News Friday, September 21st 2012
An entrepreneur at heart, though a man of letters Franco Cologni was quick to embark on a business career that would lead him to key roles within the Richemont Group. Orchestrator of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie and behind the creation of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, he is also a fervent supporter of the applied arts.
Considered by many to be the Nobel Prize of watchmaking, the Prix Gaïa is awarded to three outstanding personalities in the categories of History, Craftsmanship and Creation, and Spirit of Enterprise. This year, the distinction goes to Franco Cologni, president of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie Cultural Committee. It crowns a rich as well as prestigious career.
There are indeed individuals who, through their merit, their competencies, their boldness even, become inseparable from the activity in which they excel. Franco Cologni is one such individual, having marked the world of watchmaking forever. Yet as a young man, he seemed destined for a career far removed from time measurement. As a graduate in Literature and Philosophy from the Catholic University of Milan, he took up a position teaching the history of theatre. At the same time, he indulged his love of writing, as a journalist and author of essays and books on the theatre, film, television and communication.
From pen to dial
Alas, man cannot live by words alone and however great his literary and cultural bent, Franco Cologni had other ideas in mind. Ideas which conformed to the entrepreneurial spirit driving this visionary man. The turning-point came in 1969 with the creation of Tobako International, an Italian firm specialising in the manufacturing and distribution of high-end products including the famous Cartier lighter, the first to carry the brand's Must label. Italy was a stomping ground for luxury firms, and Franco Cologni was determined to maximise its appeal. His ascension within Cartier would be the rightful return. After setting up Cartier's Italian subsidiary in 1973, which integrated Tobako International shortly after, and multiplying the number of outlets on the Peninsula, he was appointed to Cartier's executive committee, becoming chief executive of Cartier International in 1980. He was appointed vice-chairman six years later then, in 2000, chairman.
Franco Cologni did more than just cut his teeth at Cartier, a jewel in the Richemont (ex-Vendôme) crown. He was instrumental in hoisting the firm to its unassailable position in the luxury segment, and the multinational was eager for its entire jewellery and watch business to benefit from his talent. Because Franco Cologni had intuition. Take the example of Panerai, resuscitated in 1997. The Florentine brand had equipped Italian navy combat divers in the 1940s to then disappear from the scene. In the space of a few years, Franco Cologni spearheaded one of the greatest commercial successes that watchmaking had seen in decades.
A plethora of initiatives
The Richemont Group made no secret of its ambitions in both the watch and jewellery segments. In 2000, it added IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange & Söhne to a portfolio which already included Baume & Mercier, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin and, of course, Cartier and Panerai. They would be followed by Van Cleef & Arpels, then Roger Dubuis. Such a proliferation of brands required order, a distinct strategy for each, and most importantly a clear vision of the markets and the potential of a group that was positioning itself as one of luxury's major players. Franco Cologni set to work, and Richemont gave sparkle to storied brands which proudly flew the colours of Fine Watchmaking on a solid industrial base.
Of course there is more to Franco Cologni than this business acumen. He is one of the orchestrators of the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, which he personally oversaw from its beginnings in 1990, and which today represents a foremost international event for the profession. Taking the principle a step further, and so as to pass on expertise and safeguard a heritage unique to watchmaking, in 2005 he established the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie. The Foundation now brings together some thirty watchmaking houses, each committed to spreading the culture of time measurement; a culture that is both unique and universal. Mention must also be made of the Fondazione Cologni dei Mestieri d'Arte which promotes the applied arts, the Creative Academy for design and creative management, and the Fondazione Laureus Sport for Good Italia of which Franco Cologni is vice-president, and whose goal is to promote social change through sport.
Franco Cologni would happily set aside this spirit of enterprise in favour of his natural inclination for the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Yet no one could deny that this same spirit has governed his endeavours in the world of watchmaking, which owes him some of its finest hours! ■