Bulgari: when in Rome…


April 2024

Bulgari: when in Rome…

Interviewed at the presentation, in Rome, of Bulgari’s new watches, Jean-Christophe Babin talks about the work he has undertaken to awaken this sleeping beauty, the role of the brand’s ambassadors, watchmaking and gender, Bulgari’s role in the history of watchmaking, the return of yellow gold, the boom in high jewellery over the past decade and the expansion of the brand’s jewellery-making facilities.


t the age of 65, Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin has little left to prove. He’s already shown what he can do during his thirteen-year tenure at TAG Heuer (his first in the watch industry) then at Bulgari, taking the reins in 2013 and shaking the brand from a long slumber.

This graduate of HEC Paris business school earned his spurs at Procter & Gamble, then Boston Consulting Group, then Henkel, trading detergents and shampoo for watches, as he likes to say. Arriving as an industry outsider – a fact probably not unrelated to his success – he put TAG Heuer back on the map by giving it the industrial capacity it lacked if it were to be taken seriously. Each year he built buzz with revolutionary concept watches that changed the shape of contemporary watchmaking.

Jean Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari with Priyanka Chopra, Anne Hathaway and Zendaya celebrating the launch of Bulgari's Mediterranea High Jewellery collection in Venice in May 2023 ©Bulgari
Jean Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari with Priyanka Chopra, Anne Hathaway and Zendaya celebrating the launch of Bulgari’s Mediterranea High Jewellery collection in Venice in May 2023 ©Bulgari

His track record at the head of Bulgari – he was appointed CEO following the takeover by LVMH in 2011 – has been equally impressive. In a few short years, Jean-Christophe Babin turned this sleeping beauty around and transformed the brand founded in Rome in 1884 by Greek goldsmith Sotirios Bulgaris into one of the most creative and profitable jewellery houses on the planet. Bulgari is present in five sectors: jewellery (its historic sector which generates the majority of revenue), watchmaking (consolidated by the takeover of the Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta brands in 1999 and 2000), fragrances, accessories and, since 2004, hotels and resorts. It’s a winning strategy, with each sector helping to drive the others.

Europa Star Jewellery: When you took the chief executive role at Bulgari in 2013, you faced a Herculean task. It is now one of the top three jewellery brands. With hindsight, what was the most difficult thing you had to do?

Jean-Christophe Babin: First we had to realise we were a watch and jewellery brand, and that we had to focus creative and financial resources on these two categories, then make sure this was reflected in our communication and stores. Secondly, we weren’t just any jewellery brand. As a Roman brand we bring with us a unique artistic and architectural heritage that influenced the entire western world for centuries. We have a duty to carry on this legacy through jewellery that is different, that reflects the Roman spirit, and express this in watches, accessories, fragrances and hospitality. Thirdly, our staff needed to understand the importance of Rome. Many employees are native to Rome yet sometimes underestimate the aspirational force of Rome and the Roman lifestyle. Another message we had to get across to staff was that there were other brands, with stronger growth, and that we needed to be much more ambitious than in the years preceding the acquisition by LVMH. We had every reason to believe this was an achievable goal. It was a rather long process. When you take over a company after 140 years of family ownership, habits have formed. For example, when I wanted to add the word Roma under the Bulgari logo, I was told it was vulgar. If you’re from Rome, possibly that’s true, but seen from the outside, it’s a sign of quality.

So there was some cultural resistance when you began your tenure?

Of course. I wasn’t from the jewellery sector and I wasn’t from Rome, but there was an advantage to this as coming from outside the sector meant I could bring a fresh pair of eyes. Watches were the one area I knew but I had to start from a clean slate. Bulgari is a jeweller, hence it was important to highlight masculine elegance with the Finissimo and feminine elegance with historic lines such as the Serpenti or recently refreshed lines such as the Lucea.

Mediterranea High Jewellery collection ©Bulgari
Mediterranea High Jewellery collection ©Bulgari

One of the watches presented in Rome is the Bulgari Bulgari x LISA Limited Edition, co-designed with Bulgari ambassador Lisa from Blackpink. How involved was the K-pop star with the creative process?

Lisa notices the way light plays on a dial. She doesn’t like dials that are static. She’s also a fan of the Bulgari Bulgari model, which Asian customers love. Last year we worked with Lisa to create a dial in shades that change from blues to pinks. This year we’ve chosen mother-of-pearl micro-mosaic. The tiny mother-of-pearl squares are all the same colour but assembled on slightly different levels, no more than a few microns’ difference, to create a beautiful shadow effect as the light moves.

Bulgari Bulgari X Lisa
Bulgari Bulgari X Lisa

Does the popularity of a star such as Lisa, with her 101 million Instagram followers, have an impact on sales?

That’s not an easy question to answer. A brand’s communication uses a whole battery of resources. We have five or six key ambassadors. How can we say a result is down to Lisa, or Anne Hathaway, or the store, or the sales associate, or an event we organised in Rome? Obviously I can’t separate the huge success we’ve had in Southeast Asia over the past three years from our partnership with Lisa. For other continents, it’s harder to say, as actresses such as Zendaya and Anne Hathaway are enormously influential. Calculating return on investment for ambassadors is always complicated. Bulgari’s five ambassadors are all artists and they form a team. Each has a role to play according to her age, her lifestyle and her cultural origins. They are rarely alone on a market. We always try to have one ambassador with a global aura and others who resonate more with a local audience. When Lisa posts about Bulgari, even if just 1% of her followers read it, that’s still a million people! When these people want to buy a watch or an item of jewellery, there’s a chance that Bulgari will be top of mind. Which is what we want. Of course, the rest has to follow: the right store, the right assortment and the right sales associate with the right message. It’s teamwork.

Actress Anne Hathaway wears Serpenti jewellery for Bulgari's holiday 2023 campaign. Photo: Floria Sigismondi. Courtesy of Bulgari
Actress Anne Hathaway wears Serpenti jewellery for Bulgari’s holiday 2023 campaign. Photo: Floria Sigismondi. Courtesy of Bulgari

The Bulgari Bulgari, which is proposed in different sizes, appeals to men and women without targeting either. Did you set out to create a gender-neutral watch?

It’s really the present coinciding with the past. The Bulgari Bulgari started out as a men’s quartz watch in 1977, when the Swiss watch industry was struggling to compete against Japanese quartz. Bulgari, which wasn’t a watch brand, came along with a design in yellow gold that departed from convention, with its vertical caseband and prominent Bulgari Bulgari logo: unthinkable for a country like Switzerland where you’re expected to show greater reserve. Once people realised the brand was from Rome and that the engraving was inspired by ancient Roman coins, then they understood. Also, Bulgari used the more modern Arabic numerals rather than the usual Roman numerals. Without realising, Bulgari broke the mould of classical watchmaking. Now you can see this same model in modern art museums. It has become part of watchmaking history, thanks to this unexpected design. While the original was intended for men, its 38mm diameter is a size that both sexes wear today. The Bulgari Bulgari is at the crossover between genders and is now a de facto unisex watch. Today’s Bulgari Bulgari is equipped with an in-house movement, which enhances its value. We’re reintroducing it in yellow gold, which is making a comeback. Increasingly, customers want authenticity and to their mind, gold should be as it is when it leaves the mine or the river, meaning yellow, the same as in classical antiquity. Yellow gold is considered the “true” gold.

Mediterranea High Jewellery collection sketch. ©Bulgari
Mediterranea High Jewellery collection sketch. ©Bulgari

How do you explain the phenomenal growth in jewellery sales over the past decade?

In ten years, purchasing power has doubled in the US and more than tripled in China, compared with Europe. Sixteen years have passed since the 2008 financial crisis, during which global wealth has exploded. Stock markets have reached levels no-one could have imagined, despite an unstable international context. In a time of crisis, global GDP is increasing by 2% or 3%. This is a huge albeit inequitable increase which has particularly benefited timeless, very high-end products. Whatever happens, in ten or 50 years’ time, a beautiful high jewellery necklace set with rare precious stones will hold its value. High jewellery has this unique status among luxury goods: jewellery’s ad infinitum value will always be significant.

Is this due to the investment value of the stones?

We use only rare and precious materials which have been valued by civilisations and cultures since the dawn of humanity. After 30 years, however beautiful it may be, a leather bag will show signs of wear. If someone no longer takes pleasure from their gold and diamond Bulgari necklace, they can easily resell it. In terms of real purchasing power, gold and diamonds will gain in value over time.

There have been moments in Bulgari’s history when high jewellery didn’t carry the weight it does today.

Bulgari comes from high jewellery. This is all the brand did until the late 1980s. Then, with the introduction of collections such as the B.zero1 and others, it became a jeweller for every day, then a watchmaker, leaving high jewellery to one side. By investing in creativity and in stones, it was relatively easy for us to reinstate this tradition: not instead of everyday jewellery but as well as, because it is part of our heritage. We quickly regained our traditional clientele and won a new clientele of younger customers, too. Precious stones are a jeweller’s treasure chest. Thanks to Paolo Bulgari and to Lucia Silvestri, Bulgari’s Jewellery Creative and Buying Director, we have acquired extraordinary stones with which our jewellery designers can express their creativity. We have defined three categories. Firstly, collections that highlight the brand’s symbols, such as Serpenti, B.zero1 and Diva’s Dream. Next, high jewellery creations on a theme that changes each year. In 2023 we presented the Mediterranea collection and there will be a new theme launching in May. The third category covers our Magnifica high jewellery collection, which are timeless jewels designed around a major stone. Our high jewellery is served by powerful communication campaigns and our sales associates are trained in gemmology so they can converse with customers, connoisseur to connoisseur. In addition, we have reduced the number of stores that carry our jewellery collections so that we can offer a wider selection.

The Bulgari Sapphire Flower Fantasy necklace. @Buonomo & Cometti
The Bulgari Sapphire Flower Fantasy necklace. @Buonomo & Cometti

Does jewellery account for the largest share of revenue?

Watches and high jewellery represent the majority of revenues, with jewellery accounting for the larger share. A customer purchasing a high-value item of jewellery knows they won’t lose money. Jewellery is a wise investment, particularly when stock markets are down.

What are you doing to attract Very Important Customers whose fortune is immune to crisis?

Our hotels, which are among the most expensive in the world, are part of our strategy to attract this clientele of potential jewellery watch and jewellery buyers. It’s a source of recruitment from the top. We invite our customers to enjoy exceptional experiences. We also draw on our network of multibrand watch retailers, who aren’t authorised to sell jewellery but can invite customers to some of our exclusive events. We feature in private jet companies’ inflight magazines and iPads, creating touchpoints with their clientele. Advertising also plays a role.

Jewellery isn’t the only booming segment. Sales of jewellery watches are expanding, too.

When we create a jewellery watch, both divisions work hand-in-hand. The jewellers make the body and the watchmakers the heart. It therefore makes sense that jewellery watches should follow the same upward trajectory. To ensure complete synergy between the two, themes for the high jewellery collections are set three years in advance so that the watch division can anticipate and create watches that fit with the collections. The timeframe for watches is longer than for jewellery. The watch division is already working on the 2027 theme whereas their colleagues in jewellery will start next year. We set the finish line but everyone has their own starting line.

The Bulgari Hotel in Roma. ©Bulgari
The Bulgari Hotel in Roma. ©Bulgari

Looking back, what makes you most proud?

The thing that makes me happiest is to see that our staff, whether they are in Japan, Finland, South Africa, Canada or Saudi Arabia, are proud to work for Bulgari and that they embrace the Roman spirit which I try to instil in the company day after day. Bulgari is a flag-bearer for Italy. I’m delighted when the country’s minister for foreign affairs says that Italy has two embassies: the government embassy for political matters and Bulgari for the Italian art of living. It’s a huge compliment as well as a lot to live up to.

For someone in your position, the future begins in the present. Looking ahead, what do you see?

We have laid solid ground, even if the brand had excellent foundations well before it was acquired by LVMH. We can build on what’s there. Like good Bordeaux wine, jewellery retains its beauty for a long time. I see the future as a consolidation of everything achieved so far with an acceleration in revenue. There’s a certain thrill to be had from hyperactivity but it takes courage to do a little less, better. At this stage in the company’s development, we need to envisage a more selective approach, for example we could be more present in the segment for unique pieces. Construction will begin within the next six months on a new high jewellery laboratory with triple the current workforce. At the same time we are more than doubling the size of our jewellery-making facility in Valenza. We have some ambitious projects. The one area we have yet to fully embrace is bespoke. We know that high jewellery clients appreciate the possibility to own jewellery that is entirely unique and captures who they are. We are working in this direction and, while it makes our business model more complex, it enriches it at the same time. In our activity, trust is fundamental to success and can only be gained over time. A year from now, all our watches will feature a micro QR code so that their owner can trace every step in the watch’s journey and learn about the inspiration behind it. That’s how I see the future.