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A Line Is Born: Behind the Scenes at Switzerland's Bucherer

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By Linda K. Nathan
This story appears in the November 2008 issue of JCK magazine
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Vivien Lichtsteiner was born in a jewelry store. And not just any store. This upper middle-class woman, whose dossier includes a classical education and a Swiss banker-husband, was born in Lucerne, inside the flagship store and headquarters of Bucherer, Switzerland's largest chain of retail jewelry. No wonder that Lichtsteiner inherited impeccable taste, with a particular fondness for fine jewels.

To satisfy her cravings, she became a regular shopper here, says Roland Noser, Bucherer's head designer. In fact, she was a model customer, literally. That's because Lichtsteiner, at age 45, was created in March 2006 by Bucherer's design team to become the ideal customer/model for Lacrima, the company's new line of diamond jewelry. “We started off with a customer, a lady,” says Noser, explaining how the line emerged and developed. “We gave her a name, and we gave her an education.”

This lady was lucky: The team bestowed on her a successful husband, two grown children, and a part-time job now that her children had moved away from home. Her life held no secrets. “We knew what magazines she reads, what literature she prefers,” Noser explains.

Even so, hers was not an outrageous profile, Noser adds. Rather, Lichtsteiner was comfortably couched in the middle. The line would develop with Lichtsteiner's preferences as the starting-off point. Lacrima would satisfy her desires while also offering her some selections that were more costly and others that were less so. But by the end, Noser says, the collection was—and is—“for all ranges, not just for Vivien Lichtsteiner.”

The line of 25 diamond-set pieces—rings, necklaces, and earrings—was introduced in November 2007, 18 months after Lichtsteiner's conception. Today Lacrima includes the Basic, Premium, and Deluxe series, giving a woman the freedom to fashion combinations that can result in an individualized style. Lichtsteiner, for example, would likely begin with the Premium series, and then foray perhaps into more expensive Deluxe territory.

The origins of Lacrima—indeed, that of the entire company—hark back to 1888, when Carl-Friedrich Bucherer, a businessman/entrepreneur, opened Lucerne's first watch and jewelry store. More than 100 years later, Bucherer is today Switzerland's largest retailer of watches, jewelry, and gemstones, with 14 stores at home and a growing number in Germany (two now, four more slated to open next year).

Employing about 1,100 people, the company is still family owned and managed, the third generation represented by Jorg G. Bucherer, who is chairman of the board of directors. “Mr. Bucherer himself was involved with Lacrima,” as he is with all of the big lines, Noser says. “He was our customer. … The only time one person decides [on the creation of jewelry], it's the customer. Otherwise, it's the team.”

For his part, Noser brings an eclectic sensibility to his job. When he was 20, he became an apprentice to a Bucherer goldsmith. He then studied restoration of antique jewelry, followed by interior design. He carved out time to diversify his credentials by studying economics as well, which prepared him for a new position as an economist. Subsequently armed with a mix of creative and business savvy, he returned to where he started, Bucherer.

Might there be a requirement other than professional experience, one perhaps less tangible, to bring to the design table? “You have to be awake,” Noser says. “You have to see, smell what's going on in the world. You must have it in your veins. It's all connected—with fashion, technology, feelings. At the end of the day, we are just selling emotions and feelings.”

The teardrop, always a symbol of emotion, appears in diamonds throughout Lacrima, the link that connects the various pieces in the line. After all, the company notes, the ancient Greeks revered diamonds as tears wept by the gods, although Noser admits, “I personally had a problem connecting tears to pleasure.”

Before deciding on the tear, however, there were other shapes to mull over during design development. Brainstorming sessions, always part of the process, produced varied possibilities such as waterfalls, nets, and snakes. “We reduced the list, deleting nets and snakes,” Noser explains. “After two months, we were down to tears.” Later Noser himself made the specifications for the jewelry, overseeing all measurements and technical details in order to have a prototype made.

Karl Corpataux, Bucherer's director of jewelry merchandising, talks about some of the hurdles. “The real challenge in jewelry design,” he says, “is to interpret a simple form in such a way that any woman, regardless of her age and type, can wear it. We've succeeded in doing this with Lacrima.”

At the moment, the company is strict about the line. “We prefer not to make variations for individual customers,” Noser says. Translation? No sapphires, please. “It's all about diamonds,” he adds.

But the company does fill individual requests for custom-made pieces unrelated to its lines. For example, a customer will bring into the showroom his or her own stones, requesting that a necklace be designed. This customer will receive three, four, or five drawings, watercolors with fine-lined ink, together with an estimate of cost. Noser describes the oft-repeated response that follows: “I want something exactly like that, but completely different.”

In addition to his role as chief designer, Noser also buys stones. “We have a large collection of precious stones, which we buy right from the source where they're traded.” Many gemstones come straight from Bangkok, Thailand. South Seas pearls come directly from Hong Kong, and akoya pearls from Japan.

Bucherer's vaults also contain some very rare stones. Their Paraíba tourmalines, for instance, renowned for their electric blue color (the result of copper), were found in Brazil around 1986. But in the past two years, stones with similar color have been coming from Mozambique.

The stones are unique, and individual pieces can be fashioned from them. But to create a line, there must be a connection, which presents “a demanding concept for design,” Noser says. In one line of colored gemstone jewelry (and one of diamond jewelry), the connection, or unifier, is a cage of 18k yellow, white, or rose gold that holds each stone without covering it—a unifier that was chosen after hundreds of drawings were submitted by the team. This line is named, aptly, the Cage.

Finally, the lengthy design process—always in pursuit of visual appeal—must also consider touch. The piece can't be rough, Noser warns. “It must be good to touch.” Jewelry, you understand, is all about the senses, he says: “You see it, breathe it, feel it.”

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