PARIS — From an 18-carat diamond ring dripping with 16 other stones to luxurious leather gift boxes lined with mink, Boucheron unveils its new look here tonight at Place Vendôme.And the first collection under Gucci Group’s stewardship proclaims its "haute" positioning alongside the couture collections parading the runways this week."The idea was to start from the top —emeralds, rubies, diamonds and sapphires — to let the world know that Boucheron is serious — to let the world know that Boucheron is serious about fine jewelry," said Solange Azagury-Partridge, creative director of the brand. "These four gems are the ultimate in luxury."During an exclusive preview of the collection, Azagury-Partridge and Massimo Macchi, Boucheron’s president and managing director, also outlined their relaunch strategy, which is hinged on building on its jewelry and watch heritage and showcasing its new image via a fast-growing network of retail flagships.Since Gucci Group acquired Boucheron International SA in May 2000 from the Swiss chemical firm Schweizerhall Holding AG as part of a spate of acquisitions, it has been most vocal about the overhaul of Yves Saint Laurent and its developing designers, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, and Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga. But behind the scenes, Boucheron has been the focus of much activity."Our strategy was to be silent until we had the new image, the new collection and the opening of the new stores," Domenico De Sole, chairman and chief executive of the group said. "Now we are ready to proceed."And how. According to sources, Gucci plans to invest upward of $250 million over the next three to five years to build Boucheron into a global jewelry and watch powerhouse.Boucheron’s relaunch comes as the climate for luxury remains difficult and competition is heating up in the fine jewelry segment. De Beers LV, a joint venture between De Beers and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, launches its new diamond jewelry brand at a London flagship later this year. Meanwhile, Garrard just got a cash injection from the Edgar M. Bronfman family and Jade Jagger is revamping Garrard’s image in a "classic avant-garde" direction.But De Sole is bullish about Boucheron’s chances.He declined to provide sales projections, but said, "Clearly, we expect to see a growth that reflects our investment in the brand. I think there will be some growth in the [fine jewelry] market and, of course, you have to [build] your market share."Tonight, the fashion flock will be shown about 60 jewelry pieces, including snake-motif rings paved in diamonds and delicate, chandelier earrings featuring sapphires or rubies set in black gold. About 1,500 carats of precious stones will be there for the ogling, along with sneak previews of the fall ad campaign and the sumptuous brown and aubergine packaging.Prices for the top-end jewelry range start at about $25,000 and can run up to $2 million. Boucheron also plans to develop items starting at about $1,500 and create selections in the fast-growing $4,000-to-$5,000 category.However, Macchi and Azagury-Partridge said its upper-end products are the most crucial, asserting that many of their Place Vendôme competitors have become too democratic in pricing — perhaps at their peril.According to Macchi, about 25 to 30 percent of Boucheron’s volume at Place Vendôme is generated by jewelry that retails at $50,000 or more. "We want to maintain this image around the world," he said, noting that the six-figure price category is fast-growing, too. "The concept of opulence, luxury and elegance is really coming back. There is a new pleasure in wearing important jewelry." For example, Macchi said necklaces are making a comeback after being practically "forgotten" for 12 years.Azagury-Partridge said the fashion pendulum is swinging away from the austerity and minimalism that marked the end of the 20th century. However, she said she chose colored stones and dark settings for many of her designs because they are more discreet than diamonds and gleaming gold. "[Fine jewelry] is for yourself, it’s for the pleasure rather than the showoff element," she said. "I also love the idea of diamonds and jeans. That just says it all. In the Eighties, jewelry was very stiff and hard, just like the helmet hair women had with lots of hairspray. Now women want jewelry to feel like a second skin. It’s much less formal somehow. But you can still create an impact while being informal."Azagury-Partridge said the collection was partly inspired by the Contessa di Castiglione, a woman in Napoleon III’s court who was prized for her beauty and mysterious nature and who lived in the building where Boucheron’s headquarters stand today. Azagury-Partridge also incorporated symbols of the house, like the snake, and referenced its exoticism.In Gucci Group style, directly controlled stores are a key peg in the relaunch strategy. Azagury-Partridge is collaborating with architect William Sofield, who collaborates on Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta stores, to develop the new boutique concept. Boucheron operates 20 freestanding stores and in-store shops worldwide, including 10 in Japan, seven in France and one each in Taiwan, Italy (Capri) and South Korea (Seoul). The network will grow quickly. A San Francisco store is slated to open on Post Street in mid-August, followed by a Bond Street flagship in London in October and a Via Montenapoleone unit in Milan in November.Also forthcoming by the end of the year is a boutique on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in the former site of the Yves Saint Laurent beauty institute, a location in Hawaii and a Tokyo flagship —a five-story building in the Ginza. Coming next spring is a massive Fifth Avenue flagship, between 54th and 55th Streets in New York, as reported, and new locations in St. Moritz, Beverly Hills and Hong Kong. The plan is to establish a global network of 60 to 65 locations within three years. Macchi said wholesale distribution of watches will be layered on once Boucheron is established within its new markets. At present, Boucheron watches are wholesaled to about 130 retailers. Fine jewelry will be sold only at Boucheron stores and in-store shops.Sales at Boucheron were about $70 million last year, with about 65 percent of revenues streaming in from perfume. The portfolio of fragrances include Boucheron, Jaipur, Jaipur Saphir and Initials. A new scent, created under Azagury-Partridge’s watch, is slated for introduction in 2004.But Macchi said jewelry and watches are expected to account for the bulk of sales this year. "We are very confident about the future," Macchi said. "We have all the elements together."Famous customers for Boucheron in the past range from Sarah Bernhardt and Gloria Swanson to Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor and the late Diana, Princess of Wales.Azagury-Partridge declined to say who the targets are for the future, arguing the field is wide open. "She could be any woman who loves jewelry," she said, adding with a smile, "and has the money."
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