The snake. Enigmatic. Seductive. Spellbinding. Throughout history, this creature has captured the imagination of mankind. With its fascinating ability to renew itself by shedding its skin, remain in contact with the earth while rising above it, sinuously coil itself up or strike and defeat its predators, the serpent has become a symbol of rebirth and transformation. Serving as a muse, it has charmed artists throughout the centuries while adding to the narrative of numerous myths and legends across time.

The serpent is the subject of Bulgari’s SERPENTIform exhibition, organised by Bulgari brand and heritage curator Lucia Boscaini together with the maison’s brand heritage department. Held at the Art Science Museum until Oct 15, the exhibition is a stunning display of how serpentine symbols have, over the course of history, inspired art, design, fashion, photography and, of course, jewellery.

It was in the 1940s that Bulgari first captured the expressive power of such an evocative symbol, reinterpreting it for the first time in bracelet-watches that over the decades established themselves as showpieces of the Italian jeweller’s bold creativity.

For the SERPENTIform exhibition, which debuted in Rome last year, Boscaini and her team delved deep into the brand’s archives as well as private collections to find heritage Serpenti creations ranging from the more stylised early models made with the Tubogas technique to more realistic ones with gold scales or enamelled in many colours. These are showcased alongside creations specially designed for this year’s exhibition.

Also included in this immersive exhibition are modern and contemporary artworks by the likes of Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, Alexander Calder, Keith Haring, Niki de Saint Phalle, Joana Vasconcelos and Heri Dono, as well as original photographic masterpieces from Robert Mapplethorpe and Peter Hujar. There are also antiquities, vintage dresses by top Italian fashion designers, theatre and movie costumes, and other design objects evoking the reptilian inspiration.

“My team had to go through the lives and collections of hundreds of artists from many countries to put together an exhibition that celebrates this universal symbol,” says Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari. He was in town for the opening of the exhibition, which was also graced by Academy Award-winning Swedish actress and Bulgari ambassador Alicia Vikander.

The Singapore showcase is the first global stop after Rome and, like its namesake inspiration, has evolved and transformed since. For starters, the exhibition space has more than tripled in size to 1,500 sq m currently. Also, only a small percentage of the original pieces from the Roman exhibition, which centred on Greece, Egypt and Italy, were brought here. The Singapore installation features more eastern expressions of the snake, with additional pieces procured from Japan, Indonesia and China, as well as from Australia and the US.

From here, the exhibition will evolve further when it travels to Japan next. “We really want this exhibition to be a new chapter. We don’t want it to just be a copy and paste. So, some of the pieces in Singapore will go to Japan while some will go back to Rome or their owners,” says Paris-born Babin. “It is very exciting if it’s an evolution and it would be very boring, even internally for us, if the same exhibition just moves from one country to another [unchanged]. As we discover a lot about the snake [through coordinating the exhibition], this in turn impacts our jewellery creatively. It’s very interesting; our creative team from Rome and Switzerland… we come here not only to discover art but also be inspired by what we see, so that in one day, one month, or 10 years, this also impacts the future Bulgari art of jewellery.” Options chatted with Babin on his plans for the 133-year-old luxury brand. Following are excerpts from the interview.

In terms of business, which are your strongest markets today?
If I think about the growth rate, obviously, China is one, and Singapore is doing very well this year. But I would say the UK and Spain are doing incredibly well. We have very good results in North America. We have seen the published results of a lot of luxury brands, some up and others down. Today, more than ever, it’s difficult to talk about luxury in general terms. Some brands do a better job, some occasionally do a lesser job; the driver is more the brand’s creativity and consistency rather than the luxury market itself. And the luxury market is very fragmented as well. Even in a down cycle (which is not the case this year), some brands manage to grow while others are suffering.

Which are the best-performing product categories within the Bulgari Group?
For us, jewellery is very high performing, but it’s not because jewellery is performing well globally. It’s back to my initial observation on brands that get it right COVER STORY Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin, on the inspiration behind the brand’s new SERPENTIform exhibition at ArtScience Museum — its first global stop after Rome — and his plans for the 133-year-old Italian jeweller OF SERPENTS SYMBOLS S S THEEDGE SINGAPORE | OCTOBER 2, 2017 • OP5 E ALBERT CHUA/THE EDGE SINGAPORE while some may get it wrong sometimes. It’s much more about the brand creativity, brand craftsmanship and brand daringness, but also the brand consistency: to carve your own development and success. Your success won’t come from a big wave that is just rolling you.

How does Bulgari deal with competition or overcome challenges in today’s retail environment?
Competition is interesting. It’s always good to have a bigger competitor because it opens your mind... that perhaps, tomorrow, you can be that size. But this doesn’t offer you a clue about how to get there, because if you just copy your competition and follow the leader, you will never surpass them; you will never be the leader. If, conversely, you take the risk of a different angle, a different wind, a different current — that’s the only way to eventually surpass a competitor. At Bulgari, we’re sticking to our guns. We believe very much in being larger than life, in magnificence, in our symbols — not only the snake but B.zero1 and so on. And so, year after year, we try to surprise our clients and potential clients with new and unexpected expressions of this DNA with the symbols.

I believe Bulgari is a brand of limitless potential — just sticking to its DNA and to the categories we are competing in: hotels, perfumes, accessories, jewellery and watches. Even though we are a very famous brand — often the leading brand in each of those categories — we have marginal market share, like all our competitors, because all those five businesses are fragmented. But we have a very strong identity and symbols and icons that speak very much to clients because they are so different; at the same time, they are so legitimate. The B.zero1, for instance, is based on the Colosseum in Rome.

Which are your emerging markets today?
There are many, which is good for the future. But the most profitable growth today remains in the established markets, as most of the world’s wealth is still in traditional countries. It’s very important to develop emerging markets, but at the same time, it would be a very big mistake to underinvest in the traditional Western European and American markets. That said, we are very interested in Latin America, which is growing quickly — Mexico being one of our most recent success stories. In Asia, Singapore, of course, has fantastic results, as well as countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, which are very exciting. I believe very much that countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam will weigh more Serpenti bracelet-watch in gold with green enamel, emerald and diamonds, 1969 Bulgari Heritage Collection Serpenti belt in gold with black enamel and diamonds, 2010 Bulgari Heritage Collection Serpenti Tubogas bracelet-watch in gold, 1972 Bulgari Heritage Collection in the years to come. Japan is historically the largest market in Asia. We have to continue to be strong in Japan because it will remain one of the major places of luxury for the decades to come.

Speaking of Asia, can you share some exciting plans you have for this region?
In Singapore, we have two boutiques and I personally feel, why not a third? It’s not yet a clear plan, but it’s probable. We opened two boutiques recently in Malaysia, so now we have three there. In Thailand, we have announced a third, and in Vietnam, we have only one boutique today; we are contemplating two or three more. In Japan, we are not necessarily opening new boutiques, but renovating our boutique there. We opened three boutiques in Korea this year. In China, we opened a couple this year. So, yes, we have a lot of aggressive plans. And I believe that in the decade to come, a big part of our investments will be in Asia. But we will never forget the US and Europe.

Let’s talk about the new digital landscape and millennial client. How have these impacted Bulgari’s business, marketing and brand strategies?
Digital is a new extraordinary tool that allows you to bridge the gap between traditional media and communications, and your store. In your store, you can impact your clients directly. And through the media, you can impact many existing and potential clients, but there was a kind of missing link. Digital today is filling this missing link for luxury brands like Bulgari, as it allows us to perfectly integrate all the aspects of the brand and, even more importantly, to provide a touch point with the client that is 24/7.

Traditionally, this was not possible. Yes, we could have opened 24-hour stores like some brands did in Brazil, but at the end of the day, you realise that at two in the morning, no one is going to the store. So, digital is bridging that gap and allowing us to grow the appeal of luxury, as people can better discover what goes on backstage, the history behind the brand, the craftsmanship. We can also influence more quickly from the feedback and reactions. It’s allowing us to get much closer to what counts most in the business, which is our clients.

The theme of the company this year is “Client is king” and I think, more than ever, we can make that happen, thanks to digital. At our boutiques, we have already reached a high level of service, hospitality and excellence, though, of course, we can further improve. In our traditional communications, we are quite visible and strong. But in between, when it comes to emotions, customisation and building unique connections with individuals who are not yet clients, digital is a wonderful tool. We are very active on the social network and we work a lot with influencers.

We are making the most of our creative development — not only [being] digital-compatible but we often start with digital and then derive from digital the multiplatform communications which we still need. For example, rather than start with a billboard, then try and adapt it to digital, today we start with digital and then adapt to the billboard. In most countries today, we invest more in digital than traditional. Digital is growing by maybe 20% a year and traditional is growing by 5%.

What has been your greatest challenge as CEO of Bulgari for the past four years and what legacy do you hope to leave at the brand?
I’m not so interested in leaving my mark. Personally, I’m not egocentric. If and when I leave, I would like to have passionate clients, because this is what stimulates me, and to have happy colleagues. Not to mention happy shareholders. This would be more than enough to make me very happy for the rest of my life.

In terms of challenge, when you have a chance to be part of a brand like Bulgari, with such patrimony, craftsmanship, heritage and codes, it’s more about first activating, energising and refocusing rather than reinventing the wheel. Because you would be wrong and arrogant to reinvent the wheel of a cart that is already doing well. So, you just try to make the cart perform a bit better and make the wheels sportier so that the creativity and pace can accelerate. I’ve been more of an accelerator and energiser, and perhaps the person keeping focus, because when you are in five businesses, it’s pretty easy to jump from one to another [and lose focus]. I believe the main focus has been, and should remain, jewellery. Jewellery should be the obsession, the metrics, the source of everything.

A veteran writer and editor, Jamie Nonis also owns a marketing communications consultancy and an online magazine centred on holistic well-being 

This article appeared in Issue 799 (Oct 2) of The Edge Singapore.