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When Vianney Halter Met Lorenzo Buccellati

Become – High Profiles
November 10, 2017

Lorenzo Buccellati and Vianney Halter are being jolly good sports for our photoshoot. Staring straight into each other’s eyes with their faces mere inches apart, the two men shuffle closer, at the behest of our photographer. The sight of these two gentlemen draws amused stares from curious passersby as we stand along a buzzing Orchard Road. Aside from a fortuitous similarity in their height, which adds symmetry to the shots, their contrasting appearances and demeanour make a uniquely unprecedented combination.

Dressed in a casual dark t-shirt, jeans and combat boots, Vianney looks every inch like a veteran rock star with his lean, wiry build. His near-white hair has been so severely cropped to the skull that it seems almost angrily defiant. The anti-establishment vibe is completed by the bristle of 5 o'clock shadow and a hint of insouciance.

Just across from him, Lorenzo is the embodiment of patrician style that belongs to a time-honoured establishment. Cleanly shaven and comfortably clad in the fine lines of a well-tailored business suit that he wears like a second skin, Lorenzo emanates a warm, even paternal comfort. He’s unfailingly polite, measured yet easy in conversation—and when he speaks, in low and steady tones, the corners of his chocolate-brown eyes crinkle charmingly.

Vianney, in contrast, seems wont to using superlatives in both speech and body language. His piercingly blue eyes feel almost electric as they hold your gaze, and given the visibly diametric opposite natures of their personas, I fear that they both share little common ground. Yet, in our hour-and-a-half long tête-à-tête, I discover that the two men bear almost identical concerns as niche independent artisans in a market dominated by brand juggernauts.

Discussing heritage, independence, money and authenticity in the world of luxury craftsmanship today, our exchange with the maverick French watchmaker and 3rd-generation heir to an illustrious Italian jewellery house is what follows.

Conversations with Vianney Halter & Lorenzo Buccellati

Vianney Halter, Watchmaker | Lorenzo Buccellati, Jeweller (Federico Buccellati)
Text by Teo Ren Feng
Photography by Yew Jia Jun

TEO REN FENG: Your family specialises in making fine jewellery—how was it like growing up? And do you remember your first memory?

LORENZO BUCCELLATI: I grew up in our workshop and jewellery store, and it’s hard to recall my very first memory because it’s like an unconscious familiarity. But I can tell you the very first sale that I was involved in, which was quite an unusual one—I was around 23 years old and my father made me work in the store. He wanted me to meet people and learn how to run a store because every CEO needs to know how to clean. 

VIANNEY HALTER: [laughs in agreement

LORENZO: You have to know the basics. So back then, I had noticed a couple who came to our store for two Saturdays consecutively, and they would head directly to a specific showcase that displayed a small ring. It was a very simple and small ring, nothing fancy. On their third return visit, I approached them to ask how I could help. They told me that they really loved the ring, but didn’t have the money to buy it. So we started talking and I had them try on the ring. Subsequently, they said: “Thank you very much, but we just can’t afford it.” I could tell they really loved the ring, so asked them to wait, while I went up to my father's office to explain the situation to him. I asked if I could give them a very deep discount on the ring, and he agreed. I think they were the happiest people that I've ever seen in our store to date. It felt like a much more important sale than to some royalty, who’ve bought much more.

VIANNEY: There wouldn’t be such strong sentiment or attention paid to the product.

LORENZO: Absolutely. In our business, there is a personal touch with everything that we do, which is very important. It's also in ourworkmanship, because each Federico Buccellati piece that you see in our stores is designed and produced by a particular member of our family. And if you are a Buccellati member, you have a personal relationship with the artisans—you don't just create the design and send it by e-mail. 

VIANNEY: Yes. [nodding]

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LORENZO: You discuss things in person and build a relationship. Likewise, our salesmen have a personal relationship with each and every one of our customers. All these personal relationships make the business important to our employees and they work as though the company is theirs. The world of jewellery today has been destroyed by big conglomerates. All the big names that you see along Orchard Road, basically belong to 3 big groups. This has taken away the familial touch, which I believe should be the core foundation of jewellery-making. We want to grow naturally.

VIANNEY: I would rather stay true to craftsmanship and keep a small team to survive than become a big business and risk losing the brand or my rights.

REN FENG: I think the topic of growth would resound a great deal with you, Vianney, since you keep your operations very lean.

VIANNEY: When I first found some success with my brand, I did think that it would be very nice to grow and expand, and produce and sell more, because making just one watch a year can be very limiting. You basically have no market. [laughs] And we did grow to have around 25 people n the team. We were close, like a family—it was not a heritage business, but I envisioned us working like one. Ultimately, it wasn't quite possible. I think when you inherit the family business, and you have your sons working in it, there's a different energy that you put into it.

LORENZO: Absolutely.

VIANNEY: When your workers come because they admire or are fascinated by your craft, you never quite know the intentions and true objectives of each employee or collaborator.

REN FENG: You might not have a common goal.

VIANNEY: No, you don't. In the end, I downsized my team around 17 years ago because I found that I had lost my dream. The money is important; you need to sell because at heart, it’s a business. To live without money these days is impossible. But where is the balance? To grow very quickly and have a big group buy you out, so you disappear after that? 

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LORENZO: Exactly. It would be easier to just sell the company to a conglomerate, but then, what? What do you give to your sons and daughters?

VIANNEY: Only money? You must give them a life’s work: what has been inherited from forebears and translated through you, for the generations that will come.

REN FENG: What does heritage mean to each of you?

VIANNEY: Heritage is discovering all there is to discover—in things, books, and making some form of contact with whoever has created them before you. It is also cherishing untouched nature, and preserving it for the future generations.

LORENZO: Heritage is the knowledge from past generations that you own. But it is not an antique piece. You have to take it, and make it relevant with the current times, otherwise it is completely useless. Every generation that comes before and after us, will have its share of both good and poor decisions. And heritage is just this...

VIANNEY: Experience.

LORENZO: Yes. You take what comes to you, elaborate on the narrative and put your touch to it. It must move your soul. If it is just standing still, it is not heritage, it is history.

REN FENG: What is the creative direction of your brands?

LORENZO: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that the world of watches is close to the incredible world of fancy sports cars... for example, why do you buy a Lamborghini? You can’t drive as fast as you want on the street.

VIANNEY: That's not possible anymore.

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LORENZO: That’s why I don't like to drive anymore. [both laugh] You like the power, you like the way that it’s built, you buy the feeling that the car or watch gives you. This translates to jewellery too. For me, and for us—because my whole family is in the business too—it's a mission. The new generation of shoppers buy only because they are exposed to certain brands on the internet or in the magazines, and our style of Italian Renaissance jewellery is different from the French approach. French jewellery is about having an important feature stone with some design surrounding it, while Italian Renaissance jewellery emphasises every single bit that is needed to complete the entire piece. I always tell others not to think of Buccellati as a jewellery house, but as an art gallery instead. We are the 3rd going on 4th generation, and our mission is to stay up-to-date, while staying true to our classical style.

VIANNEY: The balance.

LORENZO: Yes. This balance is very difficult to achieve. How do we use modern jewellery techniques, yet apply our style to imprint a unique personality onto the objects? Do you do the same with watchmaking?

VIANNEY: I don't have a definition for what is 'modern' and what is 'traditional' in my work. My first watch, the Antiqua, was made with a vision of the past: of our forebears working with the technology to keep time. In the end, it was considered very modern, but it was also a tribute to the past. Subsequently, my vision and my style changed with the Deep Space Tourbillon.

REN FENG: Your inspiration moved from steampunk to Star Trek.

VIANNEY: Yes! And you think they are two very different worlds, but they are not so far apart. I don't make watches to tell the time; time has become an accessory to the mechanical watch. I see my watches as art, rather than equipment. That has been my goal since I started to create watches for myself. I make watches to express a certain vision and understanding of technology.

REN FENG: What are the challenges you face marketing your brand?

VIANNEY: The challenge is in finding and meeting intelligent people. You have many of them around the world, but one needs to find where to meet them, because a lot of systems in society are built off lies. When you have a true product and you seek deep and true exchanges, you disturb others.

REN FENG: What systemic lies exist in modern society?

VIANNEY: Systems that tell us to buy endlessly and literally spend your life buying nothing. I live in Dubai and it is a man-made city that is so empty—a city with a lot of people with a crazy way of life.

REN FENG: It’s about being over-the-top.

VIANNEY: The problem is what you spend your money on and why you spend your money. I wouldn't have all their Rolexes for a dollar. [laughs] I think I see a change in the attitudes of the younger generations, but working and living in such an environment can be strange.

LORENZO: It's definitely more difficult to market today than it used to be. As I said, the problem is that we've become a society that goes for the big things while human relationships are being lost. And as Vianney says, it is what you buy and why. When you come to our stores and you don't buy anything, we are still happy. The question is whether you are willing to spend 5 minutes to half an hour in the store to look, learn and perhaps even teach us something too. Not everyone is willing to do that nowadays.

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VIANNEY: It is a big part of my business to find a common understanding with my customers: a point on which we can exchange life experiences. In the end, my life is about making watches—I am happy at the bench and meeting customers to share the passion as well as understanding why someone wants to spend on my work.

REN FENG: The millennial generation has shown an appetite for artisanal craftsmanship and personalisation. Do you see a potential shift in the market?

VIANNEY: Nowadays, I meet more and more young people who are extremely knowledgeable about watch and jewellery making. And I even get to learn from them sometimes, which is very interesting, because 10 to 15 years ago, it wasn't like this. What I am confident of with the new generation is that they want to understand; they seek something more than just making money in a quick amount of time. They want to enter a world of imagination and change minds. To them, making jewellery or watches is not so much a business, but to actualise something with their hands and minds. It takes generations to build something significant, and it’s not something that you decide on overnight. As our generation gets older, the history and knowledge of our past and culture are going to be lost.

LORENZO: The younger generation has a lot of strengths and good ideas, but it will be much more difficult for someone starting out today, to make a name for themselves. When my grandfather and father started the business, it was relatively easy because the big shopping streets of today, like Via Spiga for example, were very normal streets. But now, the big conglomerates have made the space so expensive. The barriers of entry are low if you start with a product online, however if you want customers to physically touch and feel the product, and have that face-to-face connection... it isn’t going to be easy.

VIANNEY: The direct connection will always be the problem. 2 years ago, I used to stay right in front of the Burj Khalifa fountain, and I always observed how people would look at the spectacle only through their mobile phones—that secondary interface. The internet is very important to share information and allow others to discover your brand, but the direct contact is also very important. The touch and interaction for greater understanding is critical.

LORENZO: It is harder today to market a product in the way we'd like to. Would you buy a piece of art for your living room on the internet?

REN FENG: That's how some people do it these days.

LORENZO: Yes, but it's not the same feeling. And like Vianney says, it is not easy to gain access to an educated customer. 20 or 30 years ago, you would open an exhibition and 90% of the people walking in would have the knowledge of what a piece of jewellery stands for or what a stone was. They would have done some research. When we return to a quality-conscious shopping attitude, it will be easier to market again. We try our best to put the best product on the table, but we also need to have the right, conscious buyer.

REN FENG: Do you think that refinement of taste develops only with age and experience?

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LORENZO: Not necessarily—artistically speaking, no. It is a feeling that you have now and in the moment.

VIANNEY: Spontanéité, as we call it in French. It's very important and it's lacking in the large companies because a piece goes through at least 10 production stages, through the hands of different people.

LORENZO: My grandfather used to smoke cigarettes that came with little pieces of paper in the packages. And we still kept those pieces of paper, because that’s what he used when he had to sketch or jot down ideas that came to him.

VIANNEY: Yes, inspiration comes from anywhere.

LORENZO: Exactly. And it's not just the original design. These objects are made or born from an idea, a sketch. Even when we discuss with the artisan producing it, there is a natural evolution of the product. If you come to us wishing to customise a product that we have, we are happy to do just that. We personalise our products for you. I believe you do the same?

VIANNEY: Yes, we adapt. 

LORENZO: So you have your own Buccellati piece. Try going into one of these big shops on Orchard Road with their shiny frontage, and they won't be able to do the same. They have catalogues showing you rings 1 to 10, and if you want something beyond that, you can't have them.

VIANNEY: Yes. I believe there is nothing wrong in spending time to create something unique and different—to find your own expression. It is not easy to survive in a time where the big brands are swallowing everyone, including any form of original skill. But there will always be change and renewal.

LORENZO: Around 10 or 15 years ago, a Chinese journalist told me something which you can apply to any market. He said that the Chinese market would be very hard to enter and win over. But once you survive, you will not have any more problems. It is not simply because their market is very large, but because the Chinese customers who were buying brands for their name and novelty back then, were getting tired of going to events and looking alike. Special workmanship—something which applies to watchmaking or any field that works with the same artisanal principles—the personalisation and uniqueness that we offer, is our strength. We are not just selling jewellery, we are selling an emotion.

VIANNEY: It is always about the human connection and exchange first. It is not only about business but Life and our unique experiences.

LORENZO: If you work in one of the big brands, you have rooms filled with designers just sitting there and churning out the designs. One day you are designing for Brand A, and another, Brand X. Where is the distinction? This applies to their production, marketing and sales channels too. I know some people who work for LVMH one day, and Bulgari the next. Even in real estate, they buy or rent big spaces and put one brand in today and another brand tomorrow. There is no heritage or personalisation, which is what counts in the end. In a world like this where you can buy anything on the internet without leaving your house, everything is standardised. And when everything is the same, it is all useless.

VIANNEY: Sharing what you've gained from the past and combining it with the future is the act of life itself. It's important to bring that truthfulness to your work.

 

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Edited by Wy-Lene Yap