updated 14 Feb 2010, 03:12
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Sun, Feb 14, 2010
The Business Times
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Gem of a boutique
by Melissa Lwee

WHEN Chaumet decided to open a flagship boutique in Hong Kong, its president Thierry Fritsch had only one brief for his architect - that it had to be 'visible' from Shanghai and Beijing.

'The point I was trying to get across to him was that Hong Kong is a gateway to China,' recalls Mr Fritsch. 'In order to tap into the China market, the brand first has to be really strong in Hong Kong and we needed a building worthy of that strength.'

As a result, the store that emerged was a striking blue structure that could not be missed by passersby even if they tried.

'My architect calls me and says, you will be very happy because I have created a big blue box that can probably be seen from the satellites,' adds Mr Fritsch with a laugh.

The same philosophy, he says, will be adopted for their first ever flagship boutique in Singapore, which is due to open at Ion Orchard tomorrow. A second Chaumet boutique will open at Marina Bay Sands later this year.

'The Hong Kong boutique was outstanding - it did so well that we managed to cover our costs in about a year, which was unprecedented!' he exclaims.

'Now that we've developed the Hong Kong - and thus Beijing and Shanghai - markets, the next step in our strategy is South-east Asia. Just like Hong Kong, we look at Singapore as a stepping stone to the rest of the region. Once we've established visibility and credibility here, we will look to develop our business in the rest of the region.'

He adds that Chaumet previously had a presence in Singapore, when its watches were retailed at local watch boutiques. But not anymore.

'Chaumet watches used to be distributed internationally on a wholesale basis, so people knew us for our watches - which was OK, but a bit strange because it did not portray the right image for the brand,' he explains.

'Seventy per cent of our business is jewellery and only 30 per cent is watches, so to be perceived as a watch brand was not ideal. As a result, we stopped all distribution about five to six years ago and changed our strategy to opening flagship boutiques instead, which represents the true nature of the brand.'

Such bold expansion strategies, says Mr Fritsch, only came into play when Chaumet was taken over by luxury group LVMH in 1999. Prior to that, it was run by Investcorp (Bahrain's sovereign fund), which bought over the company when the company (then family run by brothers Jacques and Pierre Chaumet) filed for bankruptcy in 1987.

'Investcorp had rescued and protected the brand, but it did not develop it. To expand in the jewellery market, you really need a strong financial backer like LVMH, because expanding a jewellery business is awfully capital intensive,' muses Mr Fritsch.

'If you look at a lot of the high profile jewellery houses today, many of them are backed by strong groups such as the Gucci Group with Boucheron, Richemont with Van Cleef & Arpels and of course, we are backed by LVMH.'

He explains that this growing trend has similarly given birth to the rise of branded jewellery.

'The jewellery market used to be a brandless market just like how the leather goods industry used to be brandless. If you think about it, there can't be more than 20 recognisable jewellery brands out there, which is so few when you consider how big the market is,' he says.

He notes how the proliferation of fashion brands such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton into the high jewellery market has perpetuated the growth of branded jewellery. Their entrance into the market, he says, has also played a part in forcing traditional jewellery houses to up the ante on creativity.

'What has happened is that jewellery is now seen as being closely linked to fashion,' he says.

'It is no longer enough to produce a collection once every three years, but rather we need to offer our clients something new at least once a year. But I think that that is an excellent thing. These fashion brands entering the jewellery market has opened the doors for traditional brands like us to be more creative.'

Inevitably, this means more competition, but Mr Fritsch remains unfazed by that prospect, remaining confident in the brand's ability to hold its own.

'When you buy Chaumet, buy a bit of French history,' he concludes. 'Our Asian clients are very aware of the Chaumet story - our iconic blue facade, our close historical link with Napoleon and the fact that Sophie Marceau wears our jewellery. I'm always amazed by what they know.'

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This article was first published in The Business Times.

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