Watches without borders

Bulgari’s head of watchmaking Antoine Pin tells GMT GCC all about the challenges and triumphs of the Italian Maison’s cross-cultural nature — and how working as an international team is what really counts.


Bulgari is a melting pot. Even the brand’s overarching identity as an iconic Roman jeweller, while unquestionably true, still manages to come ever so slightly unstuck when looking into the past of its founder, the Greek-born Sotirios Voulgaris — Sotirio Bulgari being the ‘Italianised’ version of his name. And while its motifs may be pure Eternal City — Roman coins feature in the Monete jewellery collection, while the ancient mosaic tile of the Caracalla Baths inspired Divas’ Dream — travel and the influence of other cultures is also evidently part of what makes Bulgari, Bulgari. Case in point: the wildly Instagrammable travels of the Maison’s jewellery executive creative director Lucia Silvestri, and the runaway success of Bulgari Hotels & Resorts the world over, with three more set to open in the next two years.
This cross-cultural theme continues in Bulgari’s watchmaking division, and it’s only natural — many of the brand’s timepieces are jewelled by Italian artisans, while the movements are purely Swiss. So how does this exchange of skills and cultures play out in the modern world?
“The notion of ‘DNA’, which is a little overused, is nonetheless what’s at play here,” says Antoine Pin, Bulgari’s head of watchmaking. “We are a fusion of multiple inspirations: our watchmakers, the alchemy of David Roth and Gérald Genta, the design perspective from our ‘forefathers’: Sotirio with his entrepreneurship and the style of the Bulgari brothers Gianni, Nicola and Paolo. They have made the modern Bulgari what it is today.”
On the plus side, this confluence of cultures means that the manufacture doesn’t get bogged down with a single, introverted perspective. The duality of Swiss manufacture and Italian design keeps Bulgari’s creations flowing in surprising and dynamic directions. But how difficult is it to channel and control these roaring rapids of clashing work cultures and differing perceptions?
“From cross-cultural interactions you get the best or the worst,” smiles Antoine, wryly. “We are very aware and very much understand that we are a different animal: we are a jeweller making watches, an Italian brand making a Swiss product. We are what the Ancient Greeks called a metic, a foreigner settling down in another country. So when we ask ourselves about our identity, we are like anyone else who moves around: we ask where am I? Who am I? Am I the result of my new culture or am I still buried in my old culture? And of course, I’m a mixture. So then, consciously and assertively, we have to own this diversity of inspirations and the fact that there is work to do to get the best of both worlds.”

So how does this clash get managed to ensure that Bulgari’s watchmaking — which is expanding exponentially — continues on the right path? It’s an issue that has to be addressed right at the very top.
“We have worked on this as an executive committee, using the help of an outside consultancy to help us accept this process,” says Antoine. “It’s understanding that everybody has their assets and to focus on capitalising on those. It’s something that we are openly and actively questioning: Is the Italian agility creating a mess? Is the Swiss rigour becoming boring? And we are also part of a French group, so we are talking about reconciling three very strong cultural perspectives. But we have the capacity to merge, fuse and really build this melting pot to create a new identity as the Bulgari watch manufacture. And today we are confident and mature enough to be able to talk about ourselves in this way.”
Indeed, Bulgari has shown that finally, after more than 100 years of watchmaking history, it’s found the confidence to talk about itself with the Bulgari: Beyond Time book, made in partnership with international publisher Assouline. Tracing the story of Bulgari from its very first watch in 1918 to its recognition as a jeweller and watchmaker of note in the present day, it’s the first official history of the Maison — and not before time.
“I suppose the question you could ask is, how come we didn’t do this before?” laughs Antoine. “And as for why now? We have reached a certain maturity as a manufacture, and it’s clear that we should acknowledge that it took us a while to become a true manufacture. You can’t just purchase a few suppliers and a few factories and automatically become a proper manufacture, integrated with one culture, perspective and identity. It did take us maybe 10 or 15 years to absorb the culture of Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth, and turn it into something else.”
Speaking of culture — how does Bulgari’s transnational experience and European heritage apply to its Middle Eastern clientele? According to Antoine, who calls Dubai “the Rome of modern times, the crossroads where everybody meets,” the links between the Italian Maison and Arabian civilisation are as close as brothers.
“When it comes to the Middle East, we are very lucky that we come from a similar Mediterranean culture,” says Antoine. “We have 3,000 years of common history. Even the architecture, the true Mediterranean identity is similar — and as such, there is a natural understanding and communication. So of course, the path is easier to the Middle Eastern clientele in comparison to dealing with American, Chinese or Japanese clients.
“We cross paths all the time — the Mediterranean sea is a crossroads. I tend to think that we have been a bit complacent in not going the extra mile to move towards the market. Don’t get me wrong — it’s not that we haven’t made an effort. But I think we can do even more to get to the local clientele and expose ourselves in the best way, explaining what our roots are. Roman, which came from Greek, which came from Egyptian… Then using opportunities such as Dubai Watch Week to develop a platform for exchange.”


Bulgari’s representation at Dubai Watch Week last November was one of the most-talked-about of the whole exhibition with the sheer number of new releases mind-boggling, especially considering that January’s LVMH Watch Week and April’s Watches and Wonders Geneva were also looming on the horizon, and spoke for some of the most exciting techniques on display. The Divas’ Dream Peacock Marquetry collection showcased a feather setting technique that was sought-after in Renaissance Italy and brought back to prominence by Bulgari in the 1970s. And the feminine-focussed releases spoke volumes about a Middle Eastern appreciation for skill, design and unabashed glamour.
“We gave priority to Dubai Watch Week for those products — taking into consideration the exceptional platform that the Middle East can be,” says Antoine. “Dubai is a centre for cross-cultural exchange, where people from all over the world meet, it’s exactly what Rome was about 2000 years ago. Don’t forget, some of Rome’s emperors were of Middle Eastern origin. And that’s how open it was then, and how open Dubai is now. You don’t necessarily need confrontation, it’s a space that’s safe and where everybody respects each other. It’s only 50 years old — and that’s a miracle. It highlights what human genius can make, and that’s why I love this city. For me, it’s a business model that’s based on exchange and cross-cultural values — and it works.
What’s interesting is that, with this set of parameters, Antoine could have been talking about his own little empire — Bulgari’s watch division. In an increasingly globalised world, the value and challenge of cultural difference isn’t to be taken lightly. And as a truly international watchmaker, Bulgari is up to that challenge, wherever its legions of fans should be.