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“The coronavirus crisis has revealed companies’ social...

“The coronavirus crisis has revealed companies’ social responsibility”

Wednesday, 03 June 2020
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Marie de Pimodan-Bugnon
Freelance journalist

“One must be absolutely modern.”

Arthur Rimbaud

It takes passion, a healthy dose of curiosity and a sense of wonderment to convey the innumerable facets of watchmaking…

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7 min read

After LVMH’s glittering event in January in Dubai, 2020 had all the makings of a great year for Bulgari. Then lockdown reshuffled the deck. Corporate social responsibility, e-commerce, watch fairs, new releases… Questions and answers with Antoine Pin, Managing Director of Bulgari’s Watch Division.

What have the past three months been like?

It’s been tough. We’ve been under huge tension and, at the same time, in a state of hyper-responsiveness. From an intellectual standpoint it’s draining, but it’s also an exciting time because there’s no other option than to leave our comfort zone and find solutions. Obviously the difficulties started to accumulate when everything came to a standstill in China, a major market for us, with other markets coming to a halt one after the other. The consequences were immediate: sales simply didn’t happen. We know we can expect repercussions further down the line, too. In the long term, this situation will impact small businesses that don’t have large cash reserves. Businesses such as our suppliers but also our retailer network.

A number of markets are starting up again, beginning with China. What's the current state of play for Bulgari?

The first positive point is that business is picking up well in China. Our distribution network is gradually reopening in those countries that are easing their lockdown restrictions. People aren’t rushing back into stores but week after week the numbers are improving. Traffic is still generally low but those customers who are visiting watch retailers are genuinely motivated to make a purchase.

The Covid-19 crisis has been described as accelerating history. What has it revealed about Bulgari?

The crisis has had an accelerating effect in a lot of areas. It’s also revealed new ways of thinking, in particular with respect to corporate social responsibility. Our Chief Executive, Jean-Christophe Babin, was quick to tackle the question of how we could help fight the virus rather than just stand by and watch. We had the possibility to take action, so what could we do? We decided to manufacture hand sanitizing gel for Italy, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, countries that were in particular need.

Production of hydroalcoholic gel vials
Production of hydroalcoholic gel vials
This crisis has forced a rethink. Some of the major fashion houses have said they'll be stopping the unsustainable pace of seasonal collections. Should the watch industry slow the pace, too?

It’s a complex matter. We’re stuck between customers who are constantly asking what’s new and the feeling that certain magnificent objects don’t get the time they deserve. Should we be creating less and better? Should we be showing our products in a different way? The crisis has us asking these questions.

Where does Bulgari stand with respect to e-commerce and digital communication?

The coronavirus crisis accelerated the use of digital, for communication within Bulgari of course, but also so we could continue to work outside the company. We stepped up deployment of our e-commerce functions with dedicated structures for the different markets. This meant, among other things, restructuring inventory. We had to work hard and we had to work fast, in zones where e-commerce was already in place as well as in those regions from which we were absent, such as the Middle East. It’s up and running smoothly. We’re still at the discovery stage. We’re studying new customer paths and have observed a sharp increase in our online sales. Does this mean we’ll be staking everything on digital, I don’t think so. I’d say it is possible to close a sale using virtual means but the physical experience of the watch remains essential.

Speaking of which, Bulgari is one of the few brands that has been able to physically present its new releases this year, as part of the pre-lockdown LVMH Watch Week in January. What's your impression of the event?

Extremely positive! January is an important time for brands, retailers and the media. It’s a time for exchanging views, taking stock and planning ahead. We were fortunate to have had this privileged contact with all our partners, who themselves were able to enjoy quality relations with a group of brands. We remain convinced that fairs serve a purpose and that the industry and its partners must continue to host these gatherings. That said, the traditional fair format and organisation was no longer aligned with our needs. We also need to keep costs within reason. We’ll take a decision for 2021 based on how the big fairs reorganise. However, we believe January is the best time for the industry.

The Bulgari manufacture in Neuchâtel
The Bulgari manufacture in Neuchâtel
Despite the fact you recently confirmed Geneva Watch Days will be taking place at end August…

Without Geneva Watch Days, there would be no event for our industry at all in 2020. We feel sufficiently serene to honour our commitments. Based on a simple principle, this will be a “lightweight” format for the fifteen or so brands taking part. They’ll benefit from shared logistics, at a lower cost to them, for a mainly European audience.

Prior to Geneva Watch Days, what are the highlights at Bulgari so far this year?

For women, we’ve expanded the Serpenti Seduttori line with more emphasis on precious stones and, importantly, a tourbillon that we believe is the smallest tourbillon movement on the market. Through its signature design and this mini movement, Bulgari proves its determination to go on proposing watches that combine precision with elegance. Because of our history, it make sense that we develop our command of miniaturised mechanisms as this gives us the most creative freedom. By unleashing our creativity as designers, we’re also testing our capacity as watchmakers. For men, we have great faith in a product that will be reaching markets around end June, early July, namely the Octo Finissimo S. Its satin-polished steel case and bracelet, screw-down crown and water-resistance to 100 metres are all features at the core of the watch business today. Not only does it meet the requirements of an active lifestyle in terms of robustness, it’s magnificent to look at, too. It’s reassuring for our customers because it displays the hallmarks of a classic watch.

Serpenti Seduttori © Bulgari
Serpenti Seduttori © Bulgari
Piaget has set a new record for an extra-thin watch. As a specialist in this segment, is this something you intend to continue?

We have some surprises in store for Geneva Watch Days, including a new record for thinness. Bulgari’s command of extra-thin movements goes back to the early years of the previous decade and is something we envision over the long term. So we’ll definitely be pursuing our activity in this area and seeking new levels of technical performance.

Will you be exploring new creative territory for Bulgari watches?

It’s a question we’re asking more than ever before. We need to ask ourselves what Bulgari brings to the sector and equally we need to be clear about our ambitions. Bulgari is an Italian jeweller and there is no reason for us to disown the fact, but we’ve also been making watches with Swiss movements for 100 years and we’ve had our own production facilities for 30 years. Bulgari is the Italian who’s lived in Switzerland for so long, he’s become ingrained with both cultures. We’ve kept an Italian flair for design, thanks to which every one of our products is clearly identifiable. This is something you see in the way our design studio works. We can’t imagine creating a design without developing the movement that goes with it. I’d go as far as to say that for all our creations, there is a consubstantiation of form and function.

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