updated 11 Aug 2014, 14:34
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Pinnacle of luxury
by Tay Suan Chiang

One is worn on the wrist to tell time, while the other is worn on other parts of the body as a decorative piece. But to Jean-Christophe Babin, there is little difference between a horological masterpiece and haute jewellery, save for the type of materials.

"Both are luxury goods," says Mr Babin, who was CEO at Tag Heuer for 12 years, before becoming CEO of Bulgari last year. The two brands are under luxury goods conglomerate LVMH. "Jewellery is made of natural gems and stones. Watches use gems and precious metals, but mostly crafted from metal components and alloys," says Mr Babin. "They cater to similar consumers."

He acknowledges that the expertise required to make a watch or a piece of jewellery is different but, "often you will see the same machines in the two factories".

While running the two brands is not very different, he made sure that when he became Bulgari's CEO, the first thing he did was to listen, understand, and learn about the company. "You need to do all that before you can change anything, because you cannot change something you don't understand." In fact, he put off giving media interviews in his first year as he was still learning about the company.

The French-born Mr Babin says: "I didn't think I would be CEO in another company, especially when you are happy, there is no reason to change company." So the invitation to be CEO came as a surprise. "But after 12 years at Tag Heuer, maybe it was good to have someone fresh to bring in new ideas to the company."

The father of five began his career in mass consumer goods with the French branch of Procter and Gamble, before joining the Boston Consulting Group. In 1994, he became the managing director of Henkel's Italian subsidiary, and became its senior vice-president four years later. In 2000, he became Tag Heuer's CEO.

For himself, he says "it is a good time for me to discover a new brand, a new business, because I didn't know anything about jewellery and fragrances". He adds that "staying on too long in a company will risk seeing things through one angle. With a new company, you have no option but to change yourself, to bring to the company a new view".

As head of the company, Mr Babin has his eyes set on "developing Bulgari into an even more compelling image, and making the name the most desired luxury brand in the world, driven by extraordinary jewellery and watches".

The Italian brand was started by Greek silversmith Sotirio Bulgari in 1884. Jewellery as a product category accounts for 46 per cent of the label's revenue, followed by perfumes and skincare at 23 per cent and watches at 20.1 per cent. Accessories and hotels make up the rest.

Mr Babin says that the focus is on jewellery, but that is not to say that the other product categories will be left behind. "Jewellery is at the very top of the luxury game. It is both expensive and timeless because it is driven by stones and gems. As time goes by, gems and stones are depleting yet they are still very timeless. Any other luxury product is short-lived," he says.

Jewellery, he adds, will dictate the way "in everything else". He gives examples of how the various jewellery lines, such as the Serpenti, the Bulgari Bulgari, the B.Zero1 have also found their way into the brand's watch collections. "It has also extended into our accessories range, so you get Serpenti bags, and even in the fragrances."

The latest jewellery collection is the Mvsa collection which will officially be launched in September. Bulgari's clients in Singapore got to see it when the flagship store at Marina Bay Sands opened last month. The collection is an ensemble of 26 pieces, consisting of rings, necklaces, bracelets and earrings made from coloured stones, such as blue topaz, amethyst, citrine, only, rubellite and pink quartz. The stones are paired with diamonds.

During his time at Tag Heuer, Mr Babin guided the watch manufacturer to strengthen its fundamentals and ensure its long-term positioning as one of Swiss watchmaking's most dynamic brands. He is confident of repeating his success with Bulgari, to make it the "pinnacle of luxury". How does he plan to do that?

"By elevating beauty and preciousness in everything we do, from the boutique environment to the unexpected creativity and quality of our jewellery and watches," he says. "On the resort front, to have a worldwide network of 'Houses of the Jeweller' offering a unique hospitality experience consistent with a jeweller tradition."

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This article was first published on August 2, 2014.
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