Former Bvlgari head Guido Terreni talks to us about love, his plans for Parmigiani Fleurier, and why restoration is an enviable skill.
Guido Terreni does not believe in love at first sight. He spent 20 years cultivating a yen for timepieces at Bvlgari, where he was president of the watchmaking division from 2010. When asked about the moment he fell in love with timepieces — it is a must when you stay in the trade for anything close to 20 years — his response is one of impressive candour, and confidence. Plenty of storytellers in watchmaking, and Terreni is a true believer in the power of stories, would seize the opportunity to wax lyrical about some fateful conjunction of the stars that would eventually relate to their most recent chapter at brand X, Y or Z. Not Terreni though.
It is still chilly in Switzerland when we commenced our conversation about Parmigiani Fleurier, where Terreni has taken over as CEO from Davide Traxler. Of course, our chat was digitally enabled, for which we are thankful. Connecting directly with watchmakers and watchmaking executives is deeply important to us — video also allows us to use more of our senses to build a story. The connection that brought Terreni to Switzerland — he is a native of Milan, Italy, and graduated in Economics at the Luigi Bocconi University in that city — happened to be love, but not of watches.
Terreni quit his job with Danone and moved to Switzerland to be with his girlfriend. This was when he joined the watchmaking division of the Bulgari Group, back in 2000. He rose through the ranks there over the course of 10 years, before taking the reins of the watchmaking division in 2010. Those of you who know your horological history will recognise Terreni’s name, and might recall him talking about the legacy of Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth at Bulgari, after the group decided to absorb those two storied names.
From that time, to the time he left, watchmaking at Bvlgari (which we distinguish post-LVMH and pre-LVMH with this spelling convention) became steadily more accomplished, winning over sceptics while keeping the faith with brand loyalists. It was by no means an assured outcome, but Terreni was a key part of the success. Now, more than 20 years after he began his journey into the world of Swiss watchmaking, he has a new challenge on his hands. Oh, and his girlfriend — the one who brought him to Switzerland? She’s still a part of his story, now as his wife.
Tell us about your start in the watchmaking trade.
When I arrived in 2000, I was coming from fast-moving goods and moving to a luxury brand. I had to understand all the different aspects — the logic and craft — that push the luxury business. The power of luxury is in the ideas. The simpler the ideas, the more powerful they are, and the more difficult they are to execute. The soul of a brand is something you have to identify with — Parmigiani Fleurier has a delicate and understated soul. It takes time to build a relationship with any brand. I don’t believe in these managers who take on luxury brands for two or three years and then move on. They don’t even understand what they have touched in that time.
You spent 20 years at Bvlgari. This is a rarity in this business these days, but you are in good company this issue! Tell us about what this time meant to you.
In my first decade with the company, as a family business, I was new and not (sufficiently) competent. The love story with watchmaking became a full love story when I took over as head of the watchmaking business. The metaphor I like to use is this: I spent 10 years in the living room before I made it to the bedroom! This was when I really got to touch the craft, to see the limits of what I could do. You know, you don’t build an icon overnight.
You have to work at it, to believe in it. Like a marriage, when times are tough you have to defend it. This happens a lot. Don’t imagine the trajectory of something like the (Bvlgari) Finissimo was a linear one of continuous growth. It was tough in the beginning. People often say they are passionate about what they do. I think passionate is an overrated word. I really love what I do. For me, that is the best thing you can have in life, which is a job that you love.
What is Parmigiani Fleurier to you?
A brand to me is like a person. You cannot push a person to go very far from who they are (at the core). The first thing for me is understanding the brand, and to get to know the founder. I’m lucky that I can do this — it is a priceless chance — because the founder is 20 meters away from me at the office. Like your parents, your direction is given to you by the founder of the brand. He gives you the reason for your existence. Everything grows from there.
Here, the brand comes from the most noble part of fine watchmaking, which is restoration. This to me is like the black belt of watchmaking! It is the maximum expression of this craft. When you are restoring, you are giving a second life to an object. Not only do you need the highest level of craftsmanship here, you also need to disappear from the work. If somebody sees what you have done, then it is not restoration anymore.
The brand comes from the most noble part of fine watchmaking, which is restoration. This to me is like the black belt of watchmaking!
This tells you what you need to know about Michel Parmigiani. How skilled and how humble he is, because his ego has to disappear from his work. He told me that if someone needs to restore something he has worked on, that person doesn’t need to see Michel Parmigiani — he just needs to see whoever made the original. This is why Parmigiani has the soul that it has.
Who is the person who buys a Parmigiani Fleurier watch? What do they look for, given that the founder is so understated?
For sure our customer is not buying a Parmigiani Fleurier as his first watch. It might be his sixth, or 10th, maybe 15th… it depends on the customer. They are connoisseurs who already have high-end watches in their collections. They are the ones who first made the brand successful. They know for sure what they are buying — they are not swayed by marketing messages. They are discerning.
Then you have to look at the discerning characteristics of Parmigiani Fleurier watches that they are interested in (or might be interested in). This is where we have work to do, where we have some introspection to do. Creative people are always going all over the place, trying to do everything that they can. We have to pull things back and see what we can do to create an icon.
To go back to what you said earlier, we like this description of the soul of Parmigiani Fleurier being delicate. How do you manage to create a recognisable design, in this case?
It is a question of how much you want to push the design. The harder you push, the less (longevity) it will have. Parmigiani Fleurier has to have long-lasting designs (that do not wear out their welcome). If I look at my experience of integrating Gerald Genta into Bvlgari… Genta was pushing so many things… too many things maybe. In (some of) the brands he created designs for, they only had one or two designs so they focussed on them, turning them into mono-product brands! My point is that when you do too much, when you overdesign, usually you are not able to create long-lasting pleasure. The balance between the elements is very important.
“The soul of a brand is something you have to identify with — Parmigiani Fleurier has a delicate and understated soul”
At Parmigiani Fleurier, we want to invest the watches with the highest level of competence possible, to underline the craft — the technique that went into making the components. At the same time, they should not be in your face. It must not be invasive to the senses, and this is the job we have to do with our collections.
What does it take to make a long-lasting icon, without, for example, spending prodigious amounts of money on huge sponsorships, massive billboards and so on?
I chose to move to a niche brand (like Parmigiani Fleurier) because I believe true luxury is niche. More and more people are looking for brands that are not well known, but have great competency. You named Dufour (Philippe Dufour came up in our conversation – Ed) and that is one example. What is important to me is the bond or the connection that you have (between oneself and one’s craft, and one’s clients). We want to build human relationships, human value, not brand value.
This obliges us to not make compromises. Our reason to exist is not a commercial objective; we arrive at this by building relationships (with customers). If we succeed at cultivating relationships then we succeed commercially.
The quantity in the business (the story told in the numbers) is not what moves me. The legacy of what you have been able to do is what matters. In watchmaking, many brands create many beautiful things, sometimes just to hit their own targets. True innovation you can count on the fingers of one hand. That is what we want to do. It is not the noise of just putting things out in the market. It is about what Parmigiani Fleurier can do – work that makes us proud. (Watches) that cause an emotional reaction in our customers, and convince them that they are worth buying.
In talking about competencies and not making compromises, what’s the advantage of vertical integration for Parmigiani Fleurier? Famously, the brand makes its own screws!
You don’t need to be integrated at every level in watchmaking. Whether you do your own screws or not, it is not that relevant to the customer. It is probably more expensive to make your own screws, for obvious reasons… If the craft adds something for the customer, then it is worth it. So again, I go back to something Michel told me. We have automatic watches with two barrels, and the reason is not for a longer power reserve.
Michel wanted this because of something he discovered in restoring watches. The watches with only a single barrel had a shorter lifetime. Because a double barrel system releases energy in a more regular way; with a single barrel, you increase the friction (and stress across the gear train). The force is more constant with two barrels — it’s not a constant force (like that generated by a constant force mechanism – Ed) but somewhat like it — so the movement ages more slowly. This is relevant to customers. This is true competence, backed by a lifetime of experience.
You cannot communicate about this to everyone, with advertising or with celebrity endorsements. You can only talk about such things with customers who are interested in what we do. This is why I describe our customer as someone who is already educated about watchmaking. Of course, we do present ourselves via our website, which we are doing a revamp for, and then of course in the media, via conversations like this one!
And finally — we are asking everyone this — how has the pandemic affected Parmigiani Fleurier?
Everybody is talking about the new normal but I don’t really know what that means, especially in watchmaking. The pandemic is a crisis that no one needed, but the world has come through crises before. For sure every crisis has affected watchmaking somehow. If we go back to 2010, I immediately grasped that there were changes needed. There were a lot of oversized watches, a lot of bling-bling… there was a need for a product that was deeper (less superficial).
Broadly speaking, the pandemic shows that you cannot take anything for granted, whether it be health or wealth. It also showed us, as a society, that you cannot do everything by yourself. The pandemic needs a global approach to resolve. It is really a joint effort to overcome a challenge that is bigger than any one country.
Probably also people will also buy less — hopefully things with better quality. Something meaningful. Instead of a consumeristic approach to spending money to amuse themselves, I hope people embrace buying things with more value.
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