In Paris for the busy week of Haute Couture and Haute Joaillerie in early July, Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin found the time to meet with me in his first floor office of the magnificent Bulgari boutique on Avenue George V. He greets me with one of the four unique timepieces from ‘Geometry of Time’, the range of watches from the new ‘Italian Gardens’ high jewelry collection presented earlier this month. Admiring the breathtaking beauty of the creation is not enough; CEO Babin wants me to run my fingers over the timepiece to feel the texture, back and front. “Soft, right?” he enquires. “Bulgari is not only a pleasure for the eyes, but also for the skin, whether for jewelry or watches,” he adds.
Bulgari watches first gained recognition forty years ago, when ‘Bulgari Roma’ was created as a gift for jewelry clients. Reminiscent in shape of a large Roman coin, with a digital time display on the dial and plaited rope with leather trim for a bracelet, the great demand for the very limited edition resulted in the ‘Bulgari Bulgari’ – a natural evolution that had a round yellow-gold case, traditional dial, name inscribed on the bezel, leather strap and quartz or mechanical movement. Today, the iconic collection celebrates its 40th anniversary with the launch of the ‘Bulgari Roma Finissimo Tourbillon’, featuring the in-house FT BVL 268 movement just 1.95 mm thick, a record for a flying tourbillon without a bridge.
President and CEO of TAG Heuer for 13 years before arriving at Bulgari in 2013, CEO Babin brings plenty of watch brand leadership with him to his new position. He nevertheless “had to adjust to the complexity” when he arrived, considering that Bulgari is a brand with five different businesses: jewelry, watchmaking, fragrances and cosmetics, accessories, and luxury hotels.
“And with a brand like Bulgari” he continues“, the whole selling process is very much an art. You have to be very creative, inspire desire and passion. But since other brands in this category can incite these same emotions, we have to go beyond the products and expertise, and develop the way the product is displayed, the way it is discovered, the store experience which is part of the magic.”
How does this compare to his previous experience? He replies that, “the dynamic of the business model and what makes it successful is not so different from my former watch company. But Bulgari is more feminine, has more vitality, and the name of the game is to create dreams, to promote the legend, more than promoting the functionality of the product.”
Upon his arrival at Bulgari, he “found a great company with an incredible heritage, unique expertise, not just for gemstones and jewelry, but also watches,” discovering a brand that “makes its own movements,” and crafts everything from case to dial, something “rare for a watch company,” says Babin.
He thinks it would be “a bit arrogant after two years” to say he had already brought tangible results to the company, but recognizes that perhaps his contribution has been to focus on certain collections such as ‘Bulgari Bulgari’ for men, and’ Serpenti’ and ‘B.ZER01’ for women, and to look at customers and the market to identify possible gaps, one of which was filled with the “Diva” jewelry collection launched last year, inspired by the high jewelry “Diva” pieces but with a more accessible price tag.
More generally, he adds, “we want to open up to a broader clientele, perhaps a bit more classical, and beyond the products, we want to bring Rome more into the center of the brand. Rome, and not Italy, remains the aesthetic reference for Bulgari, and Rome is what distinguishes us from other high jewelry and watchmaking companies.”
The new flagship store designed by Peter Marino on the Via dei Condotti in Rome does just that. From now on, all new and renovated boutiques, from among the 300 today of which 200 are own boutiques, will be based on the Rome concept “to make people dream. Everybody dreams of the charm and beauty of Rome” explains Babin.
While the brand is “ massively feminine” with the “Serpenti” and “Lucea” lines, the redesigned “Bulgari Bulgari” for ladies, and the “Diva” High Jewellery Watch Collection — “70% of our watches are feminine; with all businesses combined, I would say the brand is 80% feminine” says Babin. “Bulgari has no intention of abandoning men! We have also developed beautiful new timepieces for men such as the” OCTO Finissimo Tourbillon” with the thinnest tourbillon in the world” — I try it on; it is elegant, discreet and very light – “and the new” Diagano Magnesium” that we launched at Basel also with an “E_” version. And we master most of the grandes complications – we have our “Carillon Tourbillon” from the Daniel Roth Collection.”
Global markets and sales look healthy for the future. “We are not overly dependent upon one market, nor one source of business. We have managed over the years to split our business into 5 or 6 groups; we do not have all our eggs in the same basket” concludes Babin.