BVLGARI CEO, JEANCHRISTOPHE BABIN, SITS DOWN TO TALK INNOVATION, GROWTH AND THE ART OF FINE WATCHMAKING.
Throughout his 12-year tenure as CEO of TAG Heuer, JeanChristophe Babin was known to be much like the product he sold. As with time, he was the man who never stopped. His quest was one of continual innovation coupled with a desire to create positive noise and chatter at the annual Baselworld watch fair – be it through the announcement of a new celebrity TAG Heuer ambassador like Leonardo Dicaprio, or heralding concept watches which, similar to the motoring and racing industry the brand aligns with, pushed the boundaries of mechanical movement to measure even more accurate fractions of time. Now, two years into his term as the Bulgari CEO, Babin’s agenda is still to drive further innovation, but this time, with an added ingredient – the DNA of one of the world’s most glamorous and venerable luxury brands. “First you have to understand the brand DNA,” says Babin in an exclusive sitdown with GQ. “You need to get to the fundamentals of a brand to understand what kind of innovation would make sense.” He explains that Bulgari’s provenance in the jewellery sector means it’s all about design as applied to extraordinary gems – a luxury good that many aspire to hold and own. “There is nothing more exquisite and expensive at the end of the day than highend jewellery.” Nods to this focus on beautiful, aspirational design and innovation abound in the new ‘Diagano E Magnesium’, which has amplifed the popularity of the ‘Diagano’ with the use of key materials. The case centre contains magnesium with a ceramic bezel, boosting the resistance and durability of the luxurious fnish. “It’s a design statement inspired from the past when we had aluminum,” he says, “but integrating totally new materials, making it not only more advanced but also more scratch and chemical resistant with a betterquality fnish.” It also addresses the rise of smartwatches – in a unique, Bulgari way. Instead of connectivity to a smartphone, without which smartwatches are a little disappointing, Babin and his team brainstormed the idea of a vault where important information is stored. A collaboration was formed with Swiss digital secure storage specialist WISEKEY, whereby the watch is embedded with a chip equipped with NFC (encrypted near feld communication) technology, and links to the Bulgari Vault app to allow the safe storage of personal digital data. The vault is activated by placing the watch near the phone and only the wearer of the watch can store or use the data. And because there’s no real technology in the watch itself beyond the NFC chip, its uses can be upgraded and expanded over time. “The watch is forever,” chimes Babin. “We update the app and in that way we retain the integrity and ways of Swiss
manufacturing. It is a world frst. A smart or intelligent watch of precision and striking design that allows you to enter and manage all your digital ecosystem, which today is often spread across different containers and not necessarily protected.” Babin accepts that successfully launching new products is only half the equation – he also lists customer experience as key, and that doesn’t just mean furnishing them with fne jewels, but immersing them in Bulgari’s history and DNA. To that end he called on architect Peter Marino, who recently completed London’s Louis Vuitton Maison, to work on the interior design of Bulgari’s flagship store in Rome. This involved an intricate combination of lighting, soft and hard fnishes, furniture and even scent to personify the brand’s boutique experience. “In essence,” says Babin, “the Peter Marino concept is to shift the store style from a more Italian style to a specifc Roman style. Rome is the city that still inspires our designers more than any other location and so the design is characterised with marble, columns and parquet flooring.” Marino carved out a masculine environment within what is a traditionally female-oriented jewellery setting, with a cigar-smoking-room-inspired area to house the watch collection. Expect a man’s den with dark green walls, marble trim and parquet floors when Sydney and Melbourne boutiques take on the new design concept in the near future. “We wanted to create a space where men feel more at ease in a pure watch environment,” continues Babin. “Not with jewellery mixed in. I mean we sell tourbillons, minute-repeaters and very high-end mechanical watches. They need a dedicated environment and the staff have been trained specifcally in Switzerland on the complications, so they also carry the expertise within the boutique.” Speaking about the Australian market – which he successfully targeted while at TAG – Babin confrms expansionist desires regarding Bulgari’s local presence. “We’re expanding very soon in one more city. Once you are in those three cities, the fourth city is on the west side of the country. You can work it out. We’re also in advanced discussions with multi-brand watch retailers as a further initiative to expand past the mono-brand boutique.” This would bring the Bulgari distribution strategy in Australasia, particularly for watches, in line with that of global markets. So expect to fnd Bulgari watches at fve or more of the most exclusive watch retailers here and in New Zealand in the not too distant future. When the conversation turns to other relevant men’s categories, such as pushing a distinct line of masculine Bulgari jewellery, Babin is less committal. “Well today, I’m not wearing a ring. I’m wearing the ‘Diagano Magnesium’, of course, with a silver dial. That’s enough jewellery for me. That’s not to say never though. Last year we launched a black ceramic ring and initially we didn’t think about men, but one year after launch we’ve seen men are buying it. Pendants for men are obviously a category, but we’ll likely realise any sales through a unisex offering through the ‘Bulgari Bulgari’ range. And what of that other Bulgari staple – a favourite of fnanciers and a certain former Australian PM? Would we ever see a move towards slimmer styles in line with trends? “Well there is one segment that we are evolving and developing, and that’s the evening tie,” says Babin. “As dressing down during the day has become more globally widespread and the neck tie becomes a less essential choice, conversely dressing up at night has become popular. So we’re introducing a collection of more interesting evening ties. What do I mean by more interesting? Black is nice, but it’s not original. So starting with dark colours, introducing some design elements that subtly represent Bulgari and a little twist of originality. This, to us, is akin to the high-end jewellery business. You wear your fnest at night, positioning yourself with a group of consumers who like to show the best of themselves.” And Bulgari, it goes without saying, is about the best. n
“FOR ME, THE DIAGANO MAGNESIUM IS THE ULTIMATE ELEGANCE IN WATCHMAKING. IT’S A PLEASURE TO WAKE UP IN THE MORNING TO DISCOVER A NEW FACET OF IT.”
LEFT: THE NEW ROMAN STYLE CONCEPT FOR BVLGARI MAISONS DESIGNED BY PETER MARINO. BELOW: THE MEN’S UNIVERSE AT BVLGARI’S FLAGSHIP STORE IN ROME.