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At Bulgari, Infusing Global Innovation with Local Heritage

BoF sits down with Bulgari’s Chief Executive Jean-Christophe Babin to hear how the 136-year-old jewellery brand can nurture personal relationships with every client through digital technology and how it is equipping its workforce with the tools for growth.
Bulgari store front | Source: Courtesy
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ROME, Italy — Founded in 1884 by Sotirio Bulgari as a single jewellery shop in Rome, Bulgari is today a global LVMH maison renowned for its artisanal craft and Roman heritage. Over the brand's 136-year history, Bulgari has expanded its core product offering across five key verticals: jewellery, watches, handbags and accessories, fragrances and luxury hotels and resorts in Milan, London, Dubai, Bali, Beijing and Shanghai, with plans to expand to Paris, Moscow and Tokyo over the next three years.

The LVMH Group acquired the brand in 2011 for €3.7 billion — one of their largest acquisitions of the last decade. The six brands that make up LVMH’s jewellery and watch offering accumulatively brought in €4.4 billion of sales in 2019.

Perhaps surprisingly, given its size, traditional Italian craftsmanship still sits at the heart of the business. Bulgari opened a new manufacturing facility in Valenza in 2017, designed to nurture the Made in Italy jewellery savoir faire of the northern region alongside its Bulgari Academy — an existing internal training programme, transferring expertise from experienced goldsmiths to the next generation of young talent. By 2022, the brand plans to double the size of its Valenza-based manifattura, which would make it the largest jewellery manufacturing centre in the world and create 700 new roles in the process.

Jean-Christophe Babin. chief executive of Bulgari, by David Atlan | Source: Courtesy

BoF sits down with Jean-Christophe Babin, the group’s chief executive, to hear how Bulgari’s pedigree of authentic craftsmanship has been infused by a culture of agility and ambition as well.

How would you describe the company culture at Bulgari?

For us, it's really important that we are the flagship of Italian excellence when it comes to luxury experiences. Authenticity, craftsmanship, quality and an original pedigree of everything we create is part of our culture. Our jewellery is 100 percent Made in Italy; our fragrances and leather goods are Italian and then our watches are 100 percent Swiss-made.

But importantly, we have embedded a never-give-up mentality in our culture, which I believe is typically Italian. This year, for example, we have had to react to the COVID-19 threat, which has led to many cancellations of industry events. We cancelled the Geneva Watch Fair in February, for example, but we were still able to organise the first LVMH Watch Week in Dubai. It proved we are agile, entrepreneurial and extremely adaptive to the environment.

I'm also obsessed with raising the level of ambition of my team and then providing them with the empowerment, resources and trust to develop, take more risks and raise their voice. Trying is always rewarded and failing is never punished — it's a culture of fostering, trying and learning. This has taken a bit of time within the company because people need to trust you before they unleash their energy and creativity, but my challenge today is not to stimulate new ideas but rather to prioritise and channel so many ideas.

How is Bulgari reacting to the demands of today’s luxury consumer?

We have consumers from all generations but, if we focus on Millennials as the primary [luxury consumer] group, they want authenticity, which feeds into the Made in Italy culture, and they have a higher ethical drive. They need to know how a piece has been crafted, how the company operates and how the company is sourcing its ingredients or raw materials.

I think we are a very responsible company and we have tried to be active when it comes to sustainability, from developing our own jasmine fields in India, to be respectful of local agriculture, to the plastic-free policy we have in our 5-star hotels.  We are also one of the largest contributors to the Save the Children foundation, with our company donating around €100 million over 10 years.

Trying is always rewarded and failing is never punished — it's a culture of fostering, trying and learning.

Millennial consumers also need a sense of inclusivity — they want to feel like a part of a community that is respected by the brand. That's why we are so present on social media. When [Sotirio] Bulgari first operated in Rome over 100 years ago, he knew each and every client, their daughters, sons, parents. Thanks to the digital world today, we are able to recreate those one-to-one relationships and re-establish a personal connection. Eventually, we believe memories from an experience will be regarded the ultimate benefit that clients will look for.

What growth opportunities is Bulgari focused on today?

Jewellery remains, and will forever be, the core business and signature of Bulgari. We were born a jeweller and we will grow primarily as a jeweller. Jewellery has always celebrated turning points in life, so we are looking to further enhance that within the experiential dimensions of the brand, not only when buying jewellery in our store but in our hotels too. Today, it is not only about craftsmanship and art, but emotion and experience.

Despite being a jeweller, we created the first-ever high-end boutique hotel chain 16 years ago, further demonstrating Bulgari’s obsession with hospitality, which we have always tried to preserve in our boutiques and one-to-one relationships with our clients. We want to be an exclusive, small community with most guests as returning clients. We have six existing hotels, three more about to open and we will announce three new projects this year. The strategy behind the hotel sees it as the pinnacle of the Bulgari experience, from the spa to the valet to the restaurant and room service. They are designed to allow our clients to dive deep into our brand.

However, the hotels are not just serving a superior experience but also bringing in the brand clients likely to buy our jewellery. That's why all the five business areas are complementary, from perfumes recruiting younger consumers from 15 years old, to jewellery or watches being your first real luxury purchase, to eventually buy into the high jewellery and hotel stays, which are the pinnacle of the experience.

What role does the Bulgari Academy play in the business?

The Bulgari Academy is important for two reasons. Jewelley is an art and [I believe] this art is not really taught in the schooling system in Italy or France anymore. We are running the risk that in two generations, no one will be able to set a jewel in Italy. It's our mission to ensure we have a school that will consolidate our expertise generation after generation.

It's our mission to ensure we have a school that will consolidate our expertise generation after generation.

The second point is that we are growing very fast. We opened a new manufacturing site in Valenza three years ago and we're about to start the construction of an extension, which will double its capacity by 2022. Bulgari is already the largest jewellery manufacturer in Europe, and once we complete the second phase of the project by 2022, the manufacturing space will probably be the largest in the world. So, we believe we will need to create an additional 700 jobs in the next five years and they have to be filled by people coming from outside the jewellery industry because, in most cases, those from within the industry will already be working indirectly with Bulgari in smaller family-owned contractors.

We know it is a daunting challenge, hiring for 700 new skilled jobs for 2025, and that's why we are strongly investing in the Academy. We need it as nothing will ever replace the mani intelligenti. There are a lot of things that no machine will ever do. Once we have fulfilled all the requirements from [the growth we expect at] Bulgari, we will probably open it to our partners, our suppliers and the family-run companies that often work with Bulgari. We have no secrets and we can benefit from educating others that work directly with us.

What characteristics stand Bulgari employees apart?

Including the hotels, we have about 7,000 employees, so that means 7,000 different characters and 7,000 different histories, so it's a bit difficult to aggregate one archetype of the Bulgari employee. However, what strikes me most, from the Beijing hotel to the Valenza manufacturer, to American security or a salesperson in the Dubai flagship store, is their passion. I believe everyone in the company is proud to be Roman, whether you're Japanese, American or South African — they are proud to participate as an ambassador of Italian excellence through Bulgari.

This is a sponsored feature paid for by Bulgari as part of a BoF Careers partnership. To explore careers at Bulgari, please click here

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