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Cartier: Selling Timelessness in Times of Change

Cartier transcends generations, geographies and genders, says the brand’s chief executive Cyrille Vigneron, but staying relevant in the choppy waters of the post-pandemic jewellery market demands iconic, classic designs.
Cartier CEO Cyrille Vigneron; A Cartier store in London, UK. Cartier; Getty Images.
Cartier CEO Cyrille Vigneron; a Cartier store in London, UK. Cartier; Getty Images.
By
  • Ming Liu
BoF PROFESSIONAL
SoF Watches & Jewellery download

This article first appeared in the special edition of The State of Fashion: Watches and Jewellery, co-published by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company. To learn more and download a copy of the report, click here.

Jewellery has been a bright spot for Cartier’s parent company Richemont, which for the nine months ending December 31, 2020 saw a 14 percent annual sales increase at the group’s jewellery maisons unit which comprises Cartier, Buccellati and Van Cleef & Arpels. Over the same period, the luxury conglomerate posted a double-digit increase in its overall online retail sales, but Cartier’s chief executive Cyrille Vigneron is continuing to revamp its physical flagships, which he says must become “less about browsing and more about inspiration.”

A Cartier veteran who first joined the jewellery house in the late 1980s, Vigneron rose through the ranks to become president of Richemont Japan, then managing director of Cartier Europe, and following a brief stint at LVMH, returned to take the top job at Cartier in 2016. Given his intimate understanding of the brand, it’s no surprise that he sees Cartier’s house icons as its greatest assets. Though the years ahead will bring profound changes to the jewellery market, Vigneron maintains that the brand’s values will not waver — especially its timeless, enduring designs.

BoF: The pandemic was a game-changer in terms of accelerating e-commerce. But how will you continue to recreate the magic of the Cartier in-store experience for digital, which can be quite a sterile environment?

Cyrille Vigneron: It’s not that the store is only magical while digital is sterile. Digital has practicality and functionality, so the question is, “What do customers expect on screen and how do we make that experience as pleasant as possible?” You have to deliver the best possible experience. But there are things in-store that you cannot replace online. There is touching a product and trying it on, to see and feel it on yourself. In-store, you’re also [shopping] together with others, like your partner or family; there are certain things you can share in a much better way. So, we shouldn’t think about how to exactly replace what only happens physically, but how to make the best possible digital experience for the purpose it’s meant to serve.

What future technologies do you envisage will enhance the online experience? How does this tie in with the offline experience?

Online can also be inside a store. In our IFC [Mall] store in Pudong, China, we have installed interactive screens for bridal customers where they can insert their hand and it records their pulse on a screen, which can be engraved on a ring, capturing a specific feeling at that moment of time. We also work on augmented reality, where you can see exactly how a ring looks on your hand — how the gold changes colour with the specific diffraction of light. And in our retail labs in Brooklyn and Shanghai, we are looking at special 3D scanning technology of a customer’s head and neck to make a bust for special custom orders. We will then have the client’s real shape to make adjustments without needing them to travel back and forth.

By 2025, nearly all fine jewellery purchases will be digitally influenced — whether pre-purchase or at the point of sale. Will in-platform social media commerce become an increasingly important sales channel for jewellery as it seems to be for fashion?

Social media platforms are evolving very differently, such as WeChat in China or Line in Japan or Korea, compared to other platforms like Facebook or Instagram. Mini programmes are developing and changing how we interact in-platform. Also, livestreaming sessions or videos that are not possible on YouTube or the equivalent offer new ways to promote, explore and share. On our Luxury Pavilion store on Tmall, specific moments of livestreaming can see strong customer engagement. Not all the time, but it plays a role and China is ahead of the curve on that. Whether this can go to the point of actual purchases [for fine jewellery] I don’t know, as I think there’s still something missing in the experience. But as technology is evolving so fast, probably hybrid forms will come.

It is estimated that the branded jewellery market will grow rapidly, representing 25 to 30 percent of the market by 2025, up from 20 percent today. How does Cartier plan to capture this segment of consumers shifting from unbranded to branded jewellery?

Yes, the share of branded jewellery has been increasing, but the share of international branded jewellery is also increasing. We are confident this will continue to develop in the future, as the interest for international recognition grows among customers. Self-expression is getting stronger. Watches and jewellery are increasingly used to express who you are. It’s not something as standardised as a row of pearls, where basically everyone has something similar. If you want to look somewhat distinctive and express your singularity or be a part of the global world, what can you wear that will work in either Hong Kong, London or New York? That’s where international luxury jewellery brands increasingly play an important role.

How are the jewellery collections from luxury fashion brands changing the landscape, and how will established jewellery brands, like Cartier, compete with them in the future?

Compared to jewellery, fashion brands renew their product cycles very quickly. They must constantly show something different and new, while for jewellery brands it’s more about establishing stable designs. In our case, our designs are timeless. You cannot date them; they’re still contemporary and still true today. But it’s a good challenge to have fashion brands making items which are not fashionable by nature. Fashion brands push us towards the purity of our designs, and to be even more durable and timeless.

With all this competition, how can smaller jewellery brands compete?

Being a small brand is not too difficult as long as it has its own characteristics, specific design and attitude towards aesthetics. The brand JAR, for example, has been totally in its own space for a long time and will continue to be. There’s room for both big and small brands. I think the question may be more for mid-sized brands, or brands which are known regionally and want to expand globally. The investment needed to reach a global standard might be too big before they acquire the knowledge.

Disruptions to the jewellery industry are not limited to the digital arena or business models; they’ve been happening in materials too. What are your thoughts on lab-grown diamonds? Will they ever be part of Cartier jewellery? If so, how?

For the time being, no. We make a promise of naturality and traceability to our clients. If at some point customers feel lab-grown diamonds are perfectly fine to have for, say, the melee diamonds (i.e., small stones for a pavé setting), then we’ll see if maybe we can make special collections. But separation will be imperative so there’s full transparency.

The problem with lab-grown diamonds is that, despite having the same molecular structure as those found in the earth, lab-grown diamonds don’t have any [history]. They were made two days before. At some point, some customers will probably hesitate to [buy] natural diamonds but, on the other hand, many customers will still reject lab-grown diamonds as they’ve lost their singularity and lost the fact that they were made by the Earth millions of years ago. In the end, this might put into question the value given to diamonds compared to other stones or compared to figurative jewellery designs [which feature depictions of animals and nature, such as the Cartier panther motif]. Given that Cartier is known more for its design than purely stones, it won’t be difficult to adjust to customers’ preferences.

Sustainability is top of mind for some consumers right now. How do you see the dialogue on sustainability between brands and consumers evolving next?

In the past, people assumed big brands did the right thing. That was enough, unless revealed it wasn’t the case. What’s changing now is that you’re required to do things, to share what you’re doing, and to prove it. That’s changing in a very, very rapid way. Also, when it comes to the environment, you must express your intentions and show that you “walk the talk.”

This is the same for social commitments, human rights and gender equality. That’s why we have signed the Women’s Empowerment Principles and why, for instance, we now have an equal pay certification with PricewaterhouseCoopers. In this case, it’s a third party certifying that you are “walking the talk.” In the past, we’d just make sure our processes were fine. The new thing is that everyone is becoming really committed but asking you to be clear and transparent. And those who aren’t will face more and more serious resistance from their customers. They want to be sure that you do the right thing.

The pandemic has seen a repatriation of Chinese luxury spending. How soon do you anticipate the return of Chinese tourists to Western shopping destinations? How are you planning to pivot more to rebalance to domestic spend in China that’s likely to happen in the coming years?

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have dramatically accelerated the shift to local consumption, either physically towards shopping malls or online within China. And many Chinese consumers have not even [started travelling] abroad yet… That probably means that travel retail purchases — whether in Korea, Hong Kong, Hainan, Dubai or Europe — will return in substantial numbers. That being said, I think the shift of the majority of sales happening domestically will not reverse. The market will grow by itself anyway, and faster domestically than overseas or in travel retail.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

summit_watch_jewellery_2021

The inaugural edition of The State of Fashion: Watches and Jewellery report co-published by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company forecasts a shake-up in priorities for hard luxury as well as different recovery scenarios across geographies and consumer segments. To learn more and download a copy of the report, click here.

BoF Professionals are invited to join us on July 13, 2021 for a special live event in which we'll unpack findings from the report. Register now to reserve your spot. If you are not a member, you can take advantage of our 30-day trial to experience all of the benefits of a BoF Professional membership.

Explore the six seismic shifts from the report:

The Future of Watches:

  1. A High Stakes DTC Shake-Up
  2. The Mid-Market Squeeze
  3. The Pre-Owned Market Will Be Worth Up to $32 Billion

The Future of Jewellery:

  1. Brands Battle for Buyers of Unbranded Jewellery
  2. Creating Sparkle Online
  3. Demand for Sustainably Made Jewellery Will See Explosive Growth

Click here to explore more from this special edition report, including executive interviews.

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