Jean-christophe babin greets us warmly as we step into Bulgari’s private showroom, part of the sprawling 250-square-metre flagship store the company just opened on one of Hong Kong’s busiest shopping strips, Canton Road in Kowloon.

The new boutique has an imposing 150sqm facade and boasts plush interiors designed by US architect Peter Marino, who was commissioned to refurbish Bulgari’s historic flagship store on Rome’s Via Condotti last year to celebrate the brand’s 130th anniversary. The aim was to give clients the feeling that they’re entering an ancient Italian palazzo.

Babin is on a whirlwind schedule today that includes status meetings, a ribbon- cutting ceremony with celebrity ambassadors Shu Qi and Luke Evans, and a VIP dinner, but he is able to retain a relaxed composure, probably due to his more than two decades of experience heading up companies, the past two years at Bulgari and the previous 12 at Tag Heuer.

Since 2013, Babin has seen Bulgari through launches of an all-new women’s collection, Lucea, and a new movement in the Octo Finissimo. Born in France into a family of lawyers, Babin, who speaks English, German, French and Italian, completed his MBA before serving as a flag lieutenant in the French navy. He spent the first part of his post-military career at Procter & Gamble and the Boston Consulting Group, working between Paris and Milan, before joining the watchmaking world in 2000. Babin updates Hong Kong Tatler on the developments planned for Bulgari’s watchmaking arm and on the goals the brand has set to continue its growth.

What does the opening of the Hong Kong flagship store mean for Bulgari?

Even though Bulgari has been prominent in Hong Kong for the past two decades, we were missing a presence on the high street, which I would define as Canton Road. It’s the most important high street in the world when it comes to sales potential. All the major luxury names are there. So the opening is a milestone for us. It’s like being on Fifth Avenue in New York, or Ginza in Tokyo, being at the right place in Hong Kong, which is the number one city worldwide in terms of luxury sales.

How will the brand celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Bulgari Bulgari line of watches this year?

Bulgari Bulgari is not only a timepiece. It was born in 1975 as Bulgari Roma, a watch reminiscent of ancient Roman coins. The watch was a modern graphic expression of those ancient coins. And from that watch we derived jewellery, accessories, eyewear frames and leather goods. So it goes much beyond the watch. We think this is a good occasion to remind people that Bulgari, as a Roman entity, draws on 2,500 years of unique artistic and architectural heritage. All the other big names in jewellery were born in cities with much shorter histories. So we want also to take advantage of this coin inspiration to pay tribute to our city, Roma, which is unique in the world and the source of our inspiration.

You’ve mentioned “Signs and Symbols” as Bulgari’s theme for 2015. Talk us through the highlights.

We have new offerings for men and women alike. Last year we introduced a new style, Lucea, which draws from our jewellery heritage. It’s not easy to make a unique watch but, thanks to our jewellery heritage, we have, with this special bracelet that automatically says Bulgari. For men, we have Bulgari Bulgari (in 41mm with a sapphire blue dial), and a new Octo. Last year we had a lot of news about Octo, so basically there won’t be a revolution, but we’ll elaborate further on those pillar lines. I believe a company shouldn’t have too many styles of watches and shouldn’t change those styles too often. We’ve been living with the Bulgari Bulgari collection for 40 years and it’s more successful than ever. We revamped the Serpenti collection in 2010, and  every year it benefits from novelties. We’ll introduce more of those styles as they’ve proven to be successful on the market. 

Why did we introduce Lucea last year? Just because we were missing a non-logo watch in the mainstream women’s segment. With collections like Diva, there’s a huge field of inspiration for further creative evolution of our women’s watches. Diva was born into high jewellery, but you can imagine that the shape itself can give birth to more accessible jewellery watches. So we’ll remain within the signs and symbols that have defined us over the past decade.


Where do Bulgari’s watches fit in the market?

Jewellery watches for women, both with and without complication, are important for us because we’re showcasing not only the art of putting together precious materials, but also the art of crafting complicated movements. Generally speaking, the luxury watch market is like a pyramid. Lucea isn’t at the bottom; it’s in the middle. We’re talking about HK$30,000 up to HK$230,000. It’s a nice part of the pyramid where you sell significant volumes at significant prices. We want to be a major watch player and, to achieve that, you cannot specialise only in the very high end, because while the latest Serpenti timepieces have been reinterpreted with a head-over-tail design this is beautiful and extraordinary, it doesn’t make up the majority of business.


Last year you said Bulgari was aiming to join watchmaking’s top 10. How’s that going?

As I mentioned in Basel last year, the distance between number 15 and number 10 is not huge. It’s just a matter of how capable we are to grow in response to the competition. We grew fast last year, so if we repeat that this year and next, it’s going to be a matter of three to five years—and I see no reason why we shouldn’t get there. We are one of the few watch companies with a very strong feminine dimension. If you look at the watch universe, it consists mainly of men’s watch companies—the market is saturated. If you talk with retailers, their main issue, especially with the slowdown of the growth rate, is that they’re overwhelmed by masculine brands and, conversely, short of options for women. The brands tend to make smaller sizes of their masculine icons, but they’re not true ladies watches. They are just smaller. The advantage for Bulgari and a few other companies is that we’re genuinely feminine, because everything we do comes out of jewellery. More than ever, we’re meeting the needs of those looking for genuine creativity for women.