A Cinderella Moment

(pdonahue@chilton.net)

Did you ever wonder what one of the most prominent, powerful international jewelers is concerned about during these waning days of the 20th century? I received an inside peek in April when Robert Mouawad, for whom the new Gemological Institute of America campus is named, invited me to Geneva to complete an interview begun at the Basel Fair.

Though I tried to remain the professional journalist, I must confess the whole experience left me feeling a bit like Cinderella. You’d think I’d have outgrown that by age 41, but I guess I still harbor hopes that one day my fairy godmother will wake up and notice I haven’t yet had my trip to the palace.

My “coach” for the day was Mouawad’s private plane, in which he had traveled to the fair and was now using to return to his European headquarters. I wondered whether accepting his invitation to ride back with him instead of taking the train would compromise my journalistic ethics. But then I realized if he had offered a ride in his car, I wouldn’t have hesitated. Is it my fault he’s an extremely busy man who saves time by flying in a fabulously appointed private aircraft? We’d get to talk on the flight, then I could spend the day seeing his headquarters and Geneva retail location, learning how the Mouawad Group conducts a luxury jewelry business.

In fact, like most gracious Europeans, Mouawad turned the day into much more. The visit ended up including a wonderful walking and driving tour of Geneva, a delicious meal at his Geneva apartment (beautifully decorated with antiques and modern objets d’art – Mouawad is a legendary collector not only of rare gemstones, but also of 18th and 19th century furniture) and then a quick drive in his Bentley (no, it didn’t turn into a pumpkin) to the train station for the ride back to Basel.

Mouawad’s international manufacturing and retailing jewelry empire spans the globe with eight factories, an estimated $300 million in sales and 1,400 employees (see related article on Mouawad and the opening of GIA’s campus beginning on page 90). He spent the day commenting on issues of concern to many jewelers the world over. Among them:

  • The growth in competition for consumer jewelry dollars, especially the auction houses’ success in luring away consumers.

  • Consumers’ obsession with discounting. Apparently even polite Europeans ask for deep discounts, Mouawad says.

  • The emphasis on quality. “We are trumpeting the label, ‘quality is priority’ to create a full awareness among our goldsmiths and customers as well,” he says. This holds true not only for his luxury jewelry, but also for the phenomenal amounts of medium and lower-end jewelry his factories produce.

  • He looks to the Far East and sees a growing manufacturing and consuming juggernaut he believes may soon overcome more mature industrialized societies such as those in Europe. “The Far East is not asleep. Pretty soon, they will start to produce for the whole world.” But Mouawad also mentioned some strategies I suspect are what keep him in the ranks of the most successful jewelers:

  • He says he borrows good ideas from other industries to keep his creative juices flowing.

  • He recently decentralized executive power from the upper echelons of his business to the lower levels “to create more flexibility and keep things under my control but at the same time out of my grip.” He now allows his branch managers to select their own personnel, make purchases and determine their advertising budgets.

  • He fully endorses the use of computers to keep his far-flung operations connected. Through a network of servers, far-off facilities can easily communicate with each other, use the group’s central services and measure the progress each part of the group is making.

  • He is committed to educating his staff and endorses education throughout the global industry. That’s why a donation his sons made in his honor to GIA meant so much to him.

More than anything, however, I was struck by how much Mouawad fretted over the same things jewelers fret about in the heartland of America. I guess there are some things we can just chalk up to universal angst.

And as for me? Flying too high with some guy in the sky, to paraphrase Cole Porter, is definitely my idea of something to do.