2022 was a boon for the luxury market. Licking our wounds from an unresolved pandemic, we tested the limits of our plastic money and swiped with abandon.
The revenues of luxury companies such as LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which had taken a knock during the most surreal time in recent memory, were boosted by what Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin calls “revenge buying”. This phenomenon lives in the province of “revenge travel” — a backlash against isolation and limited or controlled consumption over 2020/21. The performance was outsized, and it was no surprise recently when things trended toward normalisation. But revenues are still on the rise, if at a slower rate.
While LVMH’s 2023 Q3 revenues were up 9% from the same period in 2022, its 2023 Q2 results had increased by 17% year-on-year. This means a slowdown on a quarter-to-quarter basis. LVMH nonetheless saw a 14% organic revenue growth in the first nine months of this year, with subsidiary Bulgari experiencing “strong growth” in a period that saw the celebration of 75 years of the cross-category Serpenti collection, the launch of the Mediterranea High Jewellery collection, and an updated Octo line. The traditional Roman jeweller with a Greek founder has been synonymous with the pinnacle of Italian crafting since 1884, experimenting with materials and conventions and advancing its Roman heritage.
Babin — the charming, charismatic, intelligent type that many companies hope to attract as a leader — took up the reins in 2013. He has been very visible, wearing his position well, staying on top of trends, cutting every ribbon, and maintaining a vibrant social-media presence. He embodies the kind of engaged but breezy sophistication required to properly pull off high luxury, in hospitality and in luxury goods.
When we met earlier this year, during Watches and Wonders Geneva, he was in great form. Even after back-to-back interviews with the world’s press, nothing — not a word, not a tie knot, not a hair on his neatly cropped dome — was out of place; “even his wrinkles looked curated”, remarked a thoroughly charmed fellow journalist. And while he may present well, his appeal as a business leader is far richer. It doesn’t hurt that he was a bit of a prodigy, earning an MBA at the tender age of 21, but, as he has said elsewhere, he is also “driven by my gut”, which comes with experience, having spent 13 accolade-filled years as CEO at TAG Heuer prior to his current stint.
If he had a mission in the past decade, it was “bringing the meticulousness, craft and heritage of Rome to the entire brand”, he said. Beyond jewellery, the brand also plays in luxury hotels, leather goods, accessories, and fragrances, perennially seeking ways to set itself apart — as was clear in Geneva. Unlike its competitors, which had booths that ranged from the elaborate to the fantastical at the Palexpo convention centre where Watches and Wonders is held, Bulgari had commandeered a floor at the swish Hotel President Wilson, overlooking the lake. It was a proper takeover with varied displays in multiple rooms across the entire floor, with messaging ranging from heritage to the latest releases.
This decentralised strategy was, Babin said, a deliberate, longstanding decision, an attempt to stand out while presenting “the best of Roma” (a few months prior, the brand had been in the presidential suite of the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok at Chao Phraya River, with upwards of 190 pieces on display).
Historically, celebrities have been integral to the Bulgari story and its marketing mix, with the late Elizabeth Taylor, a passionate client, the enduring image of Bulgari elegance. Nowadays, you are likely to find actors Priyanka Chopra, Zendaya, and Anne Hathaway, as well as Lisa, a member of the K-pop girl-group Blackpink, on the brand’s friends roster in a nod to Hollywood and Asia’s continued strategic importance.
After our chat, as I patiently waited to take a photo with him, he gave face-time to a Chinese delegation developing a mall in which they would like a Bulgari store. Having shaken every hand and looked in every eye, Babin kept the party of six transfixed with his words. Whether or not they’ll get their store remains to be seen, but the smiles as the group headed out were encouraging.
As I took my place next to the man of the hour and his PR reps snapped away, he apologised for “taking your time”. The pictures were decent and, naturally, he looked better than me, in his tailored suit and a Bulgari timepiece on his wrist proudly on display.
• From the 2023/2024 edition of Wanted Watches, Jewellery and Luxury.