Bulgari's Aluminium watch model

PARIS — Don’t give up on 2020 just yet. So went the message from Bulgari chief executive officer Jean-Christophe Babin, who has kept employees at the Italian luxury label busy over the past months, drawing up a new men’s watch collection — that was not planned before the coronavirus crisis hit.

“We found — obviously during a difficult period — extra motivation trying to do something against all odds and to not give up on 2020 and then build our hopes on 2021, but try to save part of 2020,” said Babin. The executive spoke to WWD on a telephone interview from Switzerland, where he hosted meetings with clients and journalists for a new gathering of watch labels this week dubbed Geneva Days.

The event was initially planned for April, but eventually moved to August as COVID-19 swept across Europe, prompting lockdowns.

Babin came up with the idea in the early days of the crisis this year. Bulgari, which belongs to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, was initially supposed to take part in the Baselworld watch fair, alongside other LVMH labels Hublot, Zenith and Tag Heuer, but the executive was concerned that the gap was too long between the 2019 edition and the one planned in May this year.

So he grabbed the phone and called ceo’s that he knew, forming an initial group of 14 labels — which later grew to 17 — interested in holding meetings and events in Geneva. The large brands dedicated members of their own management team to organize the various gatherings, which are being held in several locations, including hotel suites. Bulgari is based at the Ritz-Carlton while Breitling is at the Four Seasons hotel, Ulysse Nardin has its own boutique and other brands are drawing people into their manufacturing facilities.

The idea was to have a flexible, agile and cost-efficient concept so if it had to be canceled, the cost-burden would be light, explained Babin.

The exercise of pooling resources to devise new formats should prove useful for the future, too, predicted the executive.

“It’s very cost-efficient,” noted Babin, estimating that the collective cost will come to less than 1 million Swiss francs, the equivalent of around $1.1 million, compared to a price for individual brands at the larger fairs that could rise to between 3 million and 8 million Swiss francs. 

Babin was a driving force behind a decision by LVMH brands to show new launches in Dubai in January. LVMH watch labels had taken to Geneva that month in prior years, hosting events on a boat docked on the lake, tapping into showgoers at the Compagnie Financière Richemont-dominated show, SIHH. Renamed Watches & Wonders last year, the fair moved its event to April, in a last-ditch effort to support its beleaguered rival Baselworld, and pool the flow of international visitors. The traditional watch fairs have struggled to adapt to a shift in consumption habits and the rise of digital means, which has reduced the relevance of pricey, blockbuster events meant to draw large crowds.

The August timing for Geneva Days ended up suiting brands’ needs, said Babin, noting the end-of-year consumer spending period looming on the horizon — from India to the U.S., with Thanksgiving, and winding up with the Chinese New Year in February. While Bulgari focused on women’s timepieces at Dubai, men’s watches are the centerpiece for Geneva Days.

While the first semester of 2020 was “obviously bad, a disaster for everyone, not only watches,” as noted by the executive, he is nonetheless “very bullish” when it comes to the next two quarters. 

LVMH chairman and ceo Bernard Arnault said in July that he hoped a recovery would be confirmed in the second half of the year, and that the group would aim to strengthen its lead in the worldwide luxury market. Over the first half of the year, the luxury group’s watches and jewelry division posted a 38 percent drop in revenue compared to the same period a year ago, steeper than the group’s total revenue decline of 28 percent, even though Bulgari saw a strong recovery in China over the second quarter. 

Exports of Swiss watches have dropped 32.4 percent between January and July, with steep declines in exports to some of its largest markets, including Hong Kong, the U.S. and Japan, according to statistics from the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry.

Bulgari’s product launches at Geneva Days along with the Dubai event at the start of the year should ensure the label makes market share gains, Babin asserted. 

The brand is launching its latest Octo Finissimo S watch, offering the thin yet prominent model with a blue dial, as well as the new record-breaking Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph Skeleton watch, meant to push boundaries — thin, measuring 3.5 millimeters in thickness, with complications — breaking the latest in an ongoing series of new such records for the Octo models.

“This will become an icon,” predicted Babin.

Other new timepieces include new Gérald Genta Arena sport models, named after the late Swiss watchmaking designer, and the Aluminium watch, revived from the Nineties, when its image featured on an Alitalia jumbo Boeing 747. Thirty-two years after Bulgari stopped making the watch, the model shows “not even a wrinkle,” when it comes to relevance today, enthused the seasoned watch seller. The brand will offer it in gray or black dials, with an aluminum case and titanium caseback, with rubber bracelets, as well as a limited edition featuring the Italian Frecce Tricolori airforce squad. The fighter jet squad gained international notoriety by performing shows in cities around Italy during the COVID-19 lockdowns to lift spirits in the country, which was hit hard by the pandemic. The Aluminium Frecce Tricolori capsule collection will be limited to 1,000 pieces featuring the Italian flag.

The Aluminium collection will be made available to retailers first — for a month.

“One month after our wholesale brand retailer, we get it,” said Babin, noting that the role reversal is meant to send a signal that the brand is committed to the wholesale model. 

Bulgari will also extend guarantees on its timepieces, from two to five years for the high-end ranges including the Octo range, and from two to three years for the rest of its models. 

Models shown in Geneva will be available immediately after the event, reflecting another shift from the traditional fair formats, which often served as previews of models that would hit the market at a later stage.

Asked about business in China, the executive said that the Double Seven holiday in China, similar to Valentine’s Day, on Aug. 25, topped the label’s record for sales generated in one day.

“It’s incredible, the best day worldwide — and without Chinese traveling,” he said, noting that it beat the brand’s previous record by 30 percent. 

While other labels slowed down investments in 2013 and 2014, Bulgari did the opposite. 

“We never slowed down, we intensified investments,” he said. 

The label has a series of projects in Paris next year, with plans to open a refurbished and expanded Place Vendôme high jewelry boutique, a location in the future Samaritaine complex, and the Bulgari Hotel. 

“Paris is our main conquest of 2021,” said Babin. 

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