Bulgari’s 50th anniversary in the US marks a new era of growth for the Roman jeweler – WWD
Andy Warhol. Expensive. Elizabeth Taylor. These are the numbers that made Bulgari the success it enjoys today in the United States. This week, the jeweler celebrates its 50th anniversary in America, looking back with respect to its history and forward with an aggressive business strategy that hopes to establish the country as the world’s largest jeweler market.
Nicola Bulgari, vice president of the company and responsible for the introduction of the brand in the United States in 1972, and Jean-Christophe Babin, global managing director of Bulgari since 2013, spoke during a conversation with WWD about the historical conceptions of the company and how this heritage will be leveraged to chart its next era of success.
On Wednesday evening, Bulgari will mark its half-century anniversary with an event at the new Aman Jazz Club featuring a performance by Dev Hynes and VIP attendees. The jeweler also released a limited edition of its collectible Monete creations – necklaces made from ancient Roman coins set in 18-karat gold – to mark the occasion, as well as a new retrospective book titled “B is for Bulgari: Celebrating 50 Years in America,” due out December 1.
But it took a long way to get to this point. When Nicola Bulgari arrived in the United States to set up the company’s first store outside Europe, Bulgari – founded in 1884 – was already well known to the jet set. For those visiting Rome, Bulgari was a shopping destination, loved for its generous use of gleaming gemstones and generous proportions of buttery gold, all presented with southern Italian charm. “It was decided it was time to cross the ocean and start in the big country,” Nicola Bulgari said of her family’s 20th century ambitions.
While Bulgari now has nearly 220 global stores, including 18 in the United States, at the time there were only two boutiques outside of Italy – one in Geneva, Switzerland, and another in Paris. In the United States, the brand initially took a modest approach and set up a boutique inside the Pierre Hotel to attract an integrated tourism business.
Bulgari arrived in the United States in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, at a time when music, arts and film had reached a new level of global reach. The jeweler’s creations, which had a more relaxed attitude than competitors such as, for example, Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels, resonated with an American public wearing blue jeans.
Seeking to establish a foothold even further in the heartland of America, Nicola Bulgari has taken her family’s gems on the road – hosting shows in Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Chicago. As Bulgari became a staple of ’70s glitz, Nicola Bulgari mingled with some of the era’s most important tastemakers – but did it, he said, on his own terms. .
“Andy Warhol was in love with what we had – I was so stupid, I didn’t understand what he was doing, and I didn’t accept his offer to trade jewelry for art. How great was “I’m stupid? Studio 54 was a legendary place, but I wasn’t the type of guy for it. I’ve been there many times and I wasn’t a fan. The fact that someone like Warhol interest in Bulgari tells you the kind of people we attract – people were very curious to come and see what we were doing,” said Nicola Bulgari.
Bulgari’s reputation as a jeweler grew so strong in the 1970s that it became an icon of Hollywood and taste culture; celebrity tabloid fodder, particularly in Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s divorce. By 1977, Bulgari’s reputation had become so outsized that it also attracted a less desirable clientele.
During a private meeting with a client at The Pierre hotel, a four-carat diamond ring disappeared from a larger tray of gemstones. “It was so uncomfortable that we couldn’t blame the guy – the insurance paid for it,” recalls Nicola Bulgari.
But about a year later, he received a call “from a police officer somewhere in Michigan and said, ‘During an examination of so-and-so’s body, we found a ring.’ He was a Michigan mob guy who was murdered and they did an autopsy and found the ring – he had swallowed it. We got the ring back and it was resold,” Nicola Bulgari said. at the time of its recovery, the ring was worth approximately $35,000, or nearly $160,000 in current value.
The brand continued to expand, perhaps too much. A heavily marketed perfume and leather goods business led Bulgari down a path of over-distribution. In 2011, the company was acquired by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and two years later Babin was placed at the helm to help refine and expand Bulgari’s vision globally.
“All we’re trying to do is get back to where Nicola was with jewelry. We’re first and foremost a high jewelry brand and are much more discreet about leather goods and fragrances. perfumes were present in 3,500 stores and at the end of this year it is less than 400. We are refocusing on fine jewelry and watches,” said Babin.
He believes that refining Bulgari’s image also requires a more controlled approach to retail environments and stores. “From a distribution point of view, we have reduced the number of multi-brand wholesalers to ensure that everything translates into a single message, that you are in a Bulgari environment designed by Peter Marino with Roman design and architecture at the Bulgari is a different style of jewelry, but also has a unique Roman voice with a culture of customer interaction that you can only provide in your own store,” Babin said.
He added that in the United States, Bulgari has “the youngest network of stores” which have been mostly renovated in the last six years. Recent openings like Washington, DC, demonstrate “how we’re really in a conquest approach, just because we know how big the United States can be,” Babin said.
Nicola Bulgari said LVMH’s resources have “completely changed the awareness over the last five or ten years. The resources invested in the company are such that Bulgari is strengthening itself against the big American houses. The taste line has continued, however, and the quality is there. Design and imagination will never change – this is what Bulgari is known for worldwide.
Babin said Nicola’s continued involvement with the brand is a major “benefit”.
“We are the only global jewelry company with the same family involved; most jewelers have lost the original family. LVMH was wise enough to insist that two members of the Bulgari family sit on the board of directors. It’s an incredible asset that really helps us better understand our roots and history and be more consistent as we project Bulgari into the future,” said Babin.
Now with 50 years in the United States under his belt, Babin is setting Bulgari up for continued success. He has just named Hervé Perrot the jeweler’s new president for North America. Perrot is an LVMH veteran and recently led Dior in China.
The US isn’t Bulgari’s biggest global market, but it looks like Perrot has been tasked with changing that. “We have huge potential in the US, and compared to other brands, we’re not there and I know we can get there – but I don’t know how many years from now. We’ve gained credibility , in desirability and a much stronger image. As part of a much larger company on a global scale, I know we have the resources to fulfill our mission,” Babin said of his outlook.
He asked his global communications team to strategically hire celebrity ambassadors who resonate with US-based audiences. Currently, that list includes Anne Hathaway, BlackPink’s Lisa, Priyanka Chopra and Zendaya, as well as North America-specific ambassador Eiza Gonzalez, who is the jeweler’s first Latin American face.
The diverse group was deliberately chosen to appeal to a young American client.
When asked if there was a specific area of the United States that Babin was targeting, he replied, “We don’t think by geography but rather by customer profile. We prefer to target a younger clientele because we know that clients who have worked with Tiffany and Cartier for generations have developed a loyalty that is hard to dispute. We’re not just looking at a younger generation, but a different community profile, like Silicon Valley or the Latinx community who perhaps appreciate our colorful style more than a Northeastern community, which is generally more influenced by historic jewelers who settled in America before us. ”
While Babin has been at the helm of Bulgari for nearly a decade, LVMH’s jewelry division continues to evolve. Babin now leans on his “good friend”, Anthony Ledru, the CEO of LVMH’s latest crown jewel, Tiffany & Co., for advice on the booming US jewelry market.
On Tuesday, LVMH revealed that its watches and jewelry division grew 16% in the third quarter, largely attributed to the “strong momentum” of Tiffany in the United States.
Babin sees it as an asset. “With Tiffany we are in competition, of course, as we are in competition with other brands, but I myself am a very good friend of Anthony and we share experiences and talk among ourselves about what could be the outlook for the US market in the near term. So we build a better understanding. We know that Tiffany is ahead of any competitor and we can learn a lot from that,” he said.
The executive acknowledged that “2023 will not be as dynamic as 2022 because 2022 so far in the United States has been extraordinary, but [jewelry] should be the category to go through 2023 as one of the best. When you’re building a luxury brand in a big market like the US, you have a 20-year view – you have better years and tougher years, that doesn’t change the strategy. We want to have bigger stores, we want hotels and we will announce them when we are ready. »