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Chopard's steel magnolia

Sunita Sue Leng
Sunita Sue Leng • 10 min read
Chopard's steel magnolia
With her creativity, grit and cosmopolitan mindset, Caroline Scheufele has helped transform the company from artisanal watchmaker to one of the biggest names in luxury jewellery. She chats with Options about celebrities, sustainability and her affinity wi
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With her creativity, grit and cosmopolitan mindset, Caroline Scheufele has helped transform the company from artisanal watchmaker to one of the biggest names in luxury jewellery. She chats with Options about celebrities, sustainability and her affinity with Hong Kong

(Nov 18): Next to the brand-new Alpine Eagle watch on her wrist, Caroline Scheufele is wearing a jade bangle and several bracelets with beads of different hues. “These are for feng shui,” says the co-president of Chopard, the Swiss watch and jewellery company. A believer in Chinese geo­mancy, Scheufele is a favourite jeweller to movie stars and royalty, creating some of the most jaw-dropping bling on the planet. Yet, she is not afraid to mix things up, placing crystal beads next to haute horology.

Putting an inventive spin on age-old traditions is a signature of Scheufele, who has over the last two decades helped propel the family-owned watchmaking company into one of the biggest names in the firmament of jewellery and ladies’ watches. Chopard, which dates back to 1860, has forged a name as a red carpet jeweller, and Scheufele has decorated the necks, ears and wrists of Oscar winners and head-turning actresses such as Angelina Jolie and Julia Roberts with her creations.

She particularly enjoys working with actress Julianne Moore, who dazzled in Chopard’s emeralds and diamonds at this year’s Cannes Film Festival opening night. “She is so classically elegant and also so much fun,” says Scheufele. Another star she loves dressing is Zhang Ziyi, who was appointed a global ambassador for the brand in May. “She was asking me what to wear to the Tokyo Film Festival because she’s pregnant,” Scheufele says. The award-winning actress only recently confirmed on Weibo she is expecting.

Scheufele with award-winning Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, who was appointed a global ambassador this year

Such an A-list clientele lends glamour and exclusivity to the Geneva-based company. Yet, Scheufele has also managed to carve out a niche for the brand in a more accessible slice of the market for jewellery watches. She did this by pairing freely moving diamonds with a sports watch made of stainless steel in 1993. Prior to that, timepiece makers shied away from mixing diamonds with non-precious metals. The formula of mixing diamonds with steel resonated with consumers and, 26 years on, the Happy Sport line of watches is Chopard’s bestselling watch collection.

Over the years, the Happy Sport watch has gone through numerous permutations. The latest, released this year, is Happy Love. The now-iconic floating diamonds are matched with a blue mother-of-pearl dial and, for the first time, the design incorporates colourful street art. “We never had something cool for the young,” Scheufele tells Options during a visit to Singapore at end-October. “The theme [for the watch] is love, but I wanted to bring an important message to younger people beyond romantic love, which is to love yourself and to love the planet.”

Extending its appeal to a younger demographic is something the luxury brand is embracing in a world dominated by imagery and social media. Collectively, millennials and Generation Z are forecast to make up more than 40% of the overall luxury goods market by 2025, versus around 30% in 2016, says Deloitte. Upwardly mobile shoppers in these age groups seek a different buying experience — one that is more personal in nature and that seamlessly integrates both online and offline platforms. They also prioritise lifestyle values such as sustainability.

Doing business a better way

Scheufele appreciates this, being in the thick of an industry faced with social and environmental challenges. Most raw stones and metals come to the market with little traceability, having passed through multiple hands. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, the sourcing of precious materials such as gold is a major cause of pollution, soil degradation and deforestation. It estimates that the watch and jewellery sector uses more than half of the world’s annual gold production.

Some years before climate change became the hot-button issue it is today, Chopard moved towards more responsible initiatives. The company is a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), which sets standards for human rights, labour rights, environmental protection and product disclosure for the sector. As at July 2018, Chopard had been using 100% ethical gold for its jewellery and watches.

The gold comes from small-scale mines within the Swiss Better Gold Association, as well as Fairmined and Fairtrade schemes. It also sources the precious metal from RJC-certified refineries and has a collaboration with the Alliance for Responsible Mining in South America. The company says that gives it full traceability of its gold supply chain and that it also recycles up to 70% of its pre-consumer gold scraps in its foundry.

Despite this, Scheufele concedes that creating ethical jewellery is not easy. “Coloured stones and semi-precious stones come from all over the world. Often, mines are owned or part-owned by governments,” she notes. To tackle this, Chopard has partnered with Gemfields, the world’s single-largest producer of coloured gemstones. But while spurring change at a macro level can be hard, it can be just as tough at the individual level.

“Traceability is a big issue but another is educating [customers] and changing mindsets that jewellery can be done in a different way,” she says. To turn the spotlight on sustainability, Chopard rolled out a Green Carpet Collection in 2013. Aside from jewellery and watches, Chopard makes accessories such as leather bags, ties, sunglasses and fragrances and, this year, Scheufele invited actress Chloë Sevigny to jointly design a bag made from sustainably sourced leather for its Green Carpet Collection.

Actress Chloë Sevigny helped design a bag from sustainably sourced leather for Chopard’s Green Carpet Collection

Learning from parents

In person, Scheufele is a vision of understated elegance and composure. She had just flown in the night before from Geneva, yet shows no sign of jet lag. “I don’t think about it,” she says, displaying a slice of the steeliness and grit needed to run a global business. Born in 1961, she was educated at Geneva’s International School and speaks five languages.

As the daughter of Karl Scheufele III, a German goldsmith and watchmaker who bought Chopard from its Swiss owners in 1963, she had a front-row seat to how her father turned the artisanal firm into a leading name in horology. Her mother, Karin Ruf, provided invaluable support on the commercial side, coming from an entrepreneurial family. “My mum looked after administration from the start and she knows all the processes,” says Scheufele. “I learnt a lot from my parents.”

Commercial acumen, coupled with a creative streak, appears to be in the family DNA. “I’ve always liked to draw,” she says adding that both her father and her brother, Karl-Friedrich, are also very creative. Karl-Friedrich, who is co-president with his sister, oversees the men’s collections and developed sports watches in the 1980s. Building on Chopard’s mechanical heritage, he has also ensured that every single timepiece is made in-house, from design to production.

Scheufele joined the family firm after finishing school. With her passion for gemstones, she began Chopard’s journey into the domain of big-ticket, statement jewellery and contemporary bejewelled watches. The pivotal point came in 1997 when Chopard was due to open a boutique in Cannes, France. Scheufele met with the president of the Cannes Film Festival and came away with an official partnership. Cannes has since become a dream showcase for Chopard as celebrities flock to parade the one-of-a-kind pieces Scheufele and her team fashion for its Red Carpet Collection.

Chopard also sponsors the Palme d’Or, a prize for the best film at Cannes, and the Trophée Chopard, which rewards up-and-coming artistes. Past winners have included Marion Cotillard and Shailene Woodley. Cannes is now the blowout event on its calendar, bumping up its social media reach and glitz factor in a world swayed by celebrity endorsements.

Early mover in Hong Kong

Jewellery now accounts for about 45% of Chopard sales, although that varies with launches and years. Annual revenues for the company, which remains privately held by the Scheufele family, are estimated at more than US$800 million ($1.1 billion). Asia makes up a “big share of the cake”, says Scheufele, who is in the region every month or two.

Chopard tapped Asian demand early on, setting up a standalone boutique in Hong Kong in 1983, even before opening in Geneva. Hong Kong remains close to Scheufele’s heart, as she interned in the city with retail tycoon Dickson Poon when she was 16. “There were not so many skyscrapers 40 years ago and the Mandarin Hotel was at the front line of the water,” she recalls. “The landscape has changed a lot.”

She is naturally saddened by the protests currently rocking the territory. For many luxury brands, Hong Kong is the most important market in Asia, with sales driven by mainland tourists. The plunge in visitors and early shop closures since July have hurt retailers. Drawing parallels with the gilets jaunes, the populist yellow vests movement in France, Scheufele is hopeful tensions will eventually ease.

While sales have taken a hit, she is heartened by demand in China, where Chopard now has a bigger footprint than in Hong Kong, and Singapore, an established market for the brand. China is also emerging as a big market for online retail, given the country’s size. “Many places are without a boutique,” she notes. While she has spent the last two decades planting a flag for Chopard globally, she believes retailing is shifting. “It is now better to have a flagship in major markets rather than multiple boutiques,” she says.

Online sales are still moderate for Chopard and clustered around lower price points such as Happy Sport watches or Happy Heart bangles. With her pulse on the market, Scheufele also feels that younger buyers approach jewellery differently. “They like to mix and mingle,” she says. Young men are also wearing jewellery, so designs are becoming a bit more unisex, she adds.

As long as Scheufele continues to put her innovative touch on statement-making jewellery and timepieces to respond to these nuances in demand, the business she inherited and then took to new heights looks set to remain in safe hands.

Sunita Sue Leng is a former associate editor of The Edge Singapore

Happy Love

In 1993, Caroline Scheufele designed a sports watch based on an unprecedented combination: diamonds and stainless steel. The Happy Sport watch, with its freely moving diamonds, has gone through many incarnations. This year, riding on the theme of love, Chopard released Happy Love. Seven diamonds continue to float about on a blue mother-of-pearl dial. But the standout here is the word “love”, stylised in street-art mode — a first for the maison.

The 36mm-diameter Happy Love case is made entirely of steel and fitted with a royal blue glossy leather strap matching the dial colours. It contains a self-winding mechanical movement guaranteeing an approximately 42-hour power reserve. Exclusively available from Chopard boutiques, the Happy Love watch is issued in limited editions of 250 with a polished bezel, and 150 with a diamond-set bezel.

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