Watchmaking: “records are a reputation accelerator”

Since his arrival at the head of Bulgari in 2013, Jean-Christophe Babin has set world records. He presented the eighth and final this Monday, March 21, in Rome. A true showman, the Franco-Italian chose the mythical setting of the Pantheon to host the evening accompanying this presentation. Weather met him at the brand’s historic boutique at 10 via dei Condotti.

Le Temps: With the Octo Finissimo Ultra you presented an eighth world record. Is it the Babin leg?

Jean-Christophe Babin: Within the brand I used to work for [Tag Heuer, ndlr], we have broken world records in controlling minute fractions of time. Which was in line with the history of this brand, linked to sports and sports meters. Bulgari is not a brand specialized in time fractions, it is primarily a jewelry brand, with the mission to contribute to the elegance of our customers. And the new standard of masculine elegance for ten years is the dresses slim. The idea was therefore to develop the men’s watch of the 21st century with features that match the clothing fashion.

Also read: Bulgari unveils the world’s thinnest mechanical watch

But was the pursuit of a world record essential?

If we really want to innovate, we have to set an extremely high level of ambition. Otherwise, we tend to optimize what already exists. If we had decided to downsize our components a little ten years ago, we would have made a Finissimo that would have little to do with the current product. On the other hand, setting ourselves the goal of breaking the world record for the thinnest watch forced us to completely rethink the watch chain. Not only by miniaturizing it, but also by simplifying it. It is not the same if we have 300 components or 170 to place (as in the Octo Ultra). All this without ever compromising anything in chronometry. Bulgari has elevated the ultra-thin to the rank of major complication by introducing new technologies and new know-how with eight patents filed.

Isn’t it also a way for Bulgari to gain credibility in the world of watches, where it has only been active since 1980?

It is true that Octo Finissimo has been a reputation accelerator for Bulgari in watchmaking mastery. But let’s not forget that before Finissimo we were already making great ringtones with two, three or four hammers. What we achieve with just a dozen watch brands in Switzerland. Octo Finissimo, with its octagonal originality, the uniqueness of the material and its thinness, has made Bulgari, in ten years’ time, regarded by experts, collectors and professionals in the industry as the most innovative brand in this early 21st century strictly technologically speaking. And this, although we are of Italian descent.

At the beginning of 2021, you indicated that you wanted to increase watch production and hire employees at your two production sites. What do you say about today?

Watchmaking is clearly one of the activities that is developing best in 2022 compared to 2021 (one of the best years) and 2019 (pre-covid), the two reference years. During the pandemic, we have not reduced our workforce (400 people for watchmaking) and we have strengthened them since the beginning of the year. We invest heavily in research and development. In that sense, it is a much more demanding industry in terms of human and financial resources than jewelry.

You invest a lot in the integration of your production, was it the right choice?

We are one of the few brands that is practically fully integrated, apart from some quartz movements for women’s models. Everything mechanical, with a few exceptions, is made here, at Le Sentier (VD). The cases and dials are designed in Saignelégier (JU). And the assembly is done entirely in Neuchâtel. We therefore have three main areas of expertise and 95% integration. With the Saignelégier plant, inaugurated in 2019, we have not only increased our capacities, but also gained flexibility. In the dial and case business, there is a 30-40% convergence, which allows us to manage more batches faster. There is often a “time to market” in watchmaking, it is very important not to present a watch in Geneva that is not delivered until nine months later. And if a model is out of stock, we should be able to replenish it within three months, not nine.

You announced an extraordinary fiscal year 2022 barring disaster. There was a catastrophe with the war in Ukraine…

What is happening in Ukraine and Russia is especially dramatic from a humanitarian point of view. In terms of the market, Russia is characterized by strong polarization, with few customers but extremely high purchasing power. Until last year, it was by far one of the strongest global growth figures for the brand. However, in terms of sales weight, it is incomparable to China, Japan or the United States. Still, within three or four years, Russia would certainly have become the first European market, but we’ll never know.

Another disaster, the resurgence of covid in China…

Bulgari has been one of the most and most developed brands in the field of luxury in general in China over the past ten years. We have a very strong brand image there. With this new wave of covid and the zero tolerance policy of the Chinese authorities, this means a lot of store closures. On Monday, seven of our 38 stores were closed. We can’t predict what’s going to happen, but luckily there’s e-commerce.

Exactly what share does e-commerce represent for Bulgari?

When it comes to e-commerce, there are different customs from one corner of the world to another. The United States is the pioneer market, the most important. E-commerce is our first store there, it represents 14-15% of sales, while in other countries it’s barely 2%. China is just under 10%. It is a country with a hundred cities with more than 5 million inhabitants, and luxury brands are present in barely 25 to 30 of them. This is explained by the fact that they do not yet have the infrastructure to develop this segment, nor a sufficient population to access it. Affluent customers in these regions therefore have the choice between traveling to pay for luxury or ordering online. With the Chinese moving much less due to restrictions, there is huge potential for e-commerce. As in most very large countries. In contrast, it is less pervasive in Europe due to its high population density and the short distances separating major cities. We are never far from a luxury boutique.

Also read: The heart of watchmaking beats in Geneva

Watches and Wonders Geneva (WWG) opens its doors next week, you’re not there. Why?

We will not be present mainly for logistical reasons. The other, more important watch brands of the LVMH group, such as Tag Heuer, Hublot and Zenith will exhibit there, but this year there was not enough space and time for Bulgari. We need some space. Nevertheless, we will be present in Geneva during WWG, on good terms with them. And if the meeting proves to be a success, we are fully open to WWG integration if there is a space compatible with Bulgari and available in 2023. This type of show has its limitations and the brand has its requirements. We have to find common ground. These moments that unite the watchmaking community are very important and we are in favor of watch fairs, as evidenced by the Geneva Watch Days. [qui se tiennent fin août depuis 2020, ndlr]of which we are one of the founders.

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