When it comes to creating dreams, few brands weave them as masterfully as Bulgari, and with Jean-Christophe Babin at the helm, we can only expect more breathtaking creativity. Karishma Karer spent some time discussing Jean-Christophe’s journey at Bulgari, and his views about the luxury watch industry.
Born in Paris to a family of lawyers, Jean-Christophe Babin entered the world of fine watchmaking as President and CEO of TAG Heuer in 2000 before taking over as CEO of Bulgari in 2013.
An avid traveler and scuba diver, Jean-Christophe finds time in his busy schedule to spend with his wife and children, and prefers to shop at airport stores to save time.
How has your journey been as the CEO of Bulgari so far?
It has been a 5-year discovery in a way. I knew why I was going to Bulgari. It is a Roman brand. It is a cult brand for many clients. It is a master of jewellery and of colours.
I have been discovering much more than that. I think I was not conscious of how much the Roman influence has been shaping the brand. Not just the jewellery, but the watches as well. And I probably had no idea how much more the art, the architecture and the lifestyle could really infuse the brand with its spirit to turn it into one of the most desirable, if not ideally the most desirable luxury brand on earth.
When we think about Bulgari, we think about watches for women, because you create dreams for women with lines like the Serpenti, the Lvcea, the Diva, but I’ve noticed with the Octo, you’ve been breaking records every year. What is your final goal with the Octo? To have a paper-thin watch?
Actually, we don’t want to be a leading champion. We really just want it to be a very long lasting, elegant style statement. It is just made to be a quintessentially elegant watch for gentlemen. It has to be contemporary, it has to be for menswear, very slim, very integrated. I believe in purity and simplicity and that’s why we are combining a very geometrical shape with a very slim execution, bundled with a very integrated aesthetic. Thanks to the same material being used on the bracelet and the case and the dial, the Octo has a strong character on one hand and elegance on the other. Often, elegance is classical and in that case thanks to the shape, we have a mix which is contemporary but with the potential for timelessness which is embedded into the design.
In terms of Baselworld, we have seen a lot of changes happening, a lot of fluctuation. What are your views on that?
As a brand exhibitor, we are probably a bit isolated from the changes, especially in terms of the gems component which is kind of a fair within a fair because you have the brand fair, and you have the jewellery fair. So as a brand I cannot say that we are really affected. We are meeting with a lot of media every year, we are meeting with our best retailers as well, so as a brand we don’t see much difference really.
What is the future? That is a fair question. That is a real option for the brand. There is the question of whether the brand needs the fair or not and there is obviously some consideration. I think the fact that Bulgari took our best retailers to Dubai in January, to our own hotel shows that there might be alternative ways to display novelties if necessary and of taking clients for a new brand experience.
There is also this new trend of brands starting their own official secondhand markets so what are your views on that?
Well, Bulgari has no unofficial secondhand market! We really strive for crafting and selling new products through our own channels so we talk about our own stores. We talk about some partners which are selected partners which are very exclusive. So as a brand we do not foster any secondary market. Occasionally Bulgari is auctioned and that is fine but we talk about true secondhand watches which are registered, and with a very high value. I’m not sure that Bulgari or a lot of other brands would be in that kind of secondhand market that you are mentioning.
What would be your guidelines for somebody who wants to start a luxury watch collection?
I think you need to be a bit crazy! As you can see in Basel there are a lot of watch brands, and a watch in terms of aesthetic expression is the utmost challenge in terms of design. On the one hand you have very little space, maybe 28, 30mm for a lady, 40, 42, 44mm for a man, and within that space, most of it is functional. That is, you need to be accurate, you need to show time, with hands or something else, but you need to show hours and minutes. So eventually, taking in to consideration the constraints, your space for differentiation, whether to express your vision or to link with brand DNA is very limited. So, I think you should be clear about your mission and your intention and then to be creative and express it. Because the space for creativity is much less than with jewellery. With jewellery, you have no real function, it is not accurate. It has to be primarily comfortable but really your creative space is 90% of the jewel. In a watch, your creative space is logically limited by the function so you have to be even more creative. I think you have to be creative and consistent because it is a matter of expressing what you stand for and what you dream of. In a watch 40mm has to be a summary of all this!
You already put 350 components in one watch and made it really slim, so what’s next?
Again, we are not meant to be a record breaker, we are meant to be elegant. So, if to be elegant we can approach and break records, it is nice. But the idea is really to stand for a benchmark in elegance. It is what we try to accomplish, sometimes we break records but we would never develop a product just to break a record. I think this year’s record breaker was meant primarily to express elegance in an even sharper way. I hope we have managed that. With the record, next year, maybe another brand will take it but that should not prevent the Octo from being successful even without a record.
There is another brand that is attempting to come into the same space, but I think the Octo is a nicer looking version of it.
I don’t know about nicer or not. I think for Bulgari probably the right way to express our style is with geometry, despite the fact we are very, very thin.
Intentionally or not, we’re convinced Bulgari will continue to break records and bring us even more exquisite and desirable watches for years to come, and we can’t wait to see them all!