IT’S ALL IN Les Petits Détails

Impeccably tailored, impressively tall, confident and refined, Henri Baguardjian has the makings of an intimidating presence. But the president of Van Cleef & Arpels’s U.S. group is a down-to-earth guy who loves to munch on French fries, helps clear dirty dishes, and is very, very funny. When he tells a story, you put down your (excellent French) wine, swallow quickly, and try not to choke while you’re cracking up.

Don’t let the humor fool you. This is one sharp guy who’s thoroughly versed in the vicissitudes of the luxury market. Baguardjian’s astute observations of that market’s changes, along with vice president Paula K. Petersen’s unexpected marketing strategies and Guy Bedarida’s design sense, are the forces behind the 92-year-old Paris jeweler’s first foray into the global wholesale market.

“Our plan is to target affluent new customers with a fresh, modern collection of jewelry based on our signature motifs,” says Baguardjian.

Decades before fashion designers like Calvin Klein and Donna Karan introduced the idea of affordable “diffusion” lines, Van Cleef & Arpels was already doing it. Its first Boutique collection, created to broaden the jeweler’s existing clientele, was launched 41 years ago. The Boutique collection was, and is, a line of accessibly priced and easily wearable jewelry that nonetheless follows the Van Cleef & Arpels style. Today it encompasses some 80 styles of jewelry and more than 50 watch styles.

The move to distribute the brand on a wholesale level is a new step, however, and not one that the firm is taking either lightly or quickly. Van Cleef & Arpels has 35 salons around the world, four of which are in the United States.

The wholesale line debuts this fall in 20 to 25 U.S. retail jewelry stores and selected others around the world. Over the next five years, the firm hopes to expand U.S. distribution to only about 100 to 150 stores. Retail price points of the jewelry and watch collections range from $1,000 to $25,000, with a significant portion of the line priced around $4,000.

The luxury market has made a seismic shift since the 1960s when, Baguardjian explains, each company had one or two stores filled with exclusive, expensive pieces that were purchased by a very small group of people. If a firm seemed unapproachable and aloof, so be it.

Not anymore. Luxury has gone democratic. “Luxe Populi,” a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, chronicled how French marketing magnate Bernard Arnault gathered an empire of old-line luxury names and rejuvenated each by solidly appealing to the affluent masses. The London Financial Times reported that though many Asians have had to quell their well-known voracious appetite for status goods, they’ll be back. Consumers who are used to luxury products will not give them up.

Baguardjian agrees. People who have taste and money will still find a way to buy fine things, he says. But he’s observed a big difference in consumer attitudes today vs. the Eighties.

“The Roaring Eighties really epitomized how ostentatious luxury can be. Today, even if the same people are spending the same amount of money, the way they act about it is different. There’s not as much flash. It’s much more subtle.” Luxury then was about the biggest and the most noticeable; luxury now is about comfort, quality, and buying fewer but better things.

Baguardjian feels that Arnault’s LVMH group reflects the state of the global luxury market, with small, family-owned companies becoming subgroups of large conglomerates. They practically have to, he says, to deal with a global economy and modern production issues. In fact, at press time, Van Cleef & Arpels itself was considering an offer to be acquired by the Fratini Group of Italy.

But sale or no sale, the future of any luxury firm is dependent on customers’ ability and willingness to buy. Willingness is key, Baguardjian says.

“There are some unquestionable facts affecting the economy. You’d be stupid not to acknowledge that. But if people think there’s trouble and act like there’s trouble, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

He is optimistic about the immediate future in the United States. “Consumer confidence is very high, and there is a huge amount of money in this country. You just have to look for the areas where it’s going to be.”

The core of Paula Petersen’s marketing plans for the VC&A line involves going straight into these areas. Petersen is the vice president of Van Cleef’s wholesale division for North and South America.

“The most important strategic market shift I see is that money has moved away from cities,” she says. Petersen found the highest degree of interest in the new wholesale line coming from resort areas like Santa Barbara and Carmel, Calif., Boca Raton and Vero Beach, Fla., and Vail, Colo. – and from former Rust Belt industrial cities like Pittsburgh, Pa., and Akron, Ohio.

Petersen is a platinum blonde who on the day of our interview was elegantly dressed in a cashmere twinset and crocodile loafers. She looks every inch the Upper East Side socialite, except that she lives in Florida – in Orlando, not Palm Beach. Having lived in several of the kind of cities she describes, she’s serious about focusing first on markets that many people ignore until last.

“People, especially on the East Coast, often have smaller minds about what the rest of the country is about. But money is no longer concentrated in major cities. There’s been a whole shift to these markets, because a lot of entrepreneurs make their money and stay where they are.”

Why? Technology has made it possible and economics has made it desirable. When you don’t have to spend so much money just to survive, you understand why there’s so much disposable income, she says. Life is very luxurious in these markets – people have second homes, drive Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes, have boats, and in general enjoy a much more balanced, less frenetic lifestyle. And yes, people there do have taste.

“Remember, Halston came from Iowa!” she says with a laugh. She adds that jewelers in smaller areas know their markets better and are more focused and are more decisive buyers. In larger markets, a jeweler’s core base of customers tends to be much more fragmented.

Future advertising plans follow the same line of thinking. Co-op advertising and in-store catalogs form a key part of the program, and the VC&A name will have a presence in prominent national fashion and lifestyle magazines. But Petersen believes that the advertising market is also shifting from big to small; i.e., highly targeted niche publications such as Wine Spectator or American Express’s Departures magazine for its platinum card holders. She’s also eyeing selected hotel publications such Ritz-Carlton’s magazine.

“Niche publications prequalify readership with a higher-than-normal income. The key behind these publications is that the consumer already has an idea of luxury and is looking for quality products to invest in.”

Petersen firmly believes in the old adage that less is more. This business is based on relationships, she says, and Van Cleef decided early on to choose a small number of retail distributors and have a very close relationship with them.

“We want to make sure that doing business with Van Cleef & Arpels is a pleasant experience.”

“Luxury is details. That’s why Van Cleef & Arpels is Van Cleef & Arpels. It’s all in the details,” says Guy Bedarida, head designer and the artistic vision behind the new Boutique collections. His traditional pieces have a signature secret, such as a winged brooch made of invisibly set sapphires and diamonds. The brooch actually breaks apart into two halves that can be worn separately or in combination with other Van Cleef jewels.

Much of Bedarida’s design inspiration, for both traditional and boutique pieces, comes from the flowers that line the terrace of his family’s estate in Tuscany, or the decorative detailing of period architecture. To illustrate, he goes to a window, pulls back the drapes, and points to a nearby building.

“Look! There’s the Alhambra design!” Bedarida’s Alhambra 2000 collection is a millennium-inspired design based on the company’s classic clover theme. A very similar quatrefoil motif was, in fact, visible on the tower of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York.

Bedarida is half French and half Italian. Both his design sense and his personal sartorial style combine traditional Italian elegance with a touch of French whimsy. He likes color, minimalism, and a little bit of eccentricity.

He doesn’t like anything fussy, complicated, or over-the-top. And he really hates when people use his favorite Lorenzi scissors.

“If someone uses them, they ruin them, and then I need another pair!” No other scissors will do, even though the only place they’re available is at the Lorenzi shop in Milan. Baguardjian and Petersen tease him mercilessly about his scissors, but that’s what the Van Cleef team means about les petits détails. These scissors bring Bedarida’s designs to life.

Like a writer with a head full of stories, he sees jewelry in his head. The ideas just come. Then he starts designing, working out color and proportion, and with his trusty scissors, he cuts paper models to see how the idea works on the body.

“The most important thing to keep in mind is that jewelry is meant to help a woman be at her most attractive when she’s wearing it.”

Despite his lofty status, Bedarida is modest. “The creation begins with me for sure, but also it’s the result of other people around me, especially the goldsmiths!” Designwise, he admires the jewels of Boivin and Belperron and the pure, simple lines of fashion designer Yves St. Laurent.

“Fashion is very important, and I follow it very closely.” A minimalist at heart, Bedarida admires the purity of late-18th-century art and the early-20th-century art deco period, but he’s also fascinated by the 1970s. Despite the decade’s reputation for bad taste, he maintains there was actually tremendous development in design, fashion, art, and music.

Bedarida loves color. He thinks the current all-white look will continue for a while but believes the Big Three – emerald, ruby, and sapphire – are poised for a strong comeback, and he’s excited by this. He’s not a big fan of many other colored gems, except some rare qualities of blue chalcedony and coral, which he loves – and which can delay production of a piece for six months or more while he finds the right shade and color.

Does he have a muse, a woman he envisions while he designs?

“I’m lucky. The style of woman who can wear Van Cleef & Arpels is varied. The traditional customer is elegant, wealthy, 50-ish. But I can see a woman in her 30s wearing jeans and a T-shirt and also a very nice [presumably Van Cleef] ring.”

One thing that woman won’t be buying at her jeweler – at least not anytime soon – are Van Cleef scarves or fragrances. Both Baguardjian and Petersen think too many luxury goods companies have diversified too quickly and lost sight of who they are. They’re adamant about keeping Van Cleef focused.

“Never, never lose sight of your perspective, of what your name is. The name Van Cleef & Arpels means jewelry.” (The firm does have several fragrances, but they’re distributed via department stores and perfumeries.)

At press time, the sale of Van Cleef & Arpels to the Fratini Group, an Italian apparel manufacturing firm, was on the table. JCK asked what would happen to Van Cleef & Arpels if a new owner advocates fast growth or product diversification.

“It is true that the Fratini Group has made a proposition to the Arpels family, but it’s in due diligence right now and is not a done deal,” said Baguardjian. “Assuming the transaction goes through, I think this is a terrific opportunity for Van Cleef & Arpels to expand the business in a proper way. I have every reason to believe that expansion will be done in the way we’ve discussed.”

The discussion can be summed up in five words: It’s all in the details.