Making high jewellery accessible

Stepping into the newly restored Bulgari store on Rome's famed Via Condotti brings shoppers face to face with jewellery for all seasons, quite literally.

The sparsely elegant, oval entranceway has four back-lit display cases featuring necklace and earrings sets inspired by spring, summer, autumn and winter.

It is a gorgeous visual feast of emeralds, rubies, diamonds and more, carved into leaves that form bejewelled garlands.

Mr Jean-Christophe Babin, the Italian jeweller's new chief executive who was appointed last year, explains that high jewellery is front and centre for a reason.

"Jewellery is the DNA of Bulgari," says the Rome-based French-Italian, who was formerly the head of Swiss watch brand Tag Heuer, also under luxury goods conglomerate LVMH.

"You have to focus on what can make the brand more desirable," says the 55-year-old in rapid-fire, Frenchaccented English in an interview with Life! last month. "And high jewellery is a kind of crowning achievement in terms of the company's know-how and style."

The brand's signature style of vivid, cabochon-cut precious and semi- precious jewels was visibly defined in the glamorous 1960s and 1970s era of La Dolce Vita. Jewellery as a product category now accounts for 46 per cent of the label's revenue, followed by perfumes and skincare at 23 per cent and watches at 20.1 per cent. Accessories and hotels make up the rest.

Started by Greek silversmith Sotirio Bulgari in 1884, the company marked its 130th anniversary last month. It has come a long way since, but will not be resting on its laurels. Mr Babin explains that in order to stay relevant in this increasingly competitive retail space, the company will be putting its efforts into creating more affordable versions of its signature collections.

Last year, under Mr Babin's watch, the company introduced a steel and gold Serpenti watch which has become a bestseller. It is priced from $11,700, a cheaper option to the all-gold version, which starts at $39,600.

"It is a good idea to start from the top, epitomising the best of your knowledge," he says, "then to cascade it down across different price segments corresponding to different wearing habits and frequencies."

He adds: "We shouldn't forget that the bread and butter of jewellery is more accessible products you can wear daily."

With that in mind, the company plans to create a medium-high collection this year based on the Diva high jewellery collection introduced last year. It is inspired by the Italian Caracalla mosaics and modelled in campaigns by brand ambassador Carla Bruni, the former French First Lady.

Medium-high jewellery at Bulgari starts at about $20,000. The brand declines to reveal its high jewellery prices, but such pieces usually cost at least a six-figure sum.

The Roman brand, which announced at the anniversary celebration that it would be pledging €1.5 million (S$2.6 million) to sponsor the restoration of the iconic Spanish Steps, has got its eye on Asia as well.

Ms Sabina Belli, Bulgari's international brand vice-president, explains that one of the ways the company intends to engage the Asian market is by keeping the blushing bride in mind.

"Asian consumers are still extremely respectful of the tradition of the engagement and wedding ring," she says. "So it is important that we are in the bridal segment and not with a boring, classical diamond but something very Bulgari."

To illustrate, she describes the Spiga wedding and engagement rings, introduced in Singapore earlier this year. They feature a motif of repeated grooves, first used by the brand in the 1990s, inspired by wheat stalks, an ancient symbol of fertility and prosperity. Prices for the collection start from $1,190 for a pink gold band.

The growing sophistication of Asian buyers bodes well for Bulgari, she adds. "A lot of consumers who are extremely knowledgeable in the world of jewellery are becoming collectors and buying for investment," she says.

Ms Belli notes that Asian consumers are quick to understand that high-end jewellery pieces can multiply in value over the years, thanks to their growing rarity, and can provide a good return on the investment when sold at auction.

For high spenders looking for something to buy, rubies are "an amazing investment" because they are the rarest gemstones in the world now, she shares.

In Singapore, the brand is experiencing strong growth as well, says Mr Babin, but he declines to share specific figures.

He attributes this to the combination of a strong brand reputation with Singaporeans and the increasing number of tourist shoppers visiting the city-state.

The brand, which made its Singapore debut in 1988, has two stores - in Takashimaya Shopping Centre and The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. In July, Bulgari will move to a new, bigger space within The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, almost doubling its retail space from 256 sq m to 477 sq m.

Asked what the future holds for the brand, Mr Babin displays a realistic awareness of the challenges that lie ahead for luxury labels such as Bulgari.

"Today's consumer is more of a global nomad who spends discretionary money according to short-term emotions, which is a challenge for a slow-moving world like jewellery," he says.

"And our competition is not just other jewellers, but luxury travel and other things this customer spends money on. We have to compete more actively for the share of money and, essentially, the share of dreams."

llim@sph.com.sg

The writer's trip was sponsored by Bulgari.

This article was published on April 5 in The Straits Times.

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