Perfect Timing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 March, 2008, 12:00am

TALKING TO PHILIPPE CHARRIOL is like having lunch in Paris. Every well-rounded syllable is reminiscent of garlic and snails, fine Bordeaux and confit de Canard. And, like those Gallic delicacies, Charriol is rich - a long-standing member of the moneyed aristocracy for whom a trip in a private jet is as commonplace as most people's commute on the MTR.

But life was not always so good - Charriol has known pain and struggle.

'I was wilful when I was young,' says Charriol as he relaxes in his boutique in The Landmark in Hong Kong.

'That led me down some rocky paths.'

At the age of 28, after burning up his twenties with a series of failed love affairs and unsatisfying business ventures, Charriol met Alain Dominique Perrin.

The latter appointed Charriol to sell his Silvermatch cigarette lighters to the world. Charriol rose to the challenge by buying a plane ticket that was valid for four months and 32 countries. 'I sold the lighter in 31 of the 32 countries,' says the watchmaker. 'Only Nepal resisted me. I came home as a hero.'

After his conquest Charriol was drawn into the world of Cartier - the originator of the Silvermatch. It groomed him to become its man in Asia and he set about selling Cartier's products - particularly the Cartier Must lighter - to the Japanese.

'He learned how to instil in the mind of Asian consumers the idea that luxury goods are the fruit of a long history,' says Michel Cahier, Charriol's biographer.

'He showed that in the world of prestige accessories nothing is the work of chance.'

Charriol began to use Hong Kong as his base. He says he knew Asian customers would not be impressed by Cartier's claims that its products were based on works of art. He needed a more brutal selling technique and settled on the idea that prestige is a question of arrogance. He sold Cartier not as art but as an artefact of kings, the jeweller for crown heads of Europe.

It seemed to work. The 1970s were a heady decade for Charriol. His Hong Kong parties were legendary.

'My aim was to project a general image of elegance,' says Charriol. 'In any case, the market at the time was so open that one barely felt any sense of competition.'

Charriol's success in Asia led Cartier to send him to the US in the hope that he would repeat his Hong Kong performance in New York. It was a disaster. Sales did not surge and Charriol was left with a bad taste in his mouth.

'In Philippe's view, the average American is less-than-elegant, of limited refinement and with only a minimal interest in luxury goods and prestige accoutrements,' says Cahier. 'What excites him is getting his hands on beautiful objects at bargain prices.'

Charriol's brutal defeat at the hand of America's pragmatists was a blessing in disguise. He had made a killing in the New York real-estate market, the dollar had soared against the French Franc and his investments in equities had soared.

'I'd been wondering when I would be ready to start my own company. I knew that my moment had come.'

Charriol sold his US assets and his Cartier shares and he left the French jeweller ready to launch his own brand, sending his products out into the world for the first time on his 40th birthday.

Initially based in Geneva, Charriol focused on the Asian market, especially Hong Kong and Japan. The centrepiece of his collection was the twisted gold cable watch inspired by Celtic art. It remains Philippe Charriol's best seller.

'The DNA of Charriol is in that cable,' says Charriol. 'At the time it was a unique approach - I had luck and inspiration on my side.'

After initial difficulties the Charriol brand expanded rapidly. Soon there were 400 stores worldwide stocking Charriol products. After battling against counterfeiters in the 90s - some of whom did severe damage to the brand, especially in Middle Eastern markets - Charriol entered this decade in excellent shape.

Along the way Charriol started a family. His daughter, Coralie, joined the business and is now creative director and corporate vice-president. She brought innovation to the company in the form of her handbag line and is now Charriol's international ambassador. He has a son, Alexandre Galani, who is an artist. With his second wife he had a second daughter, Leticia, who is now 2 1/2 years old.

Apart from family, the other loves of Charriol's life are racing cars and art - the Philippe Charriol foundation was set up to promote painting and sculpture in Hong Kong. Charriol still takes part in ice racing, a European form of autocross that takes place on plateaus high in the mountains. And he is an accomplished GT3 driver with several victories under his belt.

'I like to drive my Lamborghini Diablo,' he says. 'I'm often referred to as the 'senior driver' but I still win.'

And winning has been Charriol's goal throughout life, combined with elegance. He wants to be on the winner's podium but he also wants to be the most stylish guy around. 'I'm inspired by L'art de vivre la difference,' he says. 'I try to live by that motto.'