Boucheron toes a fine line between intimacy and growth

Hélène Poulit-Duquesne on how to be nimble in a luxury conglomerate
Purist: Hélène Poulit-Duquesne © Arno LAM

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For the chief executive of a storied jewellery house, there is a fine balance to be struck between expanding your brand and maintaining the intimacy your clients value. This is exactly the challenge facing Hélène Poulit-Duquesne, who took over as chief executive of Boucheron in September 2015, its first female chief executive and one of the few on the Place Vendôme.

“In the world of Place Vendôme, being a small player is a key advantage to our clients,” says Ms Poulit-Duquesne, who was previously at Cartier for 17 years. “People have become a little bit fed up with how big brands are treating them — and having the capacity to still serve and dedicate time to our clients, as if they were family, is really important.”

The house, which was founded in 1858 and became the first jeweller on the Place Vendôme when it moved in 1893, has the resources of luxury conglomerate Kering behind it, making expansion a practical possibility, but Ms Poulit-Duquesne appears to focus more on the type of customer rather than pure geography. “We have a lot of renseigné — well-trained, sophisticated — clients,” she explains.

“They know a lot about jewellery and you find them, for example, in Taiwan, the Middle East, Russia. In terms of an average basket they buy higher ticket pieces.” Ms Poulit-Duquesne says she is “optimistic” about Russia, despite noting a drop in business, while Chinese clients, she believes, will remain a “huge part” of the big jewellery houses. “They will upgrade and upgrade,” she says. “On the long term, they will take more initiative and will still buy outside of China.”

One market where she is cautious, however, is the US. Of Boucheron’s 34 boutiques, none is in the US (where it has 13 wholesale outlets). Citing high retail and marketing costs, Ms Poulit-Duquesne notes the country has “huge potential”, yet “for foreign brands it’s more difficult because [consumers] are in love with American names.” She cites Tiffany and Ralph Lauren. “You have to invest in the long term — say, the next 15 years. It’s not a quick win.”

Kering, which also owns Gucci and Stella McCartney, watchmakers Girard-Perregaux and Ulysse Nardin and jewellers Pomellato and Qeelin, does not separately report Boucheron’s performance, though it noted that revenue for its jewellery brands was up 6 per cent in 2015. John Guy, luxury-sector analyst and managing director at Mainfirst Bank, estimates Boucheron’s 2015 revenues were €160m — a 220 per cent increase since 2011 — with earnings before interest and tax of €14m.

Jewellery executives surveyed by McKinsey, the management consultants, predicted that branded jewellery (that is, from global, not national, brands) would increase its market share from 20 per cent in 2014 to 30 or 40 per cent by 2020, and Boucheron is “well placed to benefit” from this, says Mr Guy. That forecast is partly what attracted Ms Poulit-Duquesne to Boucheron. She spent the bulk of her Cartier career in its watchmaking business and was behind the launch of its Ballon Bleu range. Unlike the watch market, which she says is “more difficult because it’s mature”, jewellery is still growing.

No stranger to working under a larger entity, she draws comparisons with her days at Cartier, which by analysts’ estimates contributed about half of parent company Richemont’s earnings: “In general the group tries to give a lot of attention to the big ones. Then attention means pressure.”

By contrast, three fashion brands alone accounted for more than half of Kering’s €11.6bn revenues for 2015, according to the company’s financial statements. As a smaller company within the group, Ms Poulit-Duquesne says: “You feel more confident and autonomous in how it is taking care of you. They have a kind of bienveillance — there is nice attention — but probably less pressure than the big ones.”

She also feels “aligned” with Kering’s values, in particular women’s initiatives. Ms Poulit-Duquesne was the first woman on Cartier’s executive committee. She insists she never felt her gender held her back and indeed she advises women to refrain from acting like men in the business world. “That would be foolish,” she says. “What women bring is their femininity,” which she goes on to say means a certain directness in dealing with problems.

As a self-proclaimed “jewellery purist”, Ms Poulit-Duquesne says high jewellery will be a central focus looking ahead. Boucheron launches two annual collections, though the idea is to streamline this and Ms Poulit-Duquesne hints at the possibility of one.

Beyond the high jewellery, the house is known for its Quatre ring, a layered design that incorporates signature motifs — rows of special vaporised brown coating that mimic the cobblestones of Place Vendôme, for example.

Priced from £1,260, the Quatre is not only its bestseller but also commercially distinctive. “In a portfolio it’s very important to have both high jewellery and one iconic product that everybody can recognise,” says Ms Poulit-Duquesne. “You then suddenly become a reference in the market.”

Whether Boucheron can become a bigger player in that market remains the question for Ms Poulit-Duquesne.

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