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Bulgari - Interview with Jean-Christophe Babin

Bulgari Interview with Jean-Christophe Babin

We chatted to the Bulgari Group CEO about Geneva Watch Days 2021, the 20th anniversary of the GPHG and the development of his brand

You started Geneva Watch Days in 2020. The second edition has just finished. Will you be repeating it in 2022?
Where the traditional watch fairs failed, the Geneva Watch Days have proved to be more agile, more flexible and completely decentralised. Every brand is free to take part or not, and to set up their exhibit wherever they wish: in a boutique, a hotel or a manufacture. The main tent is open to the public, and it’s completely free. Everything is managed by the brands themselves, which each designate their own project manager. Together, we decide on security protocols, hospitality provisions, promotion, etc.  In the event of a health crisis or other unexpected issue, it’s very easy to change the date, because there’s no organising entity that has to cover its fixed costs. We win together, or we lose together. The Geneva Watch Days have become a brand in their own right; it would be entirely possible to export the concept to other cities. We’re discussing it now. The third edition will probably take place at the end of August 2022 in Geneva, just before the most important time of the year for luxury watch sales – September to January – and many retailers appreciate that. Before that, Bulgari will have an exhibition in Geneva in the spring, when all the brands will be there. But we haven’t yet decided whether we’ll welcome our clients at Watches & Wonders or in the city.

Geneva Watch Days 2021 : clap de fin

Octo Roma Worldtimer from Bulgari © WorldTempus/Jordy Bellido

How has Bulgari adapted to the health crisis, which is lasting longer than we had hoped?
To the extent that practically all our shops around the world have been able to reopen, barring some periodic closures, the situation is far more positive than it was. Indeed, watch exports have returned to the levels we saw in July 2019, which wasn’t a bad year. And Bulgari is part of that. We’ve recorded double-digit growth since the start of the year, boosted by the launch of the Aluminium collection. This range has attracted a new, younger clientele just entering the luxury segment, and Aluminium is perfectly suited to them. The Seduttori, which we launched last year, has performed a similar function for women, and the Octo remains extremely resilient. To support this growth, we left our workshops open during the summer vacation period, when the watch industry typically takes a holiday, in order to keep up our production capacity. In fact, I’d like to thank all our employees who agreed to work during this period. The main consequence of the public health crisis has been the cessation of retail travel; luxury shopping tourism was a big deal for the Chinese, who could afford to fly business class with what they saved in VAT on their luxury purchases. At the end of the day, this market segment is highly volatile, because it’s also at the mercy of exchange rates and customs duties. Bulgari, like many other brands, has decided to redress the balance by refocusing on local clients. In terms of our shops in Europe and the United States, we’ve taken huge strides in this direction. We’re cautiously optimistic that our results for 2021 will exceed those of 2019.

Interview with Jean-Christophe Babin

Divina Mosaica Minute Repeater © Bulgari

Have you observed any new consumption patterns among your clientele?
Not really in terms of their tastes, but more in terms of their expectations. They are far more interested in finding out what’s behind the product. Ethics, transparency and sustainability have become much more important, particularly with younger clients. Today, Bulgari must be not only a great watch and jewellery brand in terms of quality; it must also be a model of generosity and transparency. When comparing equivalent products between brands, young clients rank honesty very highly in their selection criteria.

The Octo Finissimo left an indelible mark on the last decade. What will be the next driver of Bulgari watches?
First of all, I think we should drop the expectation that we need to set a new record every year! With seven world records and 60 international awards, the Octo Finissimo will, in the coming decade, remain the most decorated watch in the history of watchmaking, and the watch that earned Bulgari its watchmaking legitimacy. We earned that achievement. We reached our goal. But we’ve ruled nothing out for 2022 and 2023.

If you compare us with the car industry, the Octo Finissimo range in titanium is equivalent to a supercar: extreme, high-performance, produced in limited quantities. But the majority of market value comes from GT cars. Our GT range is the Octo Finissimo in steel. Polished and satin-brushed, with a screw-down crown and a depth rating of 100 metres, these watches have a more familiar style, they can be worn every day, and they are produced in greater volumes. But they owe their success to the Supercar – the one that broke the mould. And let’s not forget that the Octo Roma, with its extraordinary case, has huge potential. All our grand complications are in the Octo Roma line, which is exceptionally versatile, going from the SoloTempo at CHF 5,500 to the Grande Sonnerie at CHF 900,000. We demonstrated the amazing diversity of the Octo Roma at the Geneva Watch Days, with the WorldTimer at CHF 8,150 and the Papillon Central Tourbillon at CHF 124,000, which is aimed at a core market that appreciates watches of a certain weight and size. These generate sales volumes; they are complementary to the Octo Finissimo, whose more extreme characteristics appeal to a more exclusive clientele.

Interview with Jean-Christophe Babin

Octo Papillon Central Tourbillon © Bulgari

What was your favourite piece from the Geneva Watch Days?
For women, I’m totally in love with the Divina Mosaica Minute Repeater! The mosaic tile effect, combined for the first time with red sapphire on the dial of the Diva, is a stunning combination. I think this collection will be immensely successful. In the field of jewellery watches, it’s highly innovative, legitimate and unique in terms of the colours and gemstones used. This platform could evolve in the future to encompass other precious stones and colours, making it a very colourful collection.

For men, I think the Octo Roma Papillon Central Tourbillon is an utterly exceptional watch, as it should be for CHF 124,000! It’s simple and very elegant, but also sophisticated, with its jumping hours, the two butterfly hands for the minutes, and the 180° rotation every hour, when one butterfly hand replaces the other. The timepiece is very distinctive, but its style remains understated, focused as it is around its central tourbillon. This will be one of Bulgari’s headline watches for the year.

Interview with Jean-Christophe Babin

Gerald Genta Arena Retrograde with Smiling Disney Mickey Mouse from Bulgari © WorldTempus/Jordy Bellido

You have also just released a new Gérald Genta design.
Yes, the Arena Retro Mickey Mouse is the third watch since the brand was relaunched. We chose the Arena case because of its distinctive character, paired with the retrograde movement that we’ve decided will be used exclusively for Gérald Genta. It is made by the Bulgari manufacture. Mickey Mouse’s arm, which points to the retrograde hours, adds a playful touch to this highly accessible watch. The limited series of 150, available exclusively from online shop, is almost sold out. In the context of our contract with Walt Disney, this model will probably be followed by other limited series with other Disney characters.

The GPHG celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. You’ve been on the stage to receive prizes on several occasions (for Bulgari and, previously, TAG Heuer) – which meant the most to you?
The Aiguille d’Or, naturally, because very few of us have won it. It was particularly remarkable for TAG Heuer, because at the time the brand wasn’t necessarily recognised as a Haute Horlogerie watchmaker. The innovations we made throughout that period convinced the jury to award this supreme distinction to TAG Heuer. Obviously, I’m very proud of all the awards I’ve won with my teams at Bulgari, sometimes two at a time. I hope we’ll win an Aiguille d’Or for Bulgari one day!


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