Hélène Poulit-Duquesne

As the world emerges from a stringent lockdown period a changed place, folks are taking stock, reconnecting with others and surveying the new lay of the land — including Boucheron chief executive officer Hélène Poulit-Duquesne. She has also been busy building the future landscape for the storied French jewelry house she runs — forging deeper, personal ties with clients, launching e-commerce systems and gearing up for the resumption of business in stores, already under way in Asia and gradually returning in Europe. The luxury executive has carved up the land in a literal sense, too — grabbing the wheel of her tractor to churn up the soil in the horse ring at her Normandy residence, where she hunkered down during France’s lockdown.

There, surrounded by nature, her family and animals, and taking a break from traveling, Poulit-Duquesne found rejuvenation in the pause.

“I managed to focus on the positive — oddly enough,” she said, acknowledging an initial period of strain from adjusting to long days staring at a screen.

“Not everyone is used to being in front of a screen all day, but the brain adjusts,” she added.

The historic jewelry house, which belongs to Kering, was also lucky, Poulit-Duquesne pointed out, having learned from the situation in Asia.

“We were able to prepare because we could see it coming, since we’re very present in Asia,” she said, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across Europe and to the U.S.

Poulit-Duquesne said it was also a good thing she had inventory shipped to Asia as activity began to seize up in Europe.

“Even if we had to close for three months, we knew there would be products there,” she said.

In France, executives moved quickly to purchase extra laptops for those who didn’t already have one and set up remote access to work networks.

Boucheron did not draw on government unemployment assistance, and kept employees connected through the business social network Workplace, organizing morning briefs and beefing up knowledge on the house through conferences led by the Boucheron’s head of patrimony.

“I felt quite close to the teams,” said Poulit-Duquesne.

“People were creative, they needed to stay in contact with each other,” she added, noting the efforts resulted in a company video about how employees were motivated by working together.

“I decided not to change my agenda — the show must go on — daily crisis reunions were added to projects already in the works, on subjects like how to manage the crisis and reorganize teams,” she said. In addition, Poulit-Duquesne asked the executive committee to set aside time to brainstorm about the post-crisis period, seizing the opportunity to look past the ongoing crisis management and consider the future. 

“We spent half a day brainstorming — thinking about what the situation implies for Boucheron and what will have changed when the lockdown lifts,” she recalled.

“One thing that emerged quite strongly from this was the brand platform, centered around women and female style — Boucheron is perhaps the most woman-centric jewelry house,” she said. “Perhaps we don’t express this enough.”

Empathy and generosity are traits the house seeks to relay, said Poulit-Duquesne, both through the selling ceremony and the design of its Place Vendôme flagship.

The towering, historic boutique emerged from an extensive refurbishment in 2018, spruced up to convey a modern take on French grandeur. Architects added sprawling sofas to salons on upper floors, which are lined with windows affording views on the famous, spiraled column. Rooms are set up to be rearranged for hosting dinners, and for the most exclusive client set, there is even an apartment for overnight stays. 

“When it comes to the selling ceremony, everything is based on empathy and understanding,” explained Poulit-Duquesne. “We put this at the heart of our renovation brief for the architects — I said that I wanted people to feel welcome like at home, to be welcomed like friends and not like clients with a purely transactional relationship.”

Offering an example, she noted that tables in the boutique are round, or oval. 

“This invites people to sit down for a tea and a chat — traditionally, they were rectangular. At the outset of the jewelry business, it was a negotiating office, for precious stones, and people needed to sit opposite one another for negotiations. This remained the tradition. But today, I think it’s more relevant to welcome clients to experience an intimate moment, of joy, emotion, around a table, over a coffee, to be able to understand their needs and answer them,” she said.

The idea is to focus on extremely personalized service, in a sincere manner, she added.

“We’re a very sincere house,” she asserted. 

Recent campaign images show women in playful poses, wearing jewelry, dressed at times in jeans, or occasionally holding a mobile phone, projecting a youthful and everyday style of glamour. 

This approach remains relevant in the current environment, in Poulit-Duquesne’s view.

“For us it’s extremely clear, we are part of life, with emotions, anchored in reality, at the heart of women’s lives — more than ever following this crisis,” she said. “Thanks to this crisis, we have been able to focus on the relatively simple things that form the basis of relations with others — whether someone is doing OK, are they safe — this is emotional, we are dealing with emotions. Our brand platform draws on the emotional side.”

When it came to editorial content in the digital realm, Boucheron teams felt fortunate to have prepared a year’s worth of images from recent photo shoots before heading into lockdown.

“Luckily we had shot a lot of content so we didn’t have the problem of having to cancel photo shoots,” noted Poulit-Duquesne. 

Working with her communications director, they reinforced editorial content, adapting it to the context.

“We did a lot of stories on how to take care of jewelry during the lockdown because when you wash your hands you don’t want the disinfectant gel to damage the stones,” she said.

“At the beginning of lockdown, a number of meetings were based on how to adapt in terms of communication plans during the crisis — this was a major subject,” recalled the executive. “Twice a week we spoke about this with my communications director. What do we postpone, what do we cancel, what do we stick with, how do we maintain it, what format, how do we adapt…we worked a lot on this.”

The brand recently held an event in South Korea, setting up a pop-up store over three weeks. 

“We saw how well the COVID-19 crisis was managed there — people continued to go out and visit department stores, wearing masks and taking necessary precautions. We had a lot of feedback and a lot of traffic,” said Poulit-Duquesne.

“In a country that’s completely shut down, we would have canceled this type of event — it depends on the circumstances,” she noted. 

While the brand will maintain its messages, the tools for relaying them are evolving. 

“For me, the messages don’t change, it’s more the tools that changed, and the format. The messages don’t have a reason to change, when we launch a high-jewelry collection, we carry the creative vision of Claire [Choisne] — she knows her story by heart and this is the story she will tell. But she will tell it in a digital manner because she won’t necessarily meet clients and journalists in person,” said Poulit-Duquesne, referring to the label’s creative director.

“We have set up new support systems, working through formats like video interviews, and we’ve all adapted to using Teams,” she noted, in reference to the Microsoft communications platform.

Much thought went into client relations, she added.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been so connected with our VIP clients. I connected with most of our high-level clients, not out of commercial interest, but I wanted to know how they were doing, also their families, their children — where they were staying during the lockdown, if they managed to join their families,” she said. 

“From the start of the lockdown, during the first 10 days, I connected with clients through WhatsApp, and e-mail and our ‘grands vendeurs’ stayed connected with them through social networks, and via WhatsApp and WeChat,”” she continued, referring to the house’s high-end sales staff. 

“They were extremely close to our clients,” she said, stressing the personal nature of relations between grands vendeurs and clients.

“Some clients were quite touched when I sent them messages checking in on whether they had managed to get to their sheltering place — it was sincere, I wanted to stay in contact with them,” she continued, noting she grew worried when she didn’t hear back from one client for a few days. 

Boucheron's "salon des lumières" in the Place Vendôme building.

Boucheron’s “salon des lumières” in the Place Vendôme building.  OLIVIER HELBERT

“I think this created ties — obviously we had to cancel dinners, but we will be able to start that up again. We have a place we created for that — Vendôme,” she said, referring to the historic boutique. “We will make the most of being able to reconnect in small groups at Place Vendôme — respecting all security measures,” including maintaining distances and not embracing one another.

“These can be very special moments — now that we’re allowed to meet up once again,” she said, noting she had spoken with her teams about capturing the emotion of reconnecting with others as lockdown measures ease up.

“We are focusing on reconquering our local clientele with a number of events — small dinners at the Place Vendôme. We have space enough to respect ‘courteous’ distances — that’s the term we use at Boucheron. The place is absolutely magic for offering our clients a moment to resume socializing, through a tea, a dinner, a lunch,” she said, noting that all sanitary rules would be strictly followed. 

“We’re not a restaurant, but we can offer an experience in an incredible place outside the home — while all the restaurants in Paris remain closed.”

As for clients abroad who are unable to visit the flagship, the house maintains links locally. 

“The idea is that if they can’t come to us, we go to them,” she said of the localized strategy, noting it has been the subject of extensive conversations with subsidiaries, as many events cannot take place abroad given restrictions on travel. 

In the meantime, the company is drawing up tools to relay messages to be exported, through films, for example. 

There are some 60 Boucheron stores around the world. Although the question of how much business should be done through wholesale channels resurges at times of crises, Poulit-Duquesne said she is glad to have reinforced Boucheron’s retail network, which accounts for the bulk of sales, over the past five years.

Amid the global tumult — with soaring gold prices and some luxury labels tinkering with prices — Poulit-Duquesne is taking a steady approach.

“We asked ourselves the question, but when it comes to Boucheron jewelry, we have an extremely large pricing range, starting out relatively low, up to very expensive pieces — we have quite a full offer,” she said.

The label recently released new jewelry from its Serpent Bohème line, which hails from the late Sixties, and features stylized droplets with paved diamonds or colorful stones like garnets, turquoise or lapis lazuli. Other new releases include Plume de Paon earrings and rings, dramatic yet airy, nature-inspired pieces that recall Frédéric Boucheron’s fascination with peacock feathers over a century and a half ago.

“Our products are lasting — we create pieces meant to last eternally, so I don’t see a reason to head off into an opportunistic strategy and devalue our products. On the contrary, jewelry houses have gone through many crises — several wars — and offer clients lasting products,” she continued.

She might reconsider if the label didn’t offer pieces under 10,000 euros, she noted.

The executive was also reassuring on the issue of sourcing, noting that, along with Choisne and members of the gem-stone department, she had visited a trade show in Tucson, Ariz., in mid-February and loaded up on gemstones before the pandemic prompted countries to shut down.

“We were lucky — it was just before the lockdown,” she said.

Boucheron staff also managed to implement a number of digitalization projects, including payment systems, before the lockdown came into effect, speeding up payment processing during the period complicated by the fight against the virus. 

The company forged ahead with other digital projects, too, and has opened its first e-commerce platforms, in France and Japan, to serve clients at home. 

“They say crises accelerate underlying trends, and this is exactly what happened here. We had projects that were already in the pipeline that weren’t on top of the list of priorities, and they were given new priority because of the lockdown,” said Poulit-Duquesne.

Asked if the situation made clients less reticent about jewelry shopping over the Internet, the executive said “yes.” 

“I think it changed everyone’s way of functioning,” she said. The house set up a service center for deliveries from the Place Vendôme boutique. 

“It’s reassuring for people to have a telephone contact — it’s an intermediary step between the store and clicking, typing in your credit card and seeing if the product arrives.”

In other upcoming projects, the house has just launched plans to explore materials with Kering’s new sustainable innovation lab, set up earlier this year in Switzerland to serve the group’s watch and jewelry brands.

“We are very motivated and very optimistic — we’re happy this has been set up by Kering,” she said, noting the importance of its eco-responsible focus.

Boucheron Plume de Paon rings.

Boucheron Plume de Paon rings.  Courtesy

“It’s not just innovation and research for new materials, or innovation just for innovation’s sake, but it’s truly linked to eco-responsibility,” she added, predicting the topic would gain importance in the future.

Asked about consumption trends observed as activity creeps back, the executive said she hasn’t seen any drastic changes. 

“In terms of consumption, business has been brisk since reopening, the figures are encouraging,” she said, noting average baskets haven’t changed, and house icons like the quatre ring remain popular. 

“Our Chinese clients love the animal pieces, and I don’t see any reason that all of a sudden, after the crisis, they wouldn’t like them any more,” she added.

Is she optimistic?

“Rather optimistic, yes, because we have seen consumption return rapidly in China and Asian countries,” she noted. “For Europe, we are at the very beginning still, but what surprised us, positively, was the traffic at the Place Vendôme boutique when it reopened.”

The store the first wave of store openings in France on May 11, drawing in more clients than before the lockdown, according to the executive. Some came for servicing owned pieces, like replacing watch batteries or fixing a timepiece, but there was also pent-up demand for anniversary pieces, and, on the following Saturday, there was an influx of newly engaged couples.

The store marked a record level of conversion rates at the reopening, she said.

“People who came, came to buy,” she noted.

As for sanitary measures, the label offers masks to incoming clients, reduced work stations, redirected traffic through one door, set up another entryway as an exit, and trained staff how to handle and disinfect jewelry. 

“We have completely re-adapted the space for sanitary issues,” she said. “It’s going very well.” 

Stressing the status of jewelry as an investment, even if there has been an increase in purchases based on style, and in a more compulsive manner, the executive said she expects the business to hold steady in the coming months.

“There’s an intrinsic value — these are products that are never thrown away, they can be sold through an auction, you offer them to your children. This investment value remains no matter what happens,” she said. “To me, this is a strength of the jewelry business during this period.”