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Why Bvlgari recreated the ‘mangalsutra’

In an exclusive interview with Lounge, the Italian brand’s group CEO Jean-Christophe Babin talks about their interpretation of Indian tradition, growth plans, and the need to slow down

India is a country that represents growth potential, says Jean-Christophe Babin
India is a country that represents growth potential, says Jean-Christophe Babin (Courtesy Bvlgari)

India is on Bvlgari’s mind. “India is a country that represents growth potential,” says Jean-Christophe Babin, the group chief executive officer of the Italian luxury house, from Rome. “India is our big challenge and commitment.”

A few weeks ago, ahead of the wedding season, Bvlgari launched its first India-exclusive jewellery in the form of a reimagined mangalsutra. The 18-carat yellow gold piece sparked a social media debate on patriarchal oppression but it has also reinforced India’s shine as a luxury market—as Babin puts it, “(India has) the key ingredients of success for the world of luxury.” Livelihoods and businesses may have taken a massive hit owing to the pandemic but luxury brands are making a bet on consumers wanting to indulge themselves after a hard year.

Also read: Bvlgari gives ‘mangalsutra’ a modern twist 

What confirms Bvlgari’s interest in India is the announcement made before the jewellery launch: Priyanka Chopra Jonas, the Indian actor who has become a known name in Hollywood, is Bvlgari’s global brand ambassador. “I think she perfectly embodies this spirit of the brand being the epitome of the modern-day global citizen, yet very much in touch with her roots and traditions,” explains Babin. “(She’s) very attentive to what happens around her, in the world…”

Since Babin took the helm in 2013, the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned brand has seen consistent double-digit growth in revenue across regions, with a boost in the number of stores and logistical operations. The pandemic hit hard, as it did other companies.

Babin doesn’t share figures but maintains the customer is returning, especially for jewellery. So confident is he about jewellery that in June Bvlgari launched Magnifica, a selection of 350 pieces of high jewellery and watches, all expressing the Roman DNA of the brand through studded rare, precious gems. 

We spoke to Babin about the timing of the Magnifica collection, the debate around the mangalsutra, his plans for India, and the evolving Indian customer. Edited excerpts from the interview:

The Bvlgari ‘mangalsutra’ has made quite a splash. The elegant design has been praised but the criticism has hinted at cultural appropriation and giving a push to the patriarchal mindset. Your thoughts?

For us, it is a symbol of tradition that celebrates the sacred bond of marriage. We reinterpreted it into a contemporary jewel that modern women can choose to purchase for themselves. Wearing a mangalsutra is a matter of personal choice and every woman deserves the agency to make that choice for herself. Bvlgari design has always taken strength from the consistency of the past in the reinterpretation of iconic signs and respecting the traditions of ancient cultures.

Bvlgari launched its first India-exclusive jewellery in the form of a reimagined ‘mangalsutra’
Bvlgari launched its first India-exclusive jewellery in the form of a reimagined ‘mangalsutra’ (Courtesy Bvlgari)

Do you have more plans for the 1 trillion Indian wedding market?

It’s a huge industry managed by a few players we are in contact with. We are considering it.

What are your overall plans for India?

We are looking at increasing our footprint in brick-and-mortar and e-commerce in the next two-three years. We are just waiting for the right time and space, and working very closely with our India team and strategic business partners to bring highly curated experiences. The current market situation is very volatile and commenting on what we plan to do would be premature at this stage. While a physical event cannot be replaced by other mediums, we are leveraging technology to create safe yet memorable experiences for the Indian consumer.

Who is your customer in India?

Since we re-entered India (directly as a brand in 2014-end; earlier, they had a franchise model), we have noticed a new set of customers each year. Earlier, we had Indian consumers who used to buy Bvlgari products when they travelled abroad. Now, with the growing number of millennials, the Bvlgari consumer in India has diversified. Today’s consumers want contemporary designs that are wearable yet distinctive. There is an increasing sensitivity towards icons. The consumer is more evolved towards authenticity, craftsmanship, along with sustainability and conscious consumption.

Our new set of customers is not only present in metro cities but also in tier 1 and 2 cities, and is very digital savvy. And when I say digital savvy, it isn’t confined only to millennials but to the wider audience in their 50s as well.

Bvlgari’s presence in India isn’t as large as some other luxury brands. Will you open more flagship stores in India?

As I said, India is a country with incredible potential, and it was a wonderful discovery for us. It combines a respect for traditions that strikes us every day and makes us feel very connected. Till now, the business has been restricted to one boutique for jewellery (in Delhi) and about 15 multi-brand stores for watches, thus leading to a rather small business compared to some other countries. 

With more boutiques, starting with Mumbai next year, franchising of jewellery in second-tier cities, specific collections developed for India, and celebrating local traditions as well as strong Indian ambassadors, I believe we will build a strong and irresistible reputation, leading to high sales.

You mentioned earlier that the current market situation is very volatile, that the pandemic hit hard. Yet a few months ago, you launched the ‘Magnifica’ collection, with each piece priced at crores. Do you believe offering such indulgence works at a time when the pandemic has affected almost everyone so badly?

When we thought of Magnifica, we wanted a collection that would send a message of joy, healing, creativity and artistic perfection. The pandemic was an incredibly difficult time for the whole world. We knew that beauty is an absolute form of well-being.

Magnifica features rare gems from around the world—a 131.24-carat spinel, the fourth in the world by carat weight but the most beautiful in terms of quality, a 93-carat cabochon Colombian emerald. Then you have the five oval cushion-cut Paraiba tourmalines, the rarest gems in the world, weighing about 500 carats, that exude a refreshing sense of purity.

It was nice to see the reaction of the clients and understand from their eyes the message of joy that has arrived after such a challenging time, which has been such a big learning experience.

From the ‘Magnifica’ collection
From the ‘Magnifica’ collection (Courtesy Bvlgari)

What have been your biggest learnings in the past 18 months?

Oh, many. For starters, we definitely need to care more for humanity and for our planet. There’s just no other way around it. We had reached a point where we ran for everything and there was never a way to stop and reflect or enjoy things. Having said that, in business, it has helped us to be even more strategic, to accelerate the growth of the digital world. It has taught us to be closer and closer to our clients.

Personally, it has taught me to take better care of myself and others. For good or bad, it (the pandemic) has forced us to do it. To slow down, without stopping.

Also read: Menswear suiting will never go out of fashion, says Canali CEO


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