It’s not a building you’d notice, camouflaged among the faceless concrete and warehouses of Geneva’s Free Port complex. Once inside, an extraordinary sight awaits: that of a working manufacture and artisan studios spread over multiple floors. Salanitro is home to no fewer than 38 state-of-the-art CNC machines and a staff of 190 people, including 80 qualified, not to say ultra-qualified, gem-setters. Security, though discreet, is at a maximum throughout. Dozens of safes contain watches, some waiting to be set with precious stones and others that have been manufactured on-site, for some 40 client brands representing the crème de la crème of Haute Horlogerie. Salanitro is a one-stop shop, providing services from the initial design sketch to prototyping, manufacturing, cutting and setting round and fancy stones, polishing, rhodium-plating, assembly, quality control and repairs. Basically every link in the chain except the movement.
From banker to gem-setter
Moving between the various levels of this battleship (each floor extends over 1,500 square metres), visitors are inevitably in awe. Not the captain. “Whenever a client takes time to come and watch us work, I know they’ll be reassured by what they see and, more often than not, increase their order,” says Pierre Salanitro, the relaxed, fifty-something boss, with a smile. “Personally, it feels like home, having seen the company grow over the years.” Seeing him so evidently at ease, it’s hard to imagine he began his career elsewhere, in banking, until an invitation came out of the blue to meet an artisan gem-setter in his workshop. An eye-opener! A banker by day, in the evening Pierre Salanitro learned this new trade, ultimately qualifying as a gem-setter. When the crisis that hit the watch industry in the 1980s put him out of work, what could have been a negative experience turned into an opportunity, prompting him to go it alone.
From small beginnings, business grew at a steady pace and nothing, be it a challenging economy or the competition, could send him off-course. Today, Salanitro is a reference within the industry, no doubt due to the uncompromising and high expectations that keep the firm ahead of clients’ wishes. Design-wise, for example, it has kept pace with new materials, as more and more brands dare to set stones in other metals than gold, such as steel, and even ceramic. Satisfying their appetite for coloured gems is never a problem either, such as the carefully sorted batch of coloured stones delivered by its Bangkok office to the exact specifications set out by a client. And who might that be? Like any good supplier, Pierre Salanitro never names names, although the watches spotted at workbenches are a huge clue as to who they might be.
Among his many talents, Pierre Salanitro is very much an ideas man. The tripartite partnership with Hublot and a mine-owning friend in the state of Paraíba in Brazil is an eloquent example of this. “I was lucky enough to visit the mine and learn how Paraíba tourmalines are extracted, and I could see there was an exclusive project just waiting to be developed. Paraíba tourmalines are formed by a fusion of gold, manganese and copper, and display magnificent turquoise colours. They are exceptionally rare, hence their high price. To give you an idea how rare they are, on average a single Paraíba tourmaline is mined for every 10,000 diamonds. All these reasons add up to why only very small orders can be placed.”
I realised a long time ago that ethics would be increasingly high on clients' agenda.
The resulting Hublot Big Bang Paraíba was unveiled in Geneva last January. It has, as one would expect, been highly praised, including for its ethical stance. The Brazilian mine is certified by all the major gemmological laboratories for its environmentally sustainable extraction methods. Additionally, the mine-owners are committed to reforestation of the region. Pierre Salanitro goes on to mention his own action to reinforce the industry’s ethical standards. “I realised a long time ago that ethics would be increasingly high on clients’ agenda and that the trend would become more marked,” he explains. Always one step ahead, Salanitro is one of the very few companies within the sector to have earned not one but two certifications (see below).
Pierre Salanitro, a force for greater transparency
Pierre Salanitro: These are two major international certifications. We are one of the first Swiss companies to obtain them, something we’re particularly proud of. The Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) is one of the foremost authorities in the field. Its Chain of Custody certification concerns the traceability of gold, platinum and palladium. It was introduced in 2012 and so far has only been awarded to 114 companies worldwide. The second, which is the RJC Code of Practices certification, focuses on working conditions and environmental standards. It was initially awarded to us in 2012 and has been renewed twice since then.
This is something I strongly believe in. Consumer pressure is growing. The buying public are concerned about what goes on behind the scenes of the jewellery industry. They want their watch to have been made with respect for people and the environment, and be reassured by greater transparency. Personally, I didn’t wait for this trend to emerge. This has been a matter of concern to me for a long time and I’m convinced these issues will carry more and more weight.
When preparing for Code of Practices certification, first awarded to us seven years ago and twice since, I had a single team working on it for seven months, although we did start from a strong position. It was mainly a question of formalising what we were already doing. An independent auditor came from the RJC to carry out detailed inspections and talk with staff, individually and in groups. It was then up to him to either recommend corrective measures or declare everything in order. It’s a major undertaking that implies a heavy investment in every sense of the word. It isn’t awarded “once and for all” either; the entire procedure is renewed every three years. For Chain of Custody certification, we have to guarantee that gold is responsibly sourced across the supply chain.
We only work with certified refiners that are based in Switzerland and which themselves deal with certified mining companies, and so on and so on…
Not for the moment. The situation is more complicated. Depending on the stone, they are sourced from several mines which are often smaller, less well organised and scattered around the world. It is possible to guarantee traceability, which I already do through my office in Bangkok, but I want to go further. In fact I want to be a driving force for a certification scheme specifically for coloured stones. I’ve started discussions with the interested parties, in particular experts from the RJC and other partners who are on the same wavelength as me.