Leaders / Watches

On Exploring Jewelled Watches With Bulgari’s Antoine Pin

Bulgari is laying down a jewelled path in watchmaking. Watchmaking Division Managing Director Antoine Pin takes us through his plans

Aug 22, 2023 | By Ashok Soman

Although watch collectors seldom think of jewellery the same way they think of watches, this is perhaps an expression of bias. While many observers and cognoscenti do acknowledge that watches are basically like jewellery for men, this is typically undercut by such notions as gem-set watches being somehow less interesting than the steel versions of the same. You need only look to the secondary market for confirmation of this. The underlying reality does not support this proposition, and the so-called ‘rainbow’ style of gem-set timepiece actively mocks such notions. Again, simply look to the secondary market for confirmation… if you can even find ‘rainbow’ gem-set models on offer in the first place. For a jeweller and watchmaker such as Bulgari, this seems like the best of times to reap some unexpected rewards.

At LVMH Watch Week, Bulgari’s Watchmaking Division Managing Director Antoine Pin said the brand was returning to its roots as the Roman jeweller, which meant that the watches are all in the jewellery category, including something of a breakthrough with the iconic Serpenti line of watches. To be perfectly blunt, this breakthrough is far more amazing than most of the bracelets that watch brands introduce, and they mostly depend on suppliers. As a jeweller, Bulgari is blessed with the ability to create its own.

Pin began his career in watch and jewellery with LVMH sister brand TAG Heuer in 1994 as a junior sales manager for DFS and the Middle East region; he subsequently became well-acquainted with jewellery during his time with French brand Boucheron in 1998. Joining LVMH in 2002, Pin developed his expertise in the Asian market with stints as General Manager for TAG Heuer in Japan and South Korea, before taking on the leadership challenge of Greater China and Australia for Bulgari in 2014. Pin had joined Bulgari at the invitation of CEO Jean-Christophe Babin, with whom he worked at TAG Heuer. He is very keenly interested in the human beings who work behind the scenes, and spearheads development programmes for staff.

Speaking with us at the LVMH Watch Week in Singapore, Pin took us through the key collections debuting at the watch fair, and explained Bulgari’s ideas about giving artisans more room to grow and develop.

Before we get to the watches, tell us about how you manage to straddle the disparate worlds of watches and jewellery.

Allegra with yellow sapphires

It’s quite natural. Basically, most jewellers are (selling) watches as an extension of their offerings, so every time you work in such a company, you are confronted with the world of jewellery even if you work on the watch side. And you’re sometimes jumping from one of the fields to the other. It’s happened several times with me. When I was at Boucheron, I was marketing director for the watch segment, before moving to the jewellery segment. Then it was back to the watch world, at TAG Heuer where I was not in the headquarters but in different markets, like England and Japan. At Bulgari, I was again heading a market, not at headquarters, so I was again exposed to both worlds (of watches and jewellery). You get to understand the different natures of the two worlds, because they are very different. There are a lot of proximities, but also a lot of differences and that’s a unique experience you get. The confrontation between the worlds of watches and jewellery helps you understand why the key points between them are different.

We bring this up because we understand that Bulgari has a training, or upskilling as we say in Singapore, plan to give artisans more career opportunities. Tell us about this.

People are the essence of our products, and we are celebrating their talent and their genius. With this comes the notion that if you want to celebrate them, you should first take care of them; give them the respect they deserve. When you hear me talking about the awards that we receive, I’m always mentioning the people behind the watches because I am not making them! I’m the person that is probably touching the least of the product itself so I receive awards on behalf of them. To me, there are no big jobs or small jobs at Bulgari, and there is a second point connected to this that is relevant to your question.

People have this question: what am I going to do next? Am I going to be doing the same thing for the rest of my career? If you start as a salesperson, selling jewellery in a boutique, is that what you will be doing from the first day of your career to the last? Possibly so. But how do you feel a form of achievement… that you’ve improved, you’ve progressed, you’re in a different position. If you don’t build this feeling of progression, you have a feeling of boredom so I think it’s all about the capacity to engage people… in showing them that we’re going to develop them. Whatever the job they are into.

Speaking of polishing, as you mentioned, you can really build an expertise here — it is a major expertise to polish the 110 facets of the Bulgari Octo! I guarantee you that the people who can do this job, there are not many of them (because it takes years of commitment to developing these skills). So, you do 10 years of this work, progressing, but you may ask ‘what’s next?’ You may not, and we don’t want to push people who don’t have this question. If you do want something different, without giving up all you have achieved, this is what we want to help with. So, you are a polisher but maybe you can go into anglage (a type of decoration for which there are few, if any specialists, remaining in the trade — only manuals remain). Our job (as far as providing career tools to employees) is to provide these kinds of opportunities… to build these kinds of bridges.

On to the new watches for 2023! Tell us about what looks like a diverse collection.

Process of making the Serpenti Tubogas Infinity
An artful representation of the process of making the Serpenti Tubogas Infinity

Our new products this year are highlighting different (design and tactile) elements, as well as the techniques that underline the development and the innovation behind new creations. I think a very important point is how do we manage to surprise you… and I expect that we do surprise you sometimes!

I mean, we’re talking about our identity in our latest advertising campaign, “unexpected wonders,” and hopefully we managed to get you where you did not expect us to take you. That’s very complex, because technical innovation opens the door to new territories. For example, with our new approach to Tubogas (the new for 2023 Serpenti Tubogas Infinity), which is made differently from the traditional Tubogas for the first time in its history. With this new approach, we can now set gemstones onto the bracelet, which was previously impossible.

It is called Infinity for two reasons: There is an opportunity for infinite designs now that we can set this bracelet, and that’s the 178 beauty of it. There is also a philosophical (component) because of how the bracelet feels — it is like you think you have reached the end of a book, and then discover a new chapter!

How important is the Serpenti to Bulgari? Do you see any potential in this design for men?

Serpenti is hugely important! It’s our first collection, and that makes it the biggest. We introduced it, as the Tubogas, in the early 1940s… the Serpenti proper arrived a bit later, but still the motif is recognizable and so is symbolic of our identity as a jeweller. Of course, it is our flagship collection, and to your question about Serpenti and men, let me tell you that at this stage we have no demand from customers for men to get a Serpenti watch. But we have more and more demands from the press about whether it could be! We believe there are some possibilities, and we look at it like a challenge; there could be some options and it could be interesting, but our question is ‘what is the Bulgari way to address this challenge?’ Bear with us, because it is a long process!

We know Bulgari loves to play with shapes; how does the brand keep the watches wearable and still exciting, in terms of form?

Divas’ Dream Mosaica

So first and foremost, wearability for a good jeweller is absolutely key. For example, from my past experience, wearability is one of the most important things for jewellery designers, particularly on the neck (for necklaces and the like)… you know the weight of the necklace. I’ve always been impressed to see that there is some form of tailoring in the approach to those pieces. Probably the Serpenti is an issue for us because there is one (iconic) shape, that is made in (relatively) large numbers, and we’ve had no choice but to create various sizes in order to optimize the wearability. So here we’ve got the small size (the smallest being a normal bracelet) to much bigger sizes (topping out at seven spirals) so this makes life complex for us, because of course you would not expect to have such different and diverse sizes for a watch, but that’s our reality.

There is also the question of tiny watches, and we do make tiny watches. Here, we consider the folding buckle, which normally we use in ladies’ watches because we believe it is more comfortable. With some of the Allegra watches (debuting here at LVMH Watch Week), we use pin buckles because that works better.

And this extends to the movement design too, or the decision to go with quartz or mechanical?

There is a reason for everything (particularly) a strong rationale behind our strategic approach to miniaturization. Every calibre we are concentrating on is posing a challenge to our design team and they are answering this challenge. For example, when we did the Piccolissimo manual-winding movement, we delivered the smallest calibre in order to match jewellery watches so it is made to address wearability.

With the Octo, we are obliged to make the calibre large because of how thin it is (the architecture of the movement favours a horizontal spread of components rather than vertical stacking).

Today we are proposing an icon (in the sense of the very specific shape and form of the Octo) and an icon is a unique shape. We would love to make something smaller (in terms of diameter) but at the moment, it’s impossible to achieve this; this is a challenge for us because many women wear the Octo and it might be too big…

I think it’s a fact of life that the Octo shape and size is as it is, and we don’t want to escape this point, but in the first place the Octo watches were meant to be elegant and not bulky. The calibre was designed for this, so that the watch could be neat and comfortable to wear. So does it mean we won’t try to address (the challenge of the diameter) in the future? Probably we will.

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