PARIS – Jean-Marc Mansvelt is the archetype of a French luxury executive.
With a Cartesian approach to details, the impeccably dressed chief executive officer of Chaumet also keeps his focus outward-looking in order to ensure contemporary relevance for the historic French label.
Three years into his position at the helm of Chaumet, Mansvelt recently hired new executives from outside the group for roles related to the brand’s image. Several books have been published under his watch — a tradition that had disappeared in the decade before his arrival. They have ranged from the luxurious coffee-table variety, “Chaumet, Parisian Jeweler Since 1780” under the Flammarion publishing house, to a series of smaller box sets by publisher Assouline.
Stores around the world are gradually being refurbished — with nods to the past, including wheat references and models of diadems — and the brand is venturing into Canada and Australia this year.
Mansvelt’s career traces back to the Lindsay Owen-Jones era at L’Oréal, followed by a decade at Louis Vuitton, the star brand of Chaumet owner LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
From his office on the Place Vendôme that offers a bird’s eye view on the traffic, including the local dog-walker’s crowd of lively animals, Mansvelt shared the house’s strategy for drawing on a deep past while training its sights on the future.
Conveying his enthusiasm with a sense of humor and often flowery language, Mansvelt discussed Chaumet’s new advertising campaign and explained why he’s not on the hunt for a celebrity brand ambassador.
WWD: What was your mandate when you were recruited for the brand?
Jean-Marc Mansvelt: The mandate was actually fairly simple, summed up by, “We need to wake up sleeping beauty” — a nice way of saying it, but actually also quite fitting. It was to address the question of how this grand house, more or less pretty well known, could regain its position and become more visible and desirable. Since then all of the teams have worked to make it better known, better understood and interesting to a larger number of people.
Among our efforts to do so, last year’s exhibit in the Forbidden City in China was pretty spectacular.
WWD: How long did it take to put into place? How many people went to see it?
J-M.M.: Many of us went, including all of the store directors from around the world. We had a half a million visitors over a bit less than three months.
The idea dated back five years and it took nearly three years to execute it, mobilizing many of us nearly full time for the year preceding its opening.
It was ambitious to hold an exhibit dedicated to the house at the Forbidden City, especially given the political context at the time with the extension of the president’s mandate. It also felt daring to show pieces that hadn’t been out of the country. Napoleon’s Coronation Sword had never left France — even for a second — since 1804. And to show French Imperial Court jewelry next to pieces from the Chinese Imperial Court — quite different in terms of style and materials. We garnered a lot of interest with hundreds of millions of views under the hashtag of the exhibit.
Other projects included a shift to showing collections on an annual basis with an annual theme, drawn from the house’s history, carefully reinterpreted to project the brand into the future, in a contemporary manner.
WWD: How do you do this? Can you give an example?
J-M.M.: In 2016, we focused on nature at Chaumet, which carries a double meaning — natural vegetation and the nature of Chaumet; that is, the house’s symbols and its style. Chaumet has always interpreted wheat in a specific style, for example. It’s not just about beauty; there are also successive layers of meaning — references to thousands of years of history.
Last year, our theme was “Chaumet est une fête” [Chaumet is a celebration], having fun, which contained a multitude of references, especially since it was launched in the context of what had happened in Paris. Paris is not a city of sadness — Paris is a city of culture and celebration.
It also referred to Ernest Hemingway’s “Paris est une fête” [“A Moveable Feast”], which is linked to the Place Vendôme: the manuscript had disappeared, and was found at the Ritz and published posthumously. The Ritz is also our first address: at number 15. We’ve been here since 1907 but at the time of Napoleon, but we were on the other side before.
WWD: What is your plan for this year?
J-M.M.: The theme this year is the world of Chaumet: the house of creation, the Parisian house, but also a house influenced by many things, including world cultures. We will cover three continents. First, with Russia, reinterpreting and reinventing a culture we’ve always been close to, in terms of clients. With a simple idea of winter steppes, infinitely big and infinitely small at the same time, you have the immensity of space, cold and the beauty of snow, playing with this through a lace of diamonds to make a piece that is lovely to look at, symbolic, and above all a pleasure to wear.
In June, we will have an exhibit in Tokyo. Japan is a historic country for Chaumet; we’ve been there for 30 years and have always been well-received by the public there, with big clients and the imperial family. The exhibit is in a museum in Tokyo, the Mitsubishi [Ichigokan] museum; we will show 300 pieces, we have 15 lending museums and 50 collectors will lend pieces.
WWD: How many stores do you have around the world? And how many carry the new concept?
J-M.M.: We have 56 stores, and have rolled out the new concept in several stores in Asia already. The very first was in Hong Kong, in 2016. We opened a second one in Hong Kong in December 2017, and in October, we opened a store in Taipei 101. There’s also Paris, on Rue François Premier with a new façade and interior.
WWD: Will you adjust the concept along the way?
J-M.M.: Yes, we have to adjust it according to the location of the store. Before the exhibit in Tokyo, we will reopen the Ginza store, which closed in November for refurbishment — it will be a big flagship.
This is important because it is where the client experiences the house intimately.
We are also changing the jewelry boxes, which were brown in the past, and now we are using a blue — a delicate blue, but also very distinct — it’s symbolic, not just any blue.
WWD: A royal blue? Like in the advertising campaign?
J-M.M.: Exactly. The blue of France, a deep blue – with several layers of symbolism. It’s very Chaumet.
The advertising campaign is very important for differentiating the label and also serving as an invitation to travel. Chaumet is not a closed world. Clients choose the house not in order to show off the heaviest stones but rather something that tells a story, a voyage, and opens a door to something.
One of the images from the campaign pays homage to Josephine, who has inspired the house for [almost] two-and-a-half centuries now. Josephine is a central character for the house. She was treated poorly for more than a century by pseudo-historians — it was pretty easy to use her as an example of an over-spender — but in the last 50 years historians have been rehabilitating her as anything but non-consequential. She did spend a lot, and had many things made by the founder of our house, but she and Napoleon were on the same page when it comes to traditional expertise, the artisanal side — not just for jewelry. She was an aristocrat, a contemporary of Marie Antoinette, with only eight years’ age difference.
WWD: When did you stop using brand ambassadors and why? When you took over the label?
J-M.M.: It wasn’t part of my mandate but rather my own interpretation of my mandate. Having brand ambassadors is not a code for the high jewelry houses. But beyond that, what is a high jeweler? It’s a grand house neither identified by its founder nor embodied by the person wearing it in an advertising image.
What is high jewelry? A sublime piece for oneself — wearing a piece from a high jeweler says a lot about you. But it’s also an investment, a financial investment, several million euros. Even when it’s a piece that’s less expensive, it’s an investment, an emotional one, and often objects that are transmitted from generation to generation.
So it’s not a question of knowing who created it — except that it’s Chaumet — nor to know it was worn by Sophie Marceau [a brand ambassador for Chaumet in the past] that that was the reason it has value.
WWD: Is this why you ended your 13-year partnership with the César awards, France’s equivalent of the Oscars?
J-M.M.: No, it’s even more simple than that. It was not meant to last an eternity and we want to move towards the cultural and art worlds.
WWD: But aren’t the Césars considered part of culture?
J-M.M.: It’s basically celebrities of a certain moment, fundamentally French and not at all international.
WWD: Do you mean you want something that isn’t short-lived?
J-M.M.: Exactly — less transient. Chaumet is a living brand, not a museum brand; this is a distinction to make, it must be worn. If an actress at Cannes… I don’t mean the type that wears X brand on Wednesday, Y brand on Thursday and Z brand on Friday — not to be arrogant but frankly that’s not for us — but an actress who is perhaps less famous, more daring and artistic, more aristocratic, if that person wants to work with us and wear Chaumet on the red carpet, that’s wonderful.
At the end of March, we will take part in the Salon du Dessin at the Palais Brongniart in Paris, a gathering of collectors of drawings, as an exhibitor, showing 20 drawings. Chaumet has the most exceptional heritage when it comes to drawings, more than 55,000, and has always been intimately linked to art and evolution of art. If you look at the past two-and-a-half centuries of Chaumet’s history, if we were physically capable of putting the 55,000 drawings on the table in chronological order, big themes of history would emerge. You could see the history of art — especially painting — and be able to identify the Impressionist era, the Cubist period, and others. There’s constant interaction between the designers and the world around them.
People often ask me how it is possible to survive for so long, because one thing is certain: you can’t survive by repeating yourself, but rather by living in the times — always. This is what creation is about.
We did a temporary museum in September 2015, for example, in one of our two stores on the Place Vendôme. There was nothing to sell — we just showed drawings, photos and historic pieces. This was revolutionary for high jewelry. When I entered this world people said, “But no, it’s confidential, it’s very secret.” No, culture only has meaning when it is brought to everybody.
WWD: What proportion of your clients are foreigners?
J-M.M.: About a third of our clients are French with the rest being Asian — Japanese, Chinese, and then we have Americans, and people from countries where we don’t have stores.
WWD: How is business these days? Did the end of last year bring optimism?
J-M.M.: Chaumet as a house has had three spectacular years — I’m not saying good years, spectacular. Extraordinary expansion. We finished 2017 beyond what we expected, with faster growth from quarter to quarter that keeps accelerating in all the countries where we are present.
In Europe and Paris, we are seeing an increase in tourist traffic; we’ve done extremely well in China and Japan. All countries are in the green.
WWD: Can you tell us about entering Canada?
J-M.M.: We’re just starting out in this region, we have not historically been in the Americas, just twice to the U.S., just before the crisis of ’29 for example, so in terms of timing, we were unlucky.
The American continent is an exciting place for jewelry but it’s a complicated continent, so we decided to start with Canada. There are three types of clientele: the local Canadians, Chinese tourists and Chinese residents.
We decided to enter with Birk’s Group as a partner, a big player in Canada with its own brand, that also launched Van Cleef there. The brand will be present in a very few stores in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, in Birk’s stores. So we’re starting out slowly, this year. We will learn what this market is all about and I think that we have to be modest. We’ll learn by walking, just as children do. This may be a very old house but we have everything to learn, which is why we chose this partner.
Along the same lines, we are also opening retail outlets in Australia this spring, with a store at the end of May, in Sydney, then Melbourne. Step by step.
WWD: What are your plans for the Chinese market?
J-M.M.: In China, we will stick with making sure that what we have works well. We’re widening our reach a bit with Australia and Canada, but we’re not in an expansion phase. For example, in Taiwan we opened up a store at Taipei 101, but closed another one, so plus one minus one equals zero. That’s more our ideal. To do a nicer store, perhaps better situated, with the new concept.
The job of Chaumet is to know who the Chaumet client is. We are not out to convince the biggest numbers. We are not a pioneering brand. We are not a brand that is out to open new markets — others do that remarkably well. Chaumet’s positioning is one of distinction, not to be on every street corner.
WWD: How did you get here? What is your background? Where did you study?
J-M.M.: I went to a business school — not very interesting! I worked at L’Oréal during the Lindsay Owen-Jones years, in the luxury division, working with brands, particularly in skin care, but I also worked in consumer products, in Japan and Asia for several years.
WWD: Did you live there?
J-M.M.: No, but I traveled there every other week. And then I went to Louis Vuitton, where I spent 10 years. I am Parisian but very international — I spent a lot of time in the U.S. with L’Oréal.
I love Asia, China, Japan. So Chaumet is the perfect place for me. I have been traveling to the region at least once a month for the past three years.
WWD: Did you have any experience in jewelry before coming to Chaumet?
J-M.M.: No, I didn’t know it at all. But one doesn’t remain unsusceptible to it — here we have creation par excellence, incredible expertise. When you learn that the head of your workshop has been in the house for 27 years, and that it takes 15 years to become a qualified jeweler, well, that puts you in your place.
There is a certain tension here — on the one hand you have to consistently highlight the heritage. We opened our cellars of documents, taking out dozens of years of archives in order to dust them off and digitalize them — we took tons of documents, which were just a small proportion to take stock of what we have – in order to continue to create and build on this history.
WWD: Organizers of the Biennale have expressed hope that high jewelers will return to the event. What is your view?
J-M.M.: For the moment we are not doing the Biennale. But there are discussions, the organizers are talking with all the big jewelers — we would just have to come to the right terms.
WWD: Do think there is reason to hope this will happen?
J-M.M.: We need to find favorable conditions. What’s important is whom we are addressing. If we look inward, it’s not very constructive. The return of high jewelers to the Biennale would be a big plus for its organizers but it needs to make sense for high jewelers — the planets would need to realign, but nothing is excluded.