Boucheron already stood apart from other luxury houses on Paris’s Place Vendôme as one of the few with a female chief executive. Even more noteworthy is that it has a female creative director.
The two women have been credited with revamping the 163-year-old house, which in 1893 became the first jeweller on Place Vendôme. Since joining in 2011, creative director Claire Choisne has given the high jewellery a modern boost with her unusual choice of materials — wood, marble and most recently aerogel, a substance used by Nasa composed of up to 99.98 per cent air and the remainder of solids such as silica.
Meanwhile, chief executive Hélène Poulit-Duquesne has increased the high jewellery collections from one to two per year, and expanded the product offerings on Boucheron’s signature designs, the multi-layered Quatre and talismanic-like Serpent Bohème collections. The company’s digital media budget has gone from zero to more than 60 per cent of the general media budget since she took over five years ago, while a new retail plan has been rolled out to more than half of its 66 boutiques around the world.
The stores are supposed to be more homelike, approachable spaces, says Poulit-Duquesne, where the likes of the “traditional transactional jewellery desk” has been replaced with round or oval styles that “look like a family table where you would gather with friends to have a cup of tea”.
Among her proudest achievements is the refurbished Boucheron flagship store at 26 Place Vendôme. “The boutique had not been renovated for the last 12 years. Can you believe that? In retail you normally renovate every three to five years,” says Poulit-Duquesne. On realising that Boucheron’s parent company owned the property, she suggested a comprehensive redevelopment to Kering chairman and chief executive François-Henri Pinault. The expanded brief made her feel “over-responsible” for the project, as if renovating part of the Pinault family home, she says — despite her boss’s apparent laissez-faire management style. “He gave me the keys of the house and said, ‘I trust you. I’ll come back when you finish your work’,” recalls Poulit-Duquesne.
She also oversaw the creation of the Boucheron apartment, a luxurious, invitation-only space above the boutique, overlooking Place Vendôme. There have been no overnight guests during the pandemic, but the space has been invaluable for hosting small client appointments and lunches, especially as hospitality venues have been shut.
Poulit-Duquesne expects the role of this “family home” to grow, as clients will always gravitate towards a physical experience. “After lockdown and the pandemic, people will rush to Place Vendôme. They’ll love to be together and will want to celebrate and have parties,” she says.
Until then, Boucheron’s bright spots are in Asia, particularly China and South Korea, in common with many European luxury brands that have been hit hard by lockdowns and the collapse in tourism.
Kering does not report financial results for individual brands. But for the third quarter, which ended on September 30, the group reported consolidated revenue of €3.7bn, down 4.3 per cent from the same period in 2019. This was a rebound from the 43.5 per cent decline in the second quarter of 2020, and was driven partly by growth in North America and Asia-Pacific — up 44.1 per cent and 18.5 per cent respectively. In the third quarter, sales in western Europe and Japan continued to suffer — down 41 per cent and 22.8 per cent respectively.
Poulit-Duquesne says the pandemic has meant Boucheron has had to focus more on local clients, as opposed to international visitors who have stayed at home. “In the last 20 years, everything in the luxury business has been done to accommodate international client travellers,” she says. When global travel resumes, she expects business will be “more balanced between local clientele and foreign consumption”.
This week, Boucheron launches its latest high jewellery collection, which takes its cue from archival art deco creations. Choisne says she prefers to “keep to her bubble” and “focus on creativity and the vision that I want to push for Boucheron, without being too spoiled [and to stay] as sincere as possible”. But the collection is an example of how she and Poulit-Duquesne work together commercially.
The pieces are unisex and designed to be worn in multiple ways. The ribbon-style Ruban Diamants, for example, can be worn as a belt, headband, choker or two bracelets. Lavallière Diamants — a cravat-like necklace in an art deco signature monochrome palette of diamond, onyx and black lacquer — triples as a necklace, choker and collar pin. The pieces are designed to be worn by men as well as women.
Choisne also had men model brooches in her last collection, Contemplation, calling the look “strong and not a gimmick”.
Such unisex pieces that suit different occasions appeal to customers, which is no doubt influenced by Poulit-Duquesne. Chinese men are buying more high jewellery, she observes, adding that Chinese buyers tend to buy more for themselves than as gifts, and are the “finest connoisseurs as clients”.
If Poulit-Duquesne is right, they will soon be driving global trends, too. “I hope this trend will come soon to western markets,” she says, “because I do not understand why men rarely wear jewellery in Europe.”
Two women deciding what men want? Fancy that.