Roberto Coin has built a name for his company around the world with its unique style of Italian jewelry. With interests in multiple businesses and always ready with an opinion, Roberto Coin sat down with Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan in his hometown of Vicenza for a lively conversation ranging from new store openings to politics and pizza.
ET: These are dramatic and changing times that we are living in. How do you see them affecting the jewelry industry?
Roberto Coin: The Italian world of jewelry is having, should we say, a little bit of a problem. It is basically a universal problem, affecting not only the jewelry industry but many other industries as well. From manufacturing to retail, the jewelry industry probably needs to be totally reinvented. This is the beginning of a new day. Why? Because you have to reinvent something to keep it vital. Where fashion would clash with style, we need to recognize that fashion and style are not the same things. Fashion is sometimes whimsical; it only lasts for a short time while style lasts forever.
I wrote down a few thoughts about the challenges facing us. These include that real beauty will clash with different opinions of what real beauty is all about. Innovation would clash with traditions. With new contemporary art, it is difficult to decide where is the beauty and where is the art. With the global economy playing an unknown game, we don’t know what is evident to this global economy anymore. In a world where jewelry is sometimes less loved—we must ask ourselves why, because sentiments are also changing.
So what kind of game are we playing or would we like to play? I only know one, where romance, beauty, nature, family, children, good food, good wine play a major role and where respect plays the other. So in this situation we continue anyway with my creativity and I give my best years, 30 years of hard work, to all my clientele. I’m looking forward to the 2009 collections where quality, service and human resources will emerge further.
It makes you think how the world is changing. Everything is becoming more difficult—in America for one reason, in Europe for another. In China, everything seems bubbling—but you have to pay 50 percent duty to import the jewelry there. Dubai is another reality…Basically the world is changing, so there is a new problem. The businessmen of the world have to make it better; this is a message that I sent to everybody, which has got nothing to do with jewelry. It’s just I want people to think. That’s all they have to do—think better for the future.
ET: It sounds like all the economic turmoil has got you excited and revved up instead of down.
Roberto Coin: Well, it does this to me because I always feel where there are problems, there is opportunity. We have to find the opportunity available when these kinds of problems arise. I feel we have opportunity.
ET: Are there any things that you’ve changed in how you’re running your business?
Roberto Coin: Yes. Automatically you have to do something. We have become highly sophisticated in computerizing all our systems. Basically we have become much, much faster in creativity than ever before. We create new models faster than before. Faster also means we are able to maintain quality and service better for our clientele. So we are continuously renovating from computer to staff to training, or even to obtaining different type of stones which nobody else can get. In the future I want all my stones to be those that nobody else can get for a while because we have created them, and we want to be different in everything we do in jewelry.
My answer to the problems is to be much more unique than what we have been up to now. So we are going forward with advertising as before. We haven’t delayed any investment in advertising. We have been training our staff in the United States and also in Europe giving better tools to improve operations. We are succeeding, too, because we are maintaining the results and we are improving the results of 2008. I always told my staff that during the last three or four different problems we faced in the past, Roberto Coin has always maintained and, in actual fact, increased the turnover.
It really depends on how well you worked in the past so that clients will tell you, you have worked well, we’re going forward even in these difficult times. In America clients are maintaining or increasing their Roberto Coin collections which means we work very well together. Secondly, we are giving “people tools” to our clients to help them solve certain problems caused when the market is not demanding the product. Then you have to motivate yourself—start selling to clients instead of waiting for them to buy from you.
The jewelry has become better quality all the time, better design, and more sophisticated. We like it the more difficult it is.
ET: You do your manufacturing in Italy where it’s relatively high cost. One of the issues in the United States right now is jobs going overseas to lower-cost places. How are you overcoming that?
Roberto Coin: As you know, we have to compare quality of product. There’s nobody who buys a Ferrari and asks you to pay a Fiat price. We have to teach people that the Ferrari is a Ferrari and the Fiat is Fiat. We have to explain why this is higher cost because we are trying to make Ferraris all the time as low cost as possible. We don’t want to make Fiats.
So the answer is to make the client aware of the quality and the service we’re giving them and to make them aware that we are behind the brand; we have the credibility. Buying abroad, the quality is not the same, the service is not the same and they can’t guarantee like we can. The gold in Japan, China or Thailand costs the same as Italy. The diamonds cost the same. Everything costs the same. The only difference is the labor and the labor can’t be the issue.
ET: You’ve built Roberto Coin into a global brand as a stand-alone company that is not part of a conglomerate. Take a step back and talk just a little bit about what led you to start Roberto Coin and what were the successes and pitfalls along the way.
Roberto Coin: Ever since being a young boy and experiencing the loss of my father and mother, I was very despondent, shall we say. I’d been in school in Switzerland and I saw a lot of rich people. I challenged myself to become somebody important. I remember when I was working in a hotel, and there was this huge silver tray I needed to carry. I couldn’t really pick it up, it was so heavy. As I was going up to the terrace struggling up the stairs, there was a big, huge man, smoking a cigar, laughing his head off; he couldn’t care that I couldn’t bring him the tea upstairs. And I said to myself, “One day, I’m going to sit down in that chair.”
I always challenged myself to become a professional in any field in my life. I had great opportunities in meeting a lot of good people that taught me a lot. Being without father and mother, I think I had a lot of great teachers who taught me what life is all about, what work is all about. I learned from them a tremendous amount. So I had the chance with some friends of mine to invest in a 4-star luxury hotel. I was personally involved from the beginning with the layout and interior design, and it became the most important hotel in the Channel Islands, with very important clientele such as Prince Charles, Earl Mountbatten (Queen Elizabeth’s uncle), The Duke of Richmond, Sir Billy Butlin, François Truffaut, Peter Sellers, Charles Aznavour, Tony Bennett, Isabelle Adjani, etc., etc.
Then I sold everything else and I had to challenge myself again. What I liked is the Italian creativity. As you know, it’s in our genes. You can’t say anything else. It is in our genes, in our history, in our culture—over 2,000 years of making jewelry, making clothes, making buildings. It had to be in my genes because I never went to design school, and I never went to school to learn how to create jewelry. I just learned from very important masters in Italy, who were so important as they taught me very well, probably because I listened to them, too.
So I decided to see if my dream could come true in jewelry.
ET: How old were you at that point?
Roberto Coin: I was 33 or 34.
ET: And then you started Robert Coin at that point?
Roberto Coin: I started in 1977 with the creation of Roberto Coin. At the beginning I used to buy and sell; I was not involved in manufacturing at all. In ’84 I thought I learned enough to be able to start manufacturing. In ’86 we started selling to Tiffany. We had a very good clientele that liked our product. They saw we were working with very important outlets. Thereafter, I decided the only thing I wanted to do is to be Roberto Coin, so I never copied any master. I never followed any design from anybody else. Both the good and the bad, I had to be Roberto. I wanted to be myself. So whatever we do, it is definitely ours. We have created this beautiful business. We were very fortunate to be successful. But at one stage I decided I didn’t want to carry on working like this for others; I had to try to work for ourselves.
Then that is where the big change came. We decided to trade under the Roberto Coin brand. The American market was a market I knew very well because I used to travel in the United States. I had very important clients. Tivol was a client, Saks was a client, Mayors was a client. Mr. Erwin Getz taught me everything, a lot of things including what customers wanted. There were people who were only saying, “Roberto, you have to set it better,” “Roberto, you have to make that better,” “Roberto, you have to make it bigger,” “Roberto, you have to make it smaller.” … And Roberto listened.
These were people who had great knowledge and they were Americans; they were not Italians, but people which I could learn from. Anyway, in ’95 after a few discussions with Peter Webster, who became my partner in the United States, we decided to launch Roberto Coin in the U.S., and if you think, our brand is actually very new, as we started only in January 1996. Peter Webster has created a wonderful team in the US, which in my mind is the very best possible.
Then we had wonderful people joining us. In Italy we had all staff which was working for me from day one, so of course the brand has been successful because A) we have very good people, B) because I worked very hard, C) I never give up, and D) I wanted to create 400, 600 models each year because I would like to dress every woman differently. Basically it’s continuous dreaming, which I still do, to become what? Success was not the main issue. To me, for my pride I had to be good. I had to be professional and I had to make good jewelry to be desired by my final clientele.
But in my mind, we are never good enough. So that’s how I’ve worked. Can we improve it? The answer is yes. Can we make it better? The answer is always yes. So we’ve got to find the formula, which I love to find the formula, how to better yourself all the time. That’s basically what we are. Today of course everybody knows I like good food, I like good wine, I’m in real estate, I’m in other business too, which I enjoy very much. I do quite a bit of interior design. But I can get involved in anything because I am fascinated about life. I love my gardens, I like the nature, the trees and the flowers.
I spend time with my people. I don’t act like president of the company. I act like a friend who likes to help them to do their work better. I don’t know how they speak of me, but that’s what I feel I am.
ET: Tell me a bit about the structure of the business, your role and any family involved in the business.
Roberto Coin: I don’t consider myself as a designer by trade. Designing is not possible unless you have the creativity. We have the creativity. I know what I want to do. I can sketch it and I know if it can be done or not because I have the knowledge to say that this piece of jewelry can be made. Basically I know that 99 percent of what I’m making, we can do it. So I have a full knowledge of the manufacturing, as well as in marketing, training and the commercial side.
As for the marketing, the first thing that I had to do is to market myself. I had nothing else to market immediately. Then of course came professional people. One of them is my wife, who comes from the banking world. Now the marketing, we do a very good job by ourselves. We rarely use other people, but we’re always ready to accept other opinions and concepts.
I’m married for a second time. The first time I got married I was 19 and, at 21, I had two children, so I had to start working straightaway. The children stayed with me also after the divorce. Carlo, who is now 43 years old, has 24 years experience in the jewelry market. He knows everything about manufacturing and computer systems, which is part of the renovation of the company, and he generally knows every department. My wife knows the marketing. I have a sales director, Antonio Bedoni, who has been working here since day one.
I come from a family of four—three brothers and a sister. We go to eat together every week or every two weeks, otherwise we don’t feel very happy because we are very family orientated. With my wife, Pilar, I had a wonderful boy, Kevin. Pilar is my eighth wonder of the world and is carrying the consequences of it. So I have a very beautiful, happy family life. We travel a lot, of course. We are obliged to travel to see problems, to see how the market is changing.
Also my daughter is starting all over again because she has been between two children. So she’s starting in quality control.
ET: Where do you spend your time?
Roberto Coin: I don’t have much time because I love writing. I love eating. I love being with the family. I like my garden. I’m involved in real estate in Italy. I like now contemporary art, and you never know, I’ll probably challenge myself in trying it. I’m very fascinated about the politicians of the world. I studied politics. I give opinions to my friends, to politicians. Even our president in Italy used one or two of my sayings in television. I try to stimulate people all the time to think otherwise life is boring. I take problems from other people and give my opinions. So traveling, real estate, jewelry, marketing, helping other people—very rarely do I sit down at home reading a book or watching TV. I’m fully booked.
ET: You mentioned politics. Do you have any desire to ever become a politician yourself?
Roberto Coin: No, never. I’m fascinated how people think. Not only politicians, but also great businessmen. So I like to learn how they think, why do they make a decision, what decision would I make in the same situation. I think the world is going upside down, but then we could write a book about it. So I’m very, very much aware of all of your politics, McCain and Obama. No comment on that point. You have to choose. It’s America.
ET: No advice to the politicians in America?
Roberto Coin: Advice, yes. I mean, I am a big supporter of the American world. The rest of the world doesn’t quite understand what America really is. You market yourself terribly badly and you are much better than what people think. Take it from there and then you have to do the rest. People don’t realize that you probably work 25 percent more than the Europeans. If you ask part of the world, probably they think you never do. You need to re-export democracy like you really exported it in the past, as you work at the best and I still think this is how you are.
ET: Where are some of your favorite places to travel to either for business or leisure?
Roberto Coin: I liked many places in different parts of the world, but now I think I love Italy. I like the European way at the moment. I feel this here in Vicenza, this freedom, which I have in my house in the hills; the silence. I think I’ve seen a lot. Don’t ask me to judge which place is better than others. I think I’ve been everywhere, almost everywhere. So there are good hotels everywhere, there are good people everywhere. There’s one place which I’ve never been and I loved since I was young—Africa.
ET: You’re an elite traveler as you go around the globe. If you were going back into the hotel business and you wanted to cater to people like you, what do you think the ideal hotel should be?
Roberto Coin: The key is to learn the art of pleasing and how to service clients, it is an art of being able to make other people happy.
ET: There are a couple of other well-known Italian luxury goods houses that are also now in the hotel business. Any thoughts to getting back in with Roberto Coin hotels?
Roberto Coin: In theory I feel I’m still very capable, in practice probably my name is not strong enough as yet to become a branded hotelier. As you know this is very much a family business. We don’t have that kind of money to invest, as this is a very competitive market and it must be done properly. But for sure, I can run it. For sure I would try to make people happy but I have to be humble enough to say probably my name is not strong enough to do it.
However, what about the news: I would love to open a pizzeria. I went to a small place in Verona, and I was invited to eat a pizza. I don’t really like pizza and everybody knows that. Anyway, I went because I had to be courteous to my wife and I was astonished. I actually liked that pizza. I found it so well made that probably I would like to make a pizzeria, elite pizzeria, very elite—a pizzeria with caviar, with smoked salmon, with paté…a pizzeria but elite. I’m very much interested in investigating that. I’m not saying I will do it, but I am very interested to investigate that.
ET: So flipping back to Roberto Coin and retail, you opened a retail location in Atlanta about a year ago. Where else do you have retail locations and what is the plan?
Roberto Coin: Atlanta was going to be the first but because of construction delays it became the third. We opened a franchise in Macau and Baku in Azerbaijan. We’re looking forward to opening others in the United States. But as you’re aware, we are committed with all our (retailer) clients there and we don’t want to bypass them. We want to integrate with them and, where it is possible, we would open other Roberto Coin boutiques.
We will open another one in Bahrain probably the end of this year, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait. Then we have Russia in Moscow, Frankfurt and Paris. So whenever there’s opportunity, we will take it.
ET: What about in Italy?
Roberto Coin: In Italy we have Rome and Venice. We want to open 20 or 30, but we haven’t got anything in mind. But wherever there’s opportunity, we will take it and we will want to open very good Roberto Coin boutiques as we are going forward.
ET: Any other new interests besides jewelry and pizza?
Roberto Coin: Accessories. Exceptionally nice bags. We want to do things that are not done by everybody else, otherwise we just become boring and I hate to be boring.
ET: No watches?
Roberto Coin: No watches. It’s unlikely we’re going to do a watch. There are too many watches. We’re not a watch manufacturer. If we make a watch, we will make it as a piece of jewelry and only coincidentally it will tell the time. Leave the watches to the professionals, and if you want to be professional, do what you’re good at. So we can do a watch, but it will look like a beautiful piece of jewelry and only really coincidentally tell the time.
ET: You mentioned obviously when we were talking about hotels, that it takes capital to start a big venture like that. Every time you look around the luxury business, you see these big conglomerates getting bigger with acquisitions. Could you ever see Roberto Coin being part of one of these big luxury conglomerates?
Roberto Coin: We’ve already been asked and sometimes you are not aware what is right and what is wrong. I’m sure that we’ll have further opportunities in either joining big important luxury groups, but also I feel we have the capacity of enlarging the Roberto Coin brand in different fields. The most important thing for me is my personal life and all the dedicated people around us. It’s important for me to give them a future with us or, why not, a better future with somebody else. So, even in these difficult times, we are going forward and we are quite positive of our potential in the future.
ET: What do you think it takes to be a strong leader in the industry today?
Roberto Coin: A strong leader today…I can only say the way I am and what I try to achieve. First of all, I think it’s important to understand every part of the business. Not only the money side as it is only part of it, but also to give to your product the trust of the final consumer. Fortunately for me, I understand the banking world. I’m fortunate to have easy access to funds and I consider myself a lucky person to have the respect of the banks, suppliers, staff and clientele. To be a leader you have to teach your knowledge, your culture, your feelings to all people around you, and I know I have to keep on growing, learning from others, understand the changes of today and communicate further and better with all my people and clients. I think a leader has to understand not only the decisions he makes, but also why he’s making them.