By Roberta Naas
This story originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.
Heading up one of the world’s foremost luxury brands is no easy task, especially when that brand’s portfolio spans five different product categories, including hotels. However, Roberta Naas finds that Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari, has risen to the challenge, and is steering the company on a course of incredible growth and creativity.
Four years ago, when CEO Jean-Christophe Babin took the helm of Bulgari, he left behind the familiarity of 12 years spent as head of TAG Heuer to dive headlong into a journey that would encompass ultra-luxury watches, jewelry, fragrances, accessories and even exclusive hotels. Determined and ambitious, Babin began his course as CEO of LVMH-owned Bulgari by immersing himself in its vastly different, yet synergistically similar, worlds.
Starting with jewelry, Babin spent months learning and understanding the complexity of the Roman brand’s amazing Italian jewelry roots. He studied its history, values, craftsmanship and clientele to ensure he could propel this key pillar to new heights.
“Bulgari was born as a jeweler, so my first attention was to make sure this backbone is strong and fortified, and that it is poised to grow in prestige and admiration,” said Babin during a chat in a lush courtyard in Venice where the brand had just unveiled one of the largest collections of one-of-a-kind jewelry pieces ever. “This backbone impacts all of the other categories, so jewelry was, and still is, a huge priority. My goal is to make Bulgari the quintessence of dreams and desires through each of its different categories. I tell my team all the time, ‘creativity is key’ — there are no limits to what we can imagine next.”
In fact, Babin says that when the design team presents him with an outrageous sketch or concept, he does not think about how or if it can be done. Instead he looks at it from a different perspective: “You must have a wide-open mind to all ideas, because only in that way can you grow,” says Babin, who was exposed to many cultures and forms of art through travel in his early years. He backpacked the world after college before getting his first true job, and says that experience enlightened him, making him more receptive.
Full of energy and enthusiasm, 58-year-old Babin refers to the haute joaillerie collections that brought us to Venice of as an example of that growth. One facet of the new collection celebrates the 160th birthday of Bulgari founder Sotirio Bulgari, and pays tribute to big, colorful, exquisite stones set in geometric and nature-inspired settings for which the brand is known. The other facet is the Festa collection that pays tribute to the festivals of Venice and Rome, to the princesses who hosted amazing balls and celebrations of harvest, and to moments of joy.
“When my design team came to me with the idea of setting a 15-carat D flawless diamond as the center stone of a ring and surrounding it with upside down diamonds, it was an incredible concept. It is a surprise that you don’t expect, and that is what Bulgari stands for. The same is true of the necklace made of dozens of gemstones cut in the shape of pepperoncini, or the necklace that celebrates balloons,” says Babin. “I encouraged the team to open the box in [terms of] creativity; I set no limits. Jewelry is art and passion, and I wanted them to think from the heart. They did that.” Babin notes that as a result of this search for creativity, the brand actually developed an all-new oval-shaped cabochon cut for gemstones.
In addition to propelling the jewelry designs to new heights, Babin has also focused on building an all-new workshop in Valenza, Italy. Opened in January of this year, the expansive workshops are comprised of more than 150,000 sq ft in two spaces — one, an historic landmark building, the other, a glass-enclosed modern and sustainable building. Here, the maison will create all of its jewelry collections (except for the high jewelry which will remain in Rome), including B.Zero1, Serpenti, Diva, Bulgari-Bulgari and Parentesi. Currently it has 400 employees and the goal is to expand to 700 by the year 2020, according to Babin. Additionally, to train a new breed of jewelry makers, Manifattura Bulgari houses the newly formed Bulgari Jewelry Academy, a school dedicated to training students in the fine art of Bulgari’s top Italian craft.
Bulgari, however, does not thrive on jewelry alone, and Babin is in charge of all categories. “It is very exciting to lead five different companies that, if they were separate would not be so strong, but together as a whole, are incredibly strong,” he says. “We all have the same mission of cementing the brand and glorifying further Bulgari’s capabilities.”
Admitting he is very demanding, which he says is tempered by his easy accessibility and willingness to be contradicted, Babin compares himself to the conductor of an orchestra when it comes to leading the five divisions on a cohesive journey.
“My mission is to align the strategy, the integrity and to frame the evolution of the work for my general managers,” says Babin. “I have only the best and most experienced in each of their markets. It is their mission to expand under my direction, to make Bulgari the most desirable luxury brand in the world. I determine the cadence of the music, the tone, I conduct the message and give it the tempo, but I don’t play the music. I conduct it so that the more we move on, the more extraordinary the music is, even though it is not new music, it is a new interpretation.”
As the conductor of that orchestra, Babin seems to be right on target. In watches, he has led the LVMH-owned brand on a path to developing world-first haute horlogerie complicated timepieces, as well as exceptional haute joaillerie watches that underscore the brand’s impeccable jewelry roots. He has also grown the fragrance division and accessories, as well.
However, it is in the world of Bulgari Hotels & Resorts that Babin has perhaps learned the most. “The hotels are strictly service oriented, and we are required to create the ultimate services and experiences that aficionados of Bulgari expect,” he explains.
Bulgari made its first foray into the world of boutique hotels just over a decade ago when it opened its first in Milan in 2004. It then opened Bali, followed by London in 2012. Now, under Babin’s leadership, this year ushers in openings in Shanghai, Beijing and Dubai. Moscow is planned for 2019. “We want to have the most exclusive network of hotels in the 10 most attractive cities in the world,” says Babin. “There is nothing more demanding than pleasing a customer in the hospitality field. With Bulgari, he or she can spend $3,000 on a single night, which is the cost of a B-Zero1 ring. So in one case you have a night for $3,000, or in the other case, you have something that will last a lifetime. When you check out, that money is gone, so the memory you have from your stay there has to be as memorable as the B-Zero1. It is about quintessential service. Even more important, though, is that understanding how to deliver the best possible service in the hotels can also translate to retail boutiques, so that they can offer exceptional service as well.”
Along with offering superb service, Bulgari is expanding its boutiques. The store in New York has been under renovation since last March and is slated to open its doors this fall. Peter Marino is designing it and incorporating many features found at the brand’s flagship Rome store on Via Condotti.
With so much happening around the globe, French-born Babin travels the world constantly to keep up with the events and schedules of all of the categories, as well as the brand’s global soirees. He resides in Switzerland, where the brand’s watches are produced, and splits his time between there and Italy, where the Roman headquarters are located, and the jewelry, fragrances and silk are made. “In a single day I can move from watches to manufacturing to hotel openings and more — all within the Bulgari framework. I love it,” says Babin. “We have the ability to trigger dreams, to surprise the customers, whether it is with color, vibrant products or a night to remember. Other companies may not be able to deliver this, but we can, and we must do so brilliantly.”
Jewelry images: Bulgari High Jewelry necklace in platinum with 59.11-carat Colombia cabochon emerald, 15.29 carats emeralds and 42.25 carat diamonds; Bulgari Il Grandioso High Jewelry necklace in platinum with 53.57-carat round Colombia emerald, 12.52 carats pear-shaped diamonds, 8.39 carats pear-shaped emeralds and 23.47 carats round-cut and pavé-set diamonds