September 7, 2012 11:19 pm

A family story: ‘I had to learn a great deal quickly about hard luxury’

For more than 40 years, Alexandre Reza has been seen as a leader – and legend – within the world of haute joaillerie.

The quality of his craftsmanship, dazzling client list, plus a priceless collection of gems and precious stones, meant that the Moscow-born, Paris-based jeweller has been considered responsible by many for some of the finest designs of the late 20th century.

Five years ago, however, Mr Reza was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Both his brand and workshop fell into a state of dormancy when he became unable to continue.

The decision then fell to his son, Olivier, a mergers and acquisitions specialist at investment bank Lazard, as to whether to take on his father’s jewellery business.

In early 2008, after decades pursuing his career in the New York finance industry, Olivier returned to the family fold.

The move from a commercial to a creative path was not an easy one. “There was no doubt that the business now warranted my full-time attention. My father was sick, there was a huge burden on my mother’s shoulders and the store had been robbed several times – it was a difficult period for us all,” says Olivier.

“Although jewellery had always been a large part of my life – I had grown up with endless visits to workshops or exotic gem fairs and sometimes even submitted my own designs – my father had often shut me out of his world.

“He could be a difficult man to work with and, consequently, I found myself needing to learn a great deal very quickly, both about our business and the hard luxury sector as a whole.”

Several important management decisions had to be made regarding the future of the brand. First, Olivier contemplated taking the Reza house back to its roots – as a leading supplier of stones to the jewellery world. Alexandre had spent a lifetime consolidating a vast inventory; a reversion to a business-to-business strategy would simplify operations.

Olivier took several streamlining steps, including the downsizing of the Reza workshop in Paris and the sale of all European stores. The latter was a particularly timely and profitable move, given the dizzying property prices paid for choice retail locations before the 2008 financial crisis.

“The process felt familiar after the many projects I had worked on during my banking career – I used the knowledge and skill sets I had acquired, so there was a strange sense of déjà-vu as I calculated what to sell or buy,” recalls Olivier.

“Only this time, the business was that of my family. I didn’t necessarily want to liquidate it – I wanted to find another path.”

It was this deep sense of a personal connection that led to his decision to continue designing and producing exquisite jewellery pieces under the Reza name.

“While my father was a shrewd investor when it came to collecting stones and fully understood the importance of transferable assets, the motivation was not to amass wealth. A perfectionist, he was driven by a desire to have maximum flexibility to create the most innovative and beautiful designs imaginable.”

After months learning the trade, with endless hours spent at auctions, sketching and talking to past clients, Olivier began mounting a preliminary collection of his own designs. A passion for haute joaillerie has been one catalyst. Another has been his identification of a gap in the hard luxury sector.

“The big-name brands are constantly constrained by their shareholders, inventories and size of supply demands when it comes to their designs. Many have abandoned the big stones market altogether – those types of pieces are mainly being seen now on the auction house circuit. But an appetite for the aesthetic is booming again, both from western clients and the emerging markets, so it’s giving us a great competitive edge.”

A Paris showroom opened on the Place Vendome last June. Olivier wants to stay small, so as not to dilute manufacturing quality and keep focus on the stones. Any Reza sketch or bespoke commission will take between three and six months to create, with two to three pieces being finished a month.

“Each design is an artisanal labour of love, which shifts in gradual orbit around the stones. I want to give every customer something far beyond the market value of a diamond, emerald or ruby, and will have failed if we produce something they can find anywhere else in the world,” he says.

Volume has remained a central design hallmark, passed from father to son and evident in several recent pieces. So too has ensuring the perfect cut of a stone, as the name of Reza embraces not one man but a whole family brand.

But does Olivier ever miss the pace and challenges of his past career in the finance world?

“Occasionally, although much of what I’ve learnt from banking comes into practice again and again today,” he says.

“As a jeweller, you need to be a canny commodity trader, knowing when to buy and when to sell. You must constantly guide clients and foster working relationships.

“Finally, you should foster a successful business strategy with exciting growth potential. We have the stones, no debt and a stellar international reputation.

“Let’s make people dream again.”

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