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In a world where luxury brands are acquired and owned by a handful of conglomerates, a brand that remains independent is intriguing.
Fawaz Gruosi, chief executive of de Grisogono, co-founded the private company in 1993. Now 62, he has maintained ultimate creative and commercial direction since taking sole control in 1995.
De Grisogono is known for its vibrant showcase of gemstone-covered jewellery and watches. Mr Gruosi explains: “My vision has always been to shock the market and shock the clients, in keeping and showing the talent of the company and the immense variety we have.”
He describes a 1996 collection using black diamonds as one of the brand’s greatest successes, and working with a material deemed by critics to be ugly and worthless as a “miracle”. The break with traditional materials was an invaluable lesson in marketing that he says he still follows.
The chief executive regards de Grisogono’s small, entirely handmade production – a single collection accompanied by 400 unique pieces each year – as haute couture. He is proud of what the company (with just over 150 employees, mostly based in Geneva) has achieved in 21 years.
“Other brands don’t have the courage to go that far because it’s too costly, too time-consuming and too expensive for what it is. But that’s what these clients are looking for: something different, unusual, unique and so beautiful”.
A foray into watches in 2000 was initially a strategic solution to increase traffic to boutiques. Now, they are among de Grisogono’s bestsellers.
Mr Gruosi regards the brand’s craftsmanship and quality of stone as a blend of his former employers, Harry Winston and Bulgari. Early in his career, he was frequently required to socialise with clients in his role as sales manager.
He recalls formal dinners with soft music, cocktails and “definitely no one under 50 years old because they wouldn’t have money”. He found such events boring.
At de Grisogono, parties are more vibrant affairs. Guests tend to be younger and take to the dance floor. Being the host with the most is valuable currency. The first de Grisogono gatherings were costly but today Mr Gruosi reports demand from celebrities to attend the company’s annual party at the Cannes Film Festival.
The same fun-loving attitude is reflected in de Grisogono’s whimsical lines of jewel-encrusted fruits and animals (monkeys of black diamond and gold, emerald frogs, ruby-covered cherries) that retail for about £20,000. Mr Gruosi is not worried that his designs may be seen as frivolous; these pieces are sold alongside others priced at £500,000 or £2m.
“I’ve never understood why people take jewellery seriously. I do jewellery thinking of a woman wearing a beautiful ring – it doesn’t mean expensive or not.”
De Grisogono is recovering from a fall in sales in 2009 of about 40 per cent, before which it was reporting growth of about 25 per cent a year. It will take another couple of years for the pre-crisis equal balance between horological and jewellery products to be restored. Watch sales in the same year accounted for 30 per cent of sales, and jewellery 70 per cent. Mr Gruosi would not be drawn on figures but predicts best sales from 2007 will be matched by 2016.
Recovery will be helped by a large injection of capital from new shareholders. In 2012, 75 per cent of de Grisogono was reportedly acquired by Victoria Holding, which consists of six international investors, including Mr Gruosi.
Forbes magazine reported in January that an Angolan state-owned company appeared to have a stake in Victoria Holding – a claim apparently denied in the report by the chairman of de Grisogono. Mr Gruosi does not seem concerned over such publicity. But he was not forthcoming to questions on the subject, saying: “As with most private companies, de Grisogono’s shareholder structure is a confidential topic.”
A major advantage of not being tied to a corporate behemoth is that ideas can be sketched and designs enter production within only a few weeks. Sales are strongest in Europe, although business is also “huge” in the US, he says, where the company has boutiques in Miami and New York, two of 17 worldwide.
These are mostly scattered across capital cities but can also be found in destinations such as Courchevel and Saint Barthélemy that cater to a well-travelled, affluent clientele. There are plans to eventually double the number of boutiques, including two additional US locations.
In China, de Grisogono has encountered a problem familiar to brands of its size: it is unknown in the country. Establishing a presence here and in India are challenges for the future. At present, Mr Gruosi sees greater benefit in reinforcing existing retail strengths. Next year the brand may launch its first range of handbags since 2008, but “if I don’t come up with something really unusual then it will not come out,” he adds.
His focus remains originality. “Creativity is the number-one goal I have in the future,” says Mr Gruosi.
“I always had a niche, but the niche is even bigger today.”
He adds: “Human beings in general only buy what they see in magazines, newspapers or shops. But [my market] is also those people who are fed up with having the same things everybody else has.”