As Kering opens a restored Paris base for Boucheron, the brand’s CEO has her eye on China — and women who buy jewels for themselves.

SINGAPORE (Dec 13): A gleaming necklace in Boucheron’s shop window in Paris’ Place Vendôme features dozens of lifelike hydrangea blossoms made from mother-of-pearl and diamonds, framing a 43-carat pink tourmaline.

Shoppers who enter the restored 18th-century mansion, which reopened on Dec 5 after a sweeping restoration by parent Kering, can slip out with their purchases via a secret door through the lacquered panels of a Chinese-inspired selling room. High rollers who prefer to stay might even be invited to sleep in a VIP guest suite — operated by the Paris Ritz, no less — featuring views of the Eiffel Tower from the bathtub.

“This is more than just a store opening for France,” says Boucheron CEO Helene Poulit-Duquesne, who joined the brand in 2015 after 17 years at Richemont’s Cartier. The Paris square is the world’s most prestigious jewellery destination — housing such names as Van Cleef & Arpels, Chaumet and Chanel — and a pilgrimage has become de rigueur for fans of top-end pieces. “This story of the Place Vendôme is what we want to tell around the world.”

After a push into skateboarding wear and soccer brands such as Puma fell flat, Kering is trying to diversify within luxury at a time when targets for acquisition are scarce. A rapid comeback for its flagship brand Gucci, which rebooted with a new designer’s decadent aesthetic in 2015, drove shares in the group up 85% last year alone. But the relentless pace of growth in Gucci’s two-year run has meant the company is more dependent on the brand than ever.

The group, helmed by French billionaire François-Henri Pinault, is now ramping up investment in jewellery, adding stores for Boucheron and a new high-end jewellery collection for Gucci, as well as expanding its smaller fashion brands such as Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen.

Boucheron was founded soon after Cartier and is part of the elite club of French jewellers that produce haute joaillerie, or high jewellery: one-of-a-kind pieces priced from US$50,000 ($68,499) to several million dollars, which are handcrafted in Vendôme ateliers to show off precious stones and their makers’ most advanced techniques. But while Cartier touted its meticulous craftsmanship to sell a range reaching from super-luxury products down to more modest models such as US$4,000 Panthere watches and “Love” bracelets in nearly 300 stores around the world, Boucheron remained a lesser-known option, under family management until a sale to Kering in 2000.

Boucheron’s accessible lines, including its bestselling US$4,000 Quatre rings, entered the global spotlight more recently. Spokeswomen such as actresses Lea Seydoux of France and Zhou Dongyu of China sport the items — and Beyonce has worn them onstage.

In addition to the renovated base, Kering has opened its first two Boucheron boutiques in mainland China this year and has additional locations in Hong Kong and Macau on the way. While the group does not disclose figures for its smaller brands, a company spokeswoman says Boucheron has been profitable since 2007 and sales have more than tripled since the acquisition. Reports at that time estimated its revenue was €85 million.

Global names dominate categories such as high-end watches and handbags, but consumers have not historically thought about the brands behind their diamond pendants and gold hoops. A study by consultancy McKinsey found that global brands made up only 20% of the jewellery market in 2014 — a figure it expects to double by 2020.

“We see great potential for houses that have an international approach and a distinctive identity,” says Albert Bensoussan, CEO of Kering’s watches and jewellery division. Touchscreen panels let visitors to Boucheron’s Paris store swipe through stories about notable former clients, including the Countess of Castiglione (who used to live upstairs), Jane Birkin and Czar Alexander III. But even if the renovation highlights Boucheron’s history, its CEO is wary of focusing too much on the brand’s pedigree.

As one of the first women to lead a high-jewellery house (head designer Claire Choisne is a similar pioneer), Poulit-Duquesne is sensitive to the fact that marketing focused on heirloom status or sentimental gestures holds many women back from buying jewellery. “I’d rather talk to women about style, about how they can use the piece,” she says. “The idea is to unburden the process.”

To make clients feel more at home in the brand’s renovated base, the CEO opted to remove the rectangular counters and desks where buyers worked through a jewellery purchase across from each other, opting for friendlier, round tables. Saleswomen were allowed to eschew banker-like skirt suits in favour of a softer elegance, choosing from an approved selection of silky jumpsuits and botanical-print dresses.

“It’s an experience,” Poulit-Duquesne says. “Even if you don’t go, it’s important to know that the place exists.” — Bloomberg LP