Bulgari CEO talks about his love of Asia and the challenges of watchmaking

Jean-Christophe Babin, the man at the helm of one of Italy’s most prominent luxury houses, talks about how hard it is to carve out a unique identity when you only have 40mm of real estate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 12:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 April, 2016, 12:00pm

“I was brought up in a family of lawyers. This influenced me in my career in that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. Instead of studying law, I went to business school, which eventually after many different experiences, led me to Bulgari.

My family loved art and travelling. I went to China back in 1965 and early in my life, this type of exposure developed my curiosity for art, architecture and my passion for travelling. One of the things I did when I was in my 20s was backpack across Asia to various countries such as India, China, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nepal.

In fact, my first impression of Asia was India back in 1980. I visited the city of Jaipur. I was just so amazed at how different it was to Europe in terms of lifestyle, colour and artistic expression. I was also impressed when I came to Hong Kong, with its striking, modern tower. Already in the ’80s, Hong Kong was one of the most cultivated cities in the world. I was so impressed that eventually when I went back home to Europe, I couldn’t wait to return to Asia.

I worked at Tag Heuer for 12 years before I was offered a job at Bulgari. I never planned my career to get to where it is today – it was more of a lucky coincidence. Michael Burke, who was my predecessor at Bulgari, was offered the opportunity to lead Louis Vuitton. I was given the chance to take his place.

I was very happy because I had already been at Tag Heuer for many years and felt it would be a good change. Also, it was a good opportunity to challenge myself and evolve. I would still be able to work with watches, but at the same time discover new and fascinating things such as jewellery, perfumes and hotels.

When you spend many years in the world of watches, you learn to improve your understanding and appreciation for detail. When you talk about a masterpiece which may come in the form of a 40mm watch face, you have to express your identity: how you are different, your competency and your creativity in such a small piece of real estate. The watch is the most challenging piece of luxury because it is not only very small, it needs two hands for movement, and a mechanism to rewind it. This means it is not only about artistic expression, but functionality as well.

Though watches are different to jewellery, you can apply many of the same skill sets. Jewellery may not be seen as technical, even though many jewellery pieces from Bulgari require a lot of skill and precision to make. That said, the technology is not the most important thing you talk about. Instead, it is about the craftsmanship, the expression, the line and form.

When it comes to business mentors, there isn’t anyone who I would especially credit. I’m not someone who follows or admires people. That said I respect a lot of people, and have read many books about entrepreneurship and management. But we all have our own personalities and our own path, which we have to take step by step.

This year, Bulgari created a series blending the work of Chinese artist Simon Ma with 13 Octo watches. The relationship between Simon and I [has been quite long], we are very old friends. We met in Shanghai a very long time ago. I have visited his workshop and gallery, and appreciate his talents and skills in painting and architecture.

We used to meet a lot, I visit China and Hong Kong very often. A year ago, we had lunch together and talked about Bulgari, paintings and the fact that he was preparing a big exhibition in Italy.

It was from this conversation that the idea came about to do a collaboration. We felt it would be nice to have a crossover between Chinese and Italian culture. Bulgari’s Octo watch is very Roman. It’s a chromatic expression of Bulgari design. And obviously Simon’s expressions are very Chinese. So we thought fusing these two worlds could be interesting. If you think about Chinese culture, it is the most influential in the East, and Italian is the most influential in the West, so we thought this fusion would be a very good idea.

I’ve worked in many different companies in my career. What I find most special about Bulgari are the jewellers and culture of the company – Rome, and Italy in general, are places full of colour and volume. You can find a more classical approach to jewellery in a city like Paris. But with Bulgari you will find pieces that are bold, gold, colourful – Bulgari is all about this exuberance.

Steeped in such a strong tradition, Bulgari is also a company that looks forward. One example is the Diagono ‘E’ Magnesium watch, which we revealed at Basel last year. It’s not a smartwatch, but an intelligent watch. Smart watches are made of electronics with no sense of movement, and they do not have any benefits that you can’t already get on your phone.

What we offer is much more important – security. We developed a chip in collaboration with [internet security company] WISeKey to give the watch the ability to store personal data, important identification document details and passwords. All of this ensures that people are secure at all times without compromising the chronological movement.

Working in this sector for many years has made me appreciate and redefine how I see luxury. One of the most special moments was when I bought a luxury sports car. I had that good feeling knowing that I now own something very special – the smell of leather, the touch of a steering wheel, the gearbox, the roar of the engine, the performance of the car... it is this satisfying feeling of owning something very special that has made me treasure the memory even more.”