Pop quiz: what vertically integrated watch brand was so male-oriented that when a new CEO took over a few years ago, he hurried to boost the ladies’ watch offer?
Jaeger-LeCoultre? Good guess, but wrong. Breguet?
Nope. It’s Bulgari, famed as one of the world’s most successful jewelers (both as a manufacturer and retailer) on the strength of its Roman flair and big, bold, architectural jewelry. In watches, it is best known for its Bulgari-Bulgari collection for men and women, whose dominant feature is an oversized bezel inscribed with the double Bulgari logo.
So it may surprise some to learn that when Jean-Christophe Babin moved from TAG Heuer to Bulgari as CEO in 2013, he found it such a “guy” brand that he set out to raise the profile of Bulgari’s ladies’ watches. “We’ve tried to find a better balance between men and ladies,” Babin told WatchTime. “It had become very masculine, perhaps too much, because when you are a jeweler you need to also be strong with ladies. So gradually we have become a more balanced watch brand between genders.”
Babin talked watches with WatchTime on a visit to New York for the 40th anniversary of the Bulgari Roma watch collection. Ironically, that was the turning point in Bulgari’s men’s watch fortunes. Prior to that, the company only made ladies’ jewelry watches. Bulgari introduced the engraved bezel design with Bulgari Roma and it thrust the company into the men’s luxury watch business. Inspired by Roman emperors who engraved their images and the name “Roma” on coins, Bulgari engraved its logo and the word “Roma” on the bezel using an ancient Roman script. It was the first time a company put its logo on a watch case and it gave the brand its signature look. Two years later, Bulgari replaced Roma with the double Bulgari logo and the Bulgari-Bulgari collection was born.
The next turning point for Bulgari’s men’s watch business occurred in 2000, when the company acquired the Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth brands, and factory in Le Sentier, Switzerland. That set Bulgari on a path to become the vertically integrated manufacturer it is today. The Genta and Roth brands are now defunct; Babin eliminated them from the Bulgari lineup. But their legacy lives on in the technical know-how in Manufacture Bulgari’s Le Sentier facility. “Thanks to those acquisitions, we made complications a bit of a specialty,” Babin says. “We are one of the few companies able to design and manufacture sonnerie chime watches, which is kind of the ultimate Swiss watchmaking know-how. Not so many companies in Switzerland venture to manufacture a carillon, especially the Westminster.” Bulgari demonstrated that expertise in the Ammiraglio del Tempo Westminster minute repeater watch in 2014.
In Le Sentier, Bulgari assembles 30 in-house calibers, some still designated GG for Gérald Genta and DR for Daniel Roth. Others are designated BB for Bulgari Bulgari. These include the ultra-thin, hand-wound Finissimo caliber and the new automatic base caliber, Solotempo. “Today we manufacture all our watch movements,” Babin says. With one exception: “We don’t manufacture the chronographs. We source them from Zenith.” (Zenith is Bulgari’s sister brand in the LVMH Group.)
The Le Sentier facility is one of four Bulgari watch manufacturing plants in Switzerland. The company produces cases and bracelets in Saignelégier and high-end dials in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Final watch assembly and quality control is done in Neuchâtel, where Manufacture Bulgari has its headquarters. “We could hardly be more vertical,” Babin says. All told, Bulgari employs more than 350 people at its production sites.
Lately, Babin says, Bulgari has used its technical expertise to make its high complication watches more elegant-looking. Key to that is the ultra-thin, in-house caliber called Finissimo it introduced in 2014 in the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon. “It’s the thinnest tourbillon in the history of watchmaking,” Babin boasts. It has a thickness of 1.95 mm. The Finissimo movement, he says, is not only a technical achievement, but “it allows us to keep the strong element of design. It ensures that our models are also perceived as very elegant. Ultra-thin is a way to make sure that our best watches, like our best jewelry, are not only strong in character but elegant in feeling.”
Bulgari employs 350 people at four watch production sites in Switzerland. ‘we could hardly be more vertical,’ Babin says.
There are several ultra-thin models in the Bulgari Roma collection. The Finissimo 40th Anniversary watch comes in rose gold ($24,900) and steel ($13,400) models. There is also a limited-edition yellow-gold watch (100 pieces, $27,200). They are powered by Bulgari’s extra-flat hand-wound BVL 128 caliber. The Bulgari Roma Finissimo Tourbillon ($119,000) has a rose-gold case with a diameter of 41 mm and a thickness of 5.15 mm. Inside is the BVL 268 Finissimo Tourbillon caliber.
Two new Papillon watches that Bulgari unveiled in the fall also illustrate how technical excellence can enhance elegance, Babin says. The Papillon Heure Sautante (jumping hour) and Tourbillon Central Papillon are reinterpretations of the butterfly-inspired (hence, papillon, French for butterfly) mechanism invented by Daniel Roth in the late 1990s. It is a novel way of showing the minutes in a jumping-hour watch. It features a constantly rotating disk bearing two independent hands (shaped here like lozenges) that take turns sweeping along a minutes scale spread over a 180-degree arc. Once one hand passes along the 60-minute scale, the other hand takes its turn, while the first rests, and so on and so on. The advantage of the system is that it uses less power than a traditional minutes indicator. The new Papillon Heure Sautante ($38,900) shows the seconds via a central seconds hand.
The Papillon Central Tourbillon ($129,000) puts an in-house tourbillon in the center of the dial not unlike the way Bulgari would set a precious stone in jewelry. The focus of the watch is the tourbillon. The papillon system’s dual hands revolve around the tourbillon and never obstruct it. “This watch treats the retro-grade in a way that doesn’t interfere with the beauty of the tourbillon,” Babin says. “You have a full view of the tourbillon; it is never hidden by anything. It is not a papillon for its own sake but for the sake of glorifying the tourbillon in the middle of the watch, one of the most fascinating complications in watchmaking. Our watches are not only about technology, but about bringing this Italian twist of audace that you often find in Italian companies.”
Babin has brought his own twist of audace to Bulgari’s ladies’ watches. He moved quickly to correct the gender imbalance. In 2014, Bulgari launched a major new line of ladies’ watches called Lucea. In 2015, it introduced Divina, a collection of jewelry watches priced above Lucea. Ranging from $15,000 to $40,000, Divina fills a gap between Bulgari’s Lucea watches at the bottom and its Diva collection, which starts at $40,000. “So we keep innovating,” Babin says. “Gradually we are rebalancing the brand. Now we are more feminine than masculine, even though the masculine gender is very important for Bulgari. I think it’s the right balance now.”
After nearly three years at Bulgari, Babin has put his stamp on the company. “It’s not a major change,” he says. “My role is more of an accelerator. It was not about re-writing the symphony but about orchestrating it in a bolder way, playing it a bit more energetically.”