Beloved Bulgari

CEO Jean Christophe Babin talks about what has kept the revered jewelry brand’s iconic status intact.

By Michelle F. Solomon

Bvlgari CEO Jean Christophe Babin scans the room upon arrival at Fort Lauderdale’s NSU Art Museum in February. It’s the opening reception sponsored by Bvlgari, and the charismatic leader of the Italian jewelry brand is cordially making his way through the crowd. However, you can tell his steps are determined to get to his ultimate destination — the exhibition in another area, away from the cocktails and conversation, and it is the star of the show.

 

It’s the first time that “Bellissima: Italy and High Fashion 1945-1968” is on U.S. soil. Highlighted in beautiful showcases throughout the exhibit are 18 selected works brought from Bvlgari’s Heritage Collection, which is housed in Rome on the second floor of the flagship on in Via dei Condotti.

Jean-Christophe BABIN. President of Bulgari. © david atlan/ Bulgari

There are 760 pieces in the collection, an anthology of splendid, one-of-a-kind pieces that recount the evolution of Bvlgari style from 1884 to today.
The House has bought back some pieces, which include seven from Elizabeth Taylor’s exquisite collection that were purchased by the House at a 2011 Christie’s sale. (Remember the famous quote by Richard Burton? — “The only word Liz knows in Italian is Bvlgari.”) There’s a call to action on its website searching for owners who may want to part with some of their own jewels. “In this way, the precious pieces will become stars of a story still to be told — a tale of art, beauty, and Italian excellence,” the website quotes.

Babin, who had been president and CEO of watch brand Tag Heuer since 2000, took over the job at Bvlgari in 2013. CEO Michael Burke was sent to Louis Vuitton, thereby leaving a vacancy. Both Tag Heuer and Bvlgari are part of the LVMH group.

“I joined a strong brand with a strong foundation,” says Babin during our one-on-one interview, not too far from a showcase that holds one of the classic Blvgari “bib” necklaces, a stunning mix of precious cabochons in unusual color combinations.

He calls them “lively Bvlgari signature pieces because they combine several unexpected colored gemstones, which for me are so strong and bright.”

CONNECTION TO THE PAST
There’s a reason, he says, that Bvlgari invests time and money in buying back some of its most coveted jewelry. Babin says discovering, purchasing, and then displaying the collection is “living evidence that what Bvlgari crafts today has a strong connection to what we created yesterday.” For those who buy Bvlgari, it provides a “lifetime warranty that, besides the perfect gems and quality of the metals, the styles — even though they evolve — remain precious and timeless.”

While Babin says there isn’t a way to talk about the brand’s present without equally talking about its past, he is excited about the new modernity of Bvlgari’s just-introduced collections that “reinterpret historical shapes in a very modern way. We honor our tradition with modernity.”

In Geneva, at the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in January, the brand debuted three new jewelry watch collections, including its reimagining of its classic Serpenti with Serpenti Incantati — translation: “enchanted snakes.” “For the first time, we’ve introduced a snake to be in a round shape — it’s quite daring.” The original Serpenti encircled the wrist as a bracelet. “On one hand, you pay tribute to your origins with a design like this, but then, you envision the future.”

TODAY’S BVLGARI WOMAN
The woman the brand is appealing to today is only slightly different than the woman who made Bvlgari a household name in the 1950s and ’60s. “In that time period, we were daring and bold and talking to a strong woman. In those days, few women were working, and so we were really appealing to those strong women who were emerging from the movie community and the business community. Nowadays, the proposal is much broader.”

Buyers then were typically a husband or boyfriend who was gifting a woman. Now, women with their own money and power choose the jewelry for themselves. Babin’s assessment: “When your boyfriend or husband buys you a gift, it is conventional because they are afraid of making a mistake. When it is for yourself, you know exactly what you want.”

He speaks frequently of that modernity moving forward with Bvlgari and the fact that luxury jewelry will never go out of style. “It has been the most consistent luxury indulgence in the last four million years.”
The CEO has quite a job, and he says he never really envisioned where his career would take him. “I have been very lucky that I have had very interesting proposals,” says Babin, who was born in France and possesses dual French and Italian citizenships.

He started his career in 1983 in sales and marketing positions — at Procter & Gamble in France and at Benckiser and Henkel in Italy. With Bvlgari, he has reached the height of luxury. There are photos of the charismatic Babin with Heidi Klum on the red carpet at amfAR Milano 2014, with Uma Thurman, dripping in $2 million worth of Bvlgari at the House’s 130th anniversary celebration, and with Eric Bana, who wears the same Finissimo Octo timepiece that I notice Babin has tucked under his tuxedo sleeve.

He shares his strategy from “day one” at Bvlgari and the same idea, most likely, he’s used throughout his ascent in business. “It’s like diving. You have to go deep and hold your breath, shut your mouth, and just absorb to understand. Then you get to the surface and you start to figure out what, in this case, you can bring to a brand that has such a history.”

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