motif set with 1 cushion-cut diamond ( 1.5 carat), 4 cushion-cut diamonds ( 2 carats), 4 pear-cut diamonds ( 0.65 carat) and 8 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.24 carat). Outer 18K yellow gold cord set with 52 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.46 carat), inner 18K yellow gold cord. 18K white gold dial set with 142 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 0.52 carat). Gold-finished hands. 18K white gold rigid cuff snow-set with 1963 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 39.88 carats) and an 18K yellow gold trim set with 316 brilliant-cut diamonds ( 4 carats). High-precision quartz movement.
ithout doubt the fastest-growing contemporary watch brand, Richard Mille is undergoing its first generational transition after 20 years in business. Cécile (Director of Creation and Development) and Maxime Guenat (Buyer), as well as Alexandre (Commercial Director) and Amanda Mille (Brand and Partners Director), are taking over from Dominique Guenat and Richard Mille, who joined forces at the end of the 1990s to design the brand’s first watch, the RM 001 Tourbillon, which launched in 2001.
Two decades later, the company employs nearly 200 people and exceeds one billion dollars in sales. Architecture, lightness, shapes, complications, materials: all these elements have helped to affirm the brand’s profile in a new era of triumphant globalisation – an era it seems to have grasped better than any other watchmaker.
In addition to the development of cutting-edge engineering solutions (a reflection of its close links to the automotive world), in recent years the company has also more assertively explored the jewellery side of its models, with their state-of-the-art mechanics.
The new RM 71-02 Automatic Tourbillon Talisman collection is a perfect illustration, with its vivid colour gradients made up of hundreds of precious stones. Each of the ten models is personalised with its own name, and is adorned with more than 800 stones of a dizzying variety: pink, yellow and violet sapphires, tsavorites, peridots, diamonds, rubies, haematite, pink opal, lapis lazuli, lemon chrysoprase, malachite, turquoise, white mother-of-pearl, spessartites, black spinels, onyx, amethyst, sugilite and jasper!
This evolution is underpinned by the artistic sensibility of Cécile Guenat, whose mission since her arrival at Richard Mille in 2015, after training in the jewellery trade, has been to develop the brand’s collections. Richard Mille’s first women’s series appeared back in 2005: the RM 007 Automatic. But many new avenues have been explored in recent years, with bold, unisex creative statements, such as the mischievous Bonbon Collection presented in 2019.
Thanks to her passion for colourful jewellery and her continuing research into materials, Cécile Guenat has infused the brand’s creations with a strong character, in a segment where this is by no means a given. The results speak for themselves: feminine timepieces (although it’s increasingly difficult to “gender” watches) represent 35% of total sales. And she’s just getting started.
The results speak for themselves: feminine timepieces (although it’s increasingly difficult to “gender” watches) represent 35% of total sales.
Europa Star: Did you immediately start working on jewellery timepieces when you joined the brand in 2015?
Cécile Guenat: I was originally hired to start a project that was completed last year: the RM HJ-01, a series of four unique pieces with Art Déco motifs, which was delivered in early 2020. They are set with more than 800 stones, the most complex and sophisticated jewellery product created by the brand to date. Very quickly, I also started working on the RM 71-02 Automatic Tourbillon Talisman, while continuing the creative work around the brand’s existing collections. In 2021, the first in- house calibre was developed for the RM 037, a flagship model in the RM women’s watch collection.
What was your career path before joining Richard Mille?
I obtained a diploma in jewellery and then trained at the Geneva University of Art and Design in jewellery and accessories, very much linked to the world of fashion. I then worked for a London-based jeweller specialising in private label custom-made models for brands and events. It was fashion jewellery: we explored specific geometric shapes and patterns.
What is your approach to watch and jewellery design?
I have a real problem: I like all colours! Currently, I’m exploring pastel and acid tones, such as those of chrysoprase [a kind of gemstone – Ed.], as well as pink, light blue and purple sapphires. When I started the RM 71-02 Automatic Tourbillon Talisman project, I wanted to use a wide variety of colours and gradients, as well as bringing snow-setting and a bit of sparkle to the pieces. The music, and more broadly the spirit, in which I was immersed while creating these models was clearly the universe of disco. This inspired me to create a series of ten models with distinct characters, like a group of girls on a night out, each with her own tastes and personality.
“The universe of disco inspired me to create a series of ten models with distinct characters, like a group of girls on a night out, each with her own tastes and personality.”
How is the jewellery incorporated into these pieces?
On the first Talisman collection, the RM 71-01, we wanted to include just one kind of setting. Then I started to create new shapes. During the development sessions, I suggested making ten different models. You might as well have a choice! Each pattern radiates out from the dial.
While the outside is impressive, the inside is equally complex, as these models are equipped with an automatic tourbillon, a variable-geometry rotor and a free-sprung balance with variable inertia.
Yes, an in-house automatic tourbillon is quite special. This line affirms the importance of female customers for Richard Mille.
Another striking concept, which sets Richard Mille apart in watchmaking, is undoubtedly the Bonbon Collection launched in 2019.
For this collection, I was inspired first and foremost by the shapes and colours. For example, the black stones we use in some collections reminded me of liquorice, the crowns of the RM 07-01 watches made me think of icing on a cupcake... In this collection too, each piece has its own personality!
“We have always had female clients, but their numbers are growing strongly, and this is reflected in overall sales.”
Is your ultimate goal to achieve parity between male and female customers?
We don’t have a numerical objective and parity is not an end in itself for us. We have always had female clients, but their numbers are growing strongly, and this is reflected in overall sales. Our clientele is always changing... and that’s a good thing! Over the years, it’s become clear that the position of women in society is changing. In the beginning, watches were mainly bought by men for women, whereas today the profiles are much more varied.
Audemars Piguet, to which you are close, has formed an alliance with the jeweller Carolina Bucci. Given your career, are you also planning collaborations, or even the launch of jewellery signed by Richard Mille?
No, at least not for the moment. We already have enough on our plate with watches! The calendar of releases is always very busy, even if we had to close the workshops for two months last year because of Covid-19. We are working on five to ten releases a year, both new collections and variations of existing lines.
RM 71-02 AUTOMATIC TOURBILLON TALISMAN Bianca, Carmen, Diana, Donna, Gloria, Grace, Jane, Jessica, Liz, Paloma... The new RM 71-02 Automatic Tourbillon Talisman takes on different identities in an eruption of coloured stones celebrating the raw energy, freedom and glamour of the 1970s. Cécile Guenat was inspired by the heightened expression of disco-era individualism, a hyper- realistic synthesis of light, sound and colour that defined slices of 1970s culture such as the throbbing beat of a hit single, the theatrical interiors of Studio 54, or fashions glittering with lamé, sequins and diamanté. The ten variations on the snow and grain settings bring together different textures, diameters and faceting across the front bezel and caseband, while the caseback is engraved with matt stripes.
RM HJ-01 At the crossroads of cutting-edge research, artisanal jewellery practices and the fine arts, Cécile Guenat has drawn on her passion for Art Deco to design these four unique pieces, which represent a real leap forward for Richard Mille in the world of fine jewellery watchmaking. Four stones define the main colour of each of the four unique pieces: ruby, blue sapphire, purple sapphire and emerald. The brand’s signature tonneau shape is deconstructed to explore new concepts of volume, depth, curves and architectural lines around complex geometrical patterns and forms. Three different settings are used for the precious stones: snow, closed and grain-set.
ondon Jewelers, a family-owned business founded in 1926, has gradually es- tablished its dominance of Long Island’s watch and jewellery scene. Now run by the third and fourth generations of the Udell family, it has long represented the most prestigious brands in its network of multi- and single-brand boutiques.
In December 2020, as the New York area was still in the throes of the pandemic, London Jewelers opened a completely renovated flagship boutique in the Americana Manhasset shopping centre on Long Island. This space dedicated to the high jewellery segment, with decor inspired by an elegant Parisian interior, presents creations by Buccellati, Bulgari, Chanel, Chopard, David Webb, Gucci, Messika, Mikimoto, Piaget, Pomellato, Roberto Coin and Vhernier, among others.
Now run by the third and fourth generations of the Udell family, London Jewelers has long represented the most prestigious brands in its network of multi- and single-brand boutiques.
It was also an opportunity for the 95-year-old company to showcase its own jewellery creations, the London Collection, which proved particularly resilient during the pandemic crisis. We spoke with members of the Udell family to better undersstand this development, which is representative of a strong trend among retailers.
Europa Star: How did you cope with the difficult year that was 2020?
Candy Udell: Between March and May our boutiques were closed. But we took advantage of this period to re-evaluate all our processes and set up a distance training programme for our employees. This time was dedicated to learning and other things that we don’t always have the opportunity to do in “normal” times. It was a reflective time for our company, allowing us to review our strategic objectives and what we could improve or save on. We also learned a lot about our own team and shared new customer acquisition techniques.
Mark Udell: We also called our clients to check up on them during this period, not just to offer them watches or jewellery. During the time we were closed, we also supported our community by providing meals to local hospitals, up to several hundred a week. In the end, this was an opportunity to show our appreciation, strengthen our community spirit and our roots in the region in these difficult times.
Was it also an opportunity to strengthen your online business?
Mark Udell: Yes, even if not all the brands we represent allow e-commerce. We do sell online whenever possible. This is a good channel for our own London Collection jewellery, as we can act as we see fit.
“It was a statement of confidence in the future to inaugurate our new flagship store during this period, and it was very well received.”
Just how important is your own jewellery production, in the context of all the other brands you represent?
Candy Udell: It has helped us a lot during this challenging time. The Christmas period in particular was successful for our London Collection. The fact that we have been affiliated for so long with prestigious houses, which we consider in a way to have become “part of the family” over time, also gives us legitimacy. I believe that one activity feeds the other. Today, about ten people are involved in curating this collection.
You have just completed the renovation of your flagship boutique dedicated to fine jewellery. It re-opened in the middle of the pandemic, in December.
Candy Udell: The renovation had been planned for a long time and work had begun before the coronavirus. But it was still a statement of confidence in the future to inaugurate it during this period, and it was very well received. I personally worked on it for two years. It was an important step and we worked closely with the local health authorities to put in place safety measures, as we do for our other boutiques: temperature control, sterilisation, registration of all customers for contract tracing purposes...
With the containment measures in place, are you concentrating more and more on local clientele?
Mark Udell: This was already largely the case before the pandemic, but we have also welcomed new local clients from Manhattan [where London Jewelers operates a boutique in the Oculus at the World Trade Center]. Many New Yorkers spent the time of the pandemic in the Hamptons. Moreover, as Manhasset is an outdoor shopping centre, many city dwellers felt safer shopping in this location. Another factor of success for us was that local residents travelled less and therefore had more time to spend with us, with more disposable income. Jewellery or collectors’ watches represent for some a source of escapism.
Have you noticed any significant changes in consumer behaviour?
Candy Udell: Yes, one of the main changes is that our clients come less to the boutique for browsing, but they already know what they want when they come through our door with intention. Shopping has become more targeted.
“What has worked well, especially in our own London Collection, is the mid-range sold online, i.e. jewellery that can be worn on a daily basis.”
Has your brand portfolio changed during this period?
Candy Udell: No, we haven’t had any changes. We have been working with most of our brands for several decades.
Which activity has best withstood the crisis, between jewellery and watches?
Mark Udell: This may surprise you, but the watch range has met with great success, particularly among young collectors, perhaps for the reasons I mentioned before. Many celebrations, such as weddings, have been postponed, which also has an impact on jewellery. What has worked well, especially in our own London Collection, is the mid-range sold online, i.e. jewellery that can be worn on a daily basis. You don’t need a special occasion for this type of jewellery. And it’s a lasting acquisition, unlike some other luxury product categories.
ne of the perennial challenges of the jewellery industry is the analysis of the multiple categories of gemstones on which the sector is based – its “raw materials”, so to speak. Correctly evaluating the authenticity of a gemstone and its country of origin is a key aspect of jewellery. The dedicated discipline of gemmology is defined as the “science relating to the study of precious, semi-precious, fine and ornamental stones obeying certain aesthetic criteria.”
Given the quantity of gems involved, however, not all of them can be subjected to a thorough and detailed analysis. This has made it necessary to select which ones are worth the effort and cost of testing – that is, until today. Thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning, the gemmological laboratory of the Swiss jewellery house Gübelin and CSEM, well-known among watchmakers, are developing a tool that will make this pre-selection unnecessary. This technique will make it possible to handle much larger volumes of precious stones.
One of the perennial challenges of the jewellery industry is the analysis of the multiple categories of gemstones on which the sector is based – its “raw materials”, so to speak.
“We have been working on gem recognition on a daily basis for almost a century,” says Daniel Nyfeler, Managing Director of the Gübelin Gem Lab. “But with this new technique, we will be able to examine a much more complete set of data. In the past, our clients (i.e gemstone traders) had to select the stones that were deemed significant and the characteristics to be evaluated. But this left some gems out. This new tool democratises the analysis of gemstones, in a way.”
Giving new meaning to the data
Daniel Nyfeler points out: “For example, if a stone had a lower value, it did not make sense to carry out expensive analyses until now. Now we can include all the data in the technology. This will also allow us to take a fresh look at certain gems that were excluded from our analyses.”
The company uses the know-how of CSEM, a specialist in artificial intelligence and machine learning, to automate the gem evaluation process. A new analysis platform will improve the consistency and reliability of data interpretation, reduce potential human errors and save time.
“Gemtelligence”, the software for the automated analysis of gemstones, is based on Gübelin’s extensive catalogue.
This joint software development project for the automated analysis of gemstones, called “Gemtelligence”, has also been submitted to Innosuisse, a governmental institute whose mission is to promote science-based innovation. The Swiss government has provided “significant funding” for this research.
The research aims in particular to develop machine learning-based algorithms and train them to evaluate standard gemstone charac- teristics. The process is based on an existing catalogue of data from tens of thousands of clients’ gemstones, which the Gübelin Gem Lab has been testing since the 1970s. This data will be complemented by the Gübelin Reference Stone Collection of more than 27,500 gems.
Support from the Swiss government
Philipp Schmid, Head of Industry 4.0 and Machine Learning at CSEM, stresses the heterogeneous nature of the data to be processed: “We are dealing with data in a wide variety of formats, ranging from spectra, chemical element concentrations, microscopy images, handwritten descriptions to subjective evaluations by various experts. The goal is to create a kind of super-expert, working hand-in-hand with the human experts.”
The goal is to create a kind of super-expert, working hand-in-hand with the human experts. The technology should be operational by 2023.
Gübelin and the CSEM have been collaborating for ten years on various projects, but this research takes them into a new dimension, one that has the potential to revolutionise gemmological analysis. “Basically, we want to do the same work as in the past, but in a much more reliable and extensive way,” says Daniel Nyfeler. The Swiss company will offer its expertise in the field to other jewellery manufacturers, who will be able to send their data to its laboratory for processing. The technology should be operational by 2023.
As Philipp Schmid points out: “The support of Innosuisse and CSEM’s own mission statement mean that we will also be exploring the application of this technology to other industries. The potential is enormous and very diverse, especially for activities that process a large amount of technical data, such as CNC machines, for example.” In the longer run, an application in watchmaking could be a possibility.
GÜBELIN GEM LAB Gübelin operates one of the world’s most respected gemmological laboratories as a completely independent subsidiary. In its laboratories in Lucerne, Hong Kong and New York, the Gübelin Gem Lab provides analyses of diamonds, coloured gemstones, and pearls. Gübelin has also set up its own Academy offering courses in gemmology, as well as the “Provenance Proof” programme aimed at increasing transparency in the gem supply chain through the use of blockchain.
CSEM CSEM, founded in 1984, is a Swiss research and development centre (public-private partnership) specialising in microtechnology, nanotechnology, microelectronics, system engineering, photovoltaics and information and communications technologies. More than 500 specialists from various scientific and technical disciplines work for CSEM in Neuchâtel, Zurich, Muttenz, Alpnach, and Landquart.
witzerland is unique in that it is home to the heart of the world’s watchmaking industry, as well as to some of its leading research centres. When the two meet (which is still all too rare), sparks can fly. The case of Rayform SA, launched in 2016 by a team of researchers from the EPFL, is a perfect example of this.
Romain Testuz and Yuliy Schwartzburg founded the company in order to take their theoretical work and put it into practice. In a specialised laboratory at the Lausanne institution, the two scientists began with geometrical calculations, eventually arriving at a technology which, as they themselves explain, allows them to “sculpt light” in order to concentrate it and reflect a projected message. And it’s not just a cool trick; the technology also has the potential to combat counterfeiting.
Rayform SA, launched in 2016 by a team of researchers from the EPFL, embodies the encounter between the world of research and Swiss jewellery and watchmaking.
In September 2019 the research team teamed up with designer Noémie Arrigo to launch a jewellery brand, The Rayy, that incorporates this technology. They answered our questions.
Europa Star: How was your technology born?
Romain Testuz: Between 2012 and 2015 I, together with my colleague Yuliy Schwartzburg and Professor Mark Pauly, explored the potential of geometric calculations in a specialised laboratory at the EPFL. We developed a new technology that allows us to “sculpt” light, using the reflection of light rays, which can come from any source, from the sun to a phone flashlight. When light reflects off an object with a precisely worked surface, the material reflects it by projecting a message with a meaning.
Was this fundamental research, or were you already looking for ways to apply this technology?
Romain Testuz: Basically, there was no real motivation to apply the research. We were acting purely out of scientific curiosity! We were inspired by the optical phenomenon that can be seen, for example, when sunlight passes through the water surface of a swimming pool, creating patterns that are called “caustics”.
“We were inspired by the optical phenomenon that can be seen when sunlight passes through the surface of water, creating beautiful patterns.”
What is fascinating is that you can’t see the image or the message at all by looking at the surface of the object – it can only be revealed by the projection of light. The effect was impressive, even with the first prototypes we developed at the EPFL. By endeavouring to master this optical phenomenon and make it reproducible, we soon realised that there were many possible applications in different fields, including jewellery.
How did you take your findings from theory to practice?
Romain Testuz: In 2016 we founded the start-up Rayform with the aim of integrating this technology into various products. We started working with watch brands, as well as with artists for special installations. Over time, we have been able to improve the technology and miniaturise it to apply it to very small surfaces. This opened the doors of the jewellery industry.
Why launch your own brand of jewellery rather than associating yourself with an existing brand?
Romain Testuz: On the one hand, it’s a complicated technology to integrate into existing products. On the other hand, we wanted to be able to enjoy total creative freedom. The concept was to imagine products around this technology, rather than trying to adapt it to an existing product. Our meeting with Noémie Arrigo, our artistic director, was also decisive. The Rayy was finally born in September 2019.
“The concept was to imagine products around this technology, rather than trying to adapt it to an existing product.”
How did you guys meet?
Noémie Arrigo: Romain contacted me because I already had my own brand of jewellery and they liked my style. Our initial collaboration focused on wedding rings, which are very classic in style and which are well adapted to the project. Even though we come from very different worlds – design and science – we share the same sensibility in terms of creating a very minimalist unisex brand that lasts over time. This type of design is very appropriate for this new technology, because the jewellery can be worn even if there is not enough light to reveal the secret messages.
What are the steps involved in the creation of these pieces that “sculpt” the light?
Testuz domain: The first step is algorithmic, and consists in making geometrical calculations to understand how a certain message can be reflected off a certain surface. The process is quite complicated because our intention is to keep the metal surface perfectly smooth, without angles or facets. We play with volumetry. On the surface, we create a small “wave”, on which we direct the light rays, which are then concentrated in order to reflect a message.
To draw a parallel, the reflection of the light plays over the curves like the waves over the surface of water. Once these calculations have been made, the actual manufacturing begins with a 3D file that describes the curves of the surface, which is then executed by extremely precise CNC machining.
Does it work on all types of surfaces?
Romain Testuz: Theoretically, we could apply this technology to many different materials. But some materials such as silver will oxidise over time and lose their reflective property. We use 18-carat gold for our jewellery because of its special properties. It is our favourite material.
“The first step is algorithmic and consists of making geometric calculations to understand how a certain message can be reflected off a certain surface.”
What is the minimum brightness required for this property to work?
Romain Testuz: It depends on the ambient light. Typically, a mobile phone flashlight will work very well if there is no sun. The only sources that don’t usually work are neon lights, because they produce very diffuse light. The power of the light itself is not very important but the rays must be very concentrated.
From a design point of view, does the application of this technology require a different way of working?
Noémie Arrigo: I did somewhat the opposite of what I usually do, because I knew I needed a surface of a certain size to be able to reflect a word, or even several lines. So I knew already beforehand the possible dimensions of the jewellery. Then it was a question of creating a rather flat surface. Since everything is new with this technology, the way of working is also innovative; it’s a combination of R&D, design and application.
What are the most popular words or signs requested?
Noémie Arrigo: We naturally get a lot of initials, those of the partners in a couple, or those of the children in a family. But also secret messages that only make sense within the couple, or universal symbols such as a heart or the infinity sign. From time to time, we receive a small drawing that has a particular meaning for the person concerned. For example, a musician wanted the first notes of one of her compositions. The drawing must remain simple and we study each case individually.
But if it’s a very intimate message, isn’t everyone going to see it?
Romain Testuz: No, it really doesn’t appear unless you want it to, because the light has to come from the right direction and distance. It has never happened to me to have a message appearing without my knowledge.
You also introduced a collaboration with the tattoo artist Maxime Plescia-Büchi and his studio Sang Bleu.
Romain Testuz: From the very beginning we wanted to work with the world of tattoos, which play around with personal symbols and messages. We knew of his work with geometric shapes and Maxime wanted to try his hand at jewellery. He immediately got hooked on the project and drew the twelve signs of the zodiac – a very common theme in the tattoo world – for a series of pendants. He interpreted the signs of the zodiac as animals that “come to life” and can change size and form according to the direction of the light on the jewellery.
What price range do you work in?
Romain Testuz: Our pieces vary between 2,000 and 10,000 francs. Personalisation is also a little more expensive than what we consider to be standard motifs or messages, such as the signs of the zodiac. You have to add 500 francs for a personalised message, which can take up to three lines – it is possible to include a small poem for example.
How are your products distributed?
Romain Testuz: For the first year, we chose to focus on e-commerce. And that was fortunate, in view of what happened. So we were able largely to continue working even during the pandemic. As we designed a truly international site, we can deliver worldwide. At the same time, we invested a lot in social networks to make ourselves known. As our concept is very dynamic and interactive, it is quite easy to produce an engaging video.
“In the first year, we chose to focus on e-commerce. And that was fortunate in view of what happened.”
And for 2021?
Romain Testuz: We are going to focus more on physical points of sale, because it is important for customers to see our technology with their own eyes. Currently we have jewellers representing us in Lausanne, Geneva and Beijing. At the moment, the clientele is mainly local. Our aim is to be represented in the major capitals, but we are not moving towards volume distribution.
Did similar technologies exist before yours?
Romain Testuz: No. We have filed several international patents that protect the technology. Involuntarily, car headlights could produce images (laughs). But mastery of this optical effect had never been applied, let alone to jewellery.
You must have been approached by many groups looking to apply this technology in different areas.
Romain Testuz: Yes, all the more so as our system offers a bulwark against forgery, because the precision required for the work on surfaces cannot be copied, and the messages are often unique. So all you have to do is pick up the phone to check whether it is an original model.
We have ongoing projects with major brands. We can’t talk about them because several products are on the way to being launched. The only collaboration we can mention is with MB&F, which has applied our technology to the crown of their HM3 Frog X, to display the brand logo. We collaborate with third parties in areas other than jewellery, but we retain the exclusivity of this technology for our own jewellery brand The Rayy.
“We have filed several international patents that protect the technology. Mastery of this optical effect has never been applied before, let alone to jewellery.”
Another feature of your brand is your use of lab-grown diamonds.
Romain Testuz: Indeed, for ethical reasons we only use lab-grown diamonds, in order to know exactly where they come from. In fact, it is mainly new brands that use them; established companies and the big brands find it difficult to develop a strategy, because they can’t use some natural diamonds, with some lab-grown diamonds alongside – it would create an ambiguous dialogue. They will probably join the movement in the long term but not via their main collections, perhaps by introducing dedicated start-ups.
Concretely, what is the difference between natural and lab-grown diamonds?
Noémie Arrigo: Even looking through a loupe, you will not notice any difference between the two types of diamonds, which have exactly the same physical and chemical properties. Unfortunately, I believe that the terminology is confusing, and detracts from the so-called “synthetic” diamonds, even though they are just as original.
Romain Testuz: It’s a really fascinating process, a kind of “philosopher’s stone”: you can recreate the growing conditions of a diamond, exactly like what happens underground, and accelerate them. The diamond is then cut in exactly the same way as a diamond from a mine, but with the guarantee that it is not the result of poor working conditions. One of the best known laboratories is Diamond Foundry in Silicon Valley, one of whose investors is Leonardo di Caprio. In addition, the laboratory growth process uses renewable energies, including solar energy, which is at the heart of our brand concept.
“The terminology is confusing and detrimental to so-called “synthetic” diamonds, even though they are just as original as those that come from a mine.”
What has been the impact of the pandemic on your company, and on the jewellery sector more broadly?
Noémie Arrigo: I have the impression that jewellery remains very dynamic: on the one hand, we are seeing many new online sales platforms, and on the other hand, the high-end sector is holding up well. And let’s not forget that in times of crisis, gold is prized – and jewellery is made of gold... In recent years, there has also been a new trend of wearing exuberant and prominent jewellery, for example by wearing several chains together. It’s hard to say, without hindsight, whether this is just a passing fashion or a long-term trend. What is certain is that it is now acceptable to wear pieces that would have seemed ostentatious ten years ago.
ne outcome of the pandemic crisis could have been to put a bit of a damper on the bling side of watchmaking and jewellery.
But last January, MMA fighter Conor McGregor showed off his two new Jacob & Co “horological jewels” – the Astronomia Tourbillon Baguette in rose gold (with a total of 342 invisibly set baguette-cut diamonds on the backdrop and a further 80 invisibly set baguette-cut diamonds on the lugs) and a Rasputin Diamond Erotic Minute Repeater (178 baguette diamonds for the case, 100 baguette diamonds for the bezel, 14 baguette diamonds for the crown). We got the message: the “Bling Empire”, coincidentally also the name of a new reality show on Netflix, is alive and well.
By mixing haute horlogerie complications with high jewellery, larger-than-life Jacob Arabo has opened some extravagant new avenues for the industry. A presence in watchmaking since 2001, Jacob & Co is still hoping for more recognition by the horological establishment – as shown by several GPHG finalist places. Is it just a matter of time? We reached out to Jacob Arabo to talk... well, watches and jewels.
One outcome of the pandemic crisis could have been to put a bit of a damper on the bling side of watchmaking and jewellery. But it is alive and well.
Europa Star: You were among the first to mix high horological complications and jewellery. Could you share your journey towards your entrance into watchmaking, and the strategy that led you to develop this mix?
Jacob Arabo: I started in jewellery when I joined a training programme in New York City after my family emigrated there. My father was a fan of watches and had given me a world timer before we left the former USSR, so I already had an interest in watches. I even interned with a watchmaker for a summer, which my father arranged to keep me out of trouble.
I started Jacob & Co in 1986 and we launched our first watch, the Five Time Zone, in 2001, so I concentrated solely on the jewellery business for 15 years. The success I had in jewellery paved the way for me to start in watches, and I always wanted to get into watches, and specifically complicated watches. I am not a watchmaker, I am a watch lover, so I come at watch design from a customer’s perspective. So I try to design watches that I would love, and that includes taking my background in jewellery and applying it to complicated watches.
“I am not a watchmaker, I am a watch lover, so I come at watch design from a customer’s perspective.”
We really make an effort to integrate the diamonds and gemstones into the design of the watches, with unique settings and interesting mixes of colours. One example is a recent piece, the diamond-set Opera Godfather, where we have set the cylinders of the Swiss music box with white diamonds. It complements the timepiece and is certainly unique.
How important is your watch business relative to your jewellery business?
You know, I started out in jewellery, so there is a special place in my heart for the jewellery side of the business. However, over the past 20 years or so watches have taken a priority for the business. The watch side of the business allows me to express my creativity, which is multi-dimensional. I’m enjoying it very much. We are working hard to implement strategies to achieve a better balance between watches and jewellery.
Following what has happened during the unprecedented year 2020, the jewellery segment seems poised to achieve higher long-term growth than watchmaking. Do you share this observation?
No, we are very bullish and excited about the watchmaking side of our business. Over the past five years, the watch side of the business has been growing at around 20-30% a year. Even in 2020 we matched our 2019 numbers, which was our best year to that point. We are also forecasting tremendous growth on the jewellery side, as we will place more importance on sales and marketing for the jewellery that has always been part of the brand.
You are known for your extravagantly-set jewellery and timepieces. Have you noticed any changes in demand following the pandemic?
We’ve actually seen an increase in demand, after the first few months of international uncertainty, notably March and April 2020. Over the years, we’ve done an amazing job with focusing on digital advertising and making sales digitally. When the pandemic hit, it wasn’t a hard transition because we had the tools, strategies and internal processes to shift all of our business to generate sales digitally. So, people are sitting at home with time on their hands, seeing our products on various social media channels and purchasing through their devices.
“People are sitting at home with time on their hands, seeing our products on various social media channels and purchasing through their devices.”
Which markets show the highest growth opportunities for your jewellery, and for your watches, in 2021 and beyond?
The US is showing strong growth as we expand our distribution with key partners like Watches of Switzerland. We have a beautiful store in Dubai, and that has been growing every year, especially in 2020 and 2021, because it’s one of the only cities that were open during this pandemic. China is also a big market for us. We are in Beijing SKP and Nanjing Deji Malls, and the business is growing very well.
What potential do you see for male jewellery? How important is this clientele for you?
We have a strong offering in male jewellery, specifically bracelets and cufflinks, and there is increasing interest in this segment, that’s for sure. We have hematite bracelets – I wear one myself – and our cufflinks are really interesting, with great designs and unique features, like diamonds floating in a special liquid.
Do you see a future where it will be possible to sell high jewellery pieces online? Do you have plans to set up e-commerce?
We are planning on launching our e-commerce in Q1 or Q2 of 2021. It’s an exciting project for us and we are looking forward to getting it launched. We are launching e-commerce first with our lower-end products, ranging from $2,000-$20,000, and then moving towards the more expensive pieces. I do see a future in the next couple of years where we are selling high jewellery pieces online.
“We are planning on launching our e-commerce in Q1 or Q2 of 2021. I do see a future in the next couple of years where we are selling high jewellery pieces online.”
Could you share your top three game-changing creations that put your brand on the global map?
Going back to the ’90s, I was working with the majority of hip-hop artists, creating jewellery pieces for them that no one had ever seen before. I was their go-to jeweller, helping them create their vision for pieces that no one thought were possible. I worked with every big name you can imagine. That really helped me get my name and brand out there.
After the ’90s I used that momentum to launch my first timepiece, the 5 Time Zone watch. That watch really put the brand on the global map. I would walk into a restaurant and I would see half the tables wearing my watches. That was from 2000–2010.
In 2014, I launched the Astronomia Tourbillon. That was the start of my journey with high complications. The Astronomia was game-changing because we took what was up until then a flat tourbillon and made it vertical and three-dimensional. It also introduced continuous movement on the dial, which has become a signature for the brand. We have since expanded the Astronomia to include the Astronomia Sky, the Astronomia Solar, the Astronomia Casino, the Astronomia Art, the Astronomia Fleurs de Jardin, and much more.
“The Astronomia was game-changing because we took what was up until then a flat tourbillon and made it vertical and three-dimensional.”