iW: We know from the histories of other prominent companies in the watch industry that retaining one’s independence is difficult as a family-owned and -operated company. Do you have a strategy?
Caroline Gruosi-Scheufele: Even though we are family-owned, the strategy is to have very strong management with professionals in different parts of the world because obviously we can’t take care of everything ourselves. Structure-wise, we try to compare ourselves to groups even though we don’t publish our figures. It is interesting for us to see where we stand, where we should go, where we are better, where we are worse and so on.
The size of your company is almost as large as a small group when I look at the figures: three full factory locations, nearly 150 boutiques, about 2,000 employees. Do you see your company as having basically two divisions: one that you head and one that your brother heads?
Well, sort of. You could say it’s split between female and male [elements] in a way. However, there are a lot of things that really overlap and are not separated because it’s a family business. If my brother asks me to go and present an L.U.C. collection in a boutique because I’m there, I will do it and vice-versa. In terms of creation, for sure it’s more me doing the ladies’ sector: anything to do with jewelry, ladies’ watches, and accessories. He’s really developing more the technical side, the movements, the L.U.C manufacture, and I hardly get involved except if he asks me questions on aesthetics. It’s worked very well like that so far.
How do you and your brother share the presidency of the company?
When I arrived in Geneva, I was put in my brother’s office and my father said, “You share the office now so you learn something.” I’m not so sure whether my brother was very fond of it at the time. As we went on, we grew together in the same office, which is actually rather unusual because today you would think we should sit separately, but somehow we realized that we know what the other is doing without having to say it.
The time came when my father said, “We’re moving and if you want, you can have separate offices.” So we spent 24 hours thinking about it and we both came back and said we’re going to stay in the same office. If I have to do something with a group I go to the meeting rooms, I don’t disturb him. But I’m basically sharing my life with my brother when I’m in the factory.
When did Chopard begin adding jewelry to the line?
The jewelry started when I started. My mother gave the name of Happy Diamonds to that collection. Eszeha [the name of the Scheufele family’s Pforzheim business before acquiring the Chopard name in 1963] was really specialized and known for ladies’ watches and even made some cases for different brands like Tiffany and Cartier and a certain collection for Paloma Picasso. In 1963 my father bought the Chopard name when he was 21 or 22 because he didn’t want to work for other brands. However, he said Swiss watchmaking is really in Switzerland, not Germany.
What would you credit your parents or even your grandparents with in terms of inspiration or learning the ropes?
I think I got a big package of education and tradition in watchmaking and in family ethics. For my father, one of the most important things when I was very, very small was not [to learn] the ABCs, it was how to read a watch. I learned how to read the time before learning other things that maybe other kids would do first.
I could imagine there’s quite a bit of pressure involved in continuing a business that has been in the family for more than a hundred years. Do you feel pressure, pride or something else?
There’s responsibility for sure, a certain pride, definitely. We have been approached by two or three of the big players as to whether we would want to sell shares or the whole thing. This was discussed a few times in the family. My mother asked, “How many times a day can you can eat?” I said three times and she replied, “So what else do you need then?” That was a quick answer, though you should never say never. For the time being, we’re quite happy with the way it’s working.
Do you feel any pressure?
For sure there’s pressure: we are responsible for over 1,800 employees plus their families, so we’d better not mess it up, and we’d better come up with the right collections for Baselworld because this is what’s going to decide whether our products are attracting clients. Competition is there for sure, and it’s tough. Big groups obviously come to jewelry shops with a lot of power and say move this brand and give us more space.
There is a lot of politics going on, but somehow I think we are keeping our place. There are also maybe a lot of positive sides to being a family business because the clients meet the family when they go to buy. We are still there, we are the same people. It is not like in some groups when you have a new director coming, a new CEO who changes everything just to make sure that everybody knows he’s there, which is often disturbing to the market. I think there are a lot of positive sides to [being a family-owned business].
Do you ever have friction within the family because of business?
Obviously there are sometimes projects or things on which we don’t all agree in the same way, but then there’s a general consensus or you have to really convince [the others] why you want to do this. There’s always been a solution. On many, many, many other big visions we do agree, so I think that’s the major thing. Sometimes it’s a generation[al thing]; sometimes it’s the females against the male side; sometimes it’s one member who is arguing with the rest of the family. But it doesn’t really happen that often, no.
Please tell us how you began the Chopard high jewelry collections.
A funny story, my father was very upset with me because I didn’t ask him about buying some pink diamonds [in 1997] and I didn’t have the same position as now. As it was before Christmas, I thought I would have the time to talk to him and convince him, but this diamond dealer was so quick, the invoice came much faster than I thought.
So I arrived at the vacation chalet, and my mother said, “What are pink diamonds?” My parents didn’t understand why the pink diamonds were so expensive. My mother ended up calling the diamond dealer and asked, “Are you sure this is the right price?” and he answered, “Yes, and if you want we can take them back because we have a lot of people interested. Your daughter saw them first because I promised.” And she said, “No, we’ll keep them.” My father said, “You’d better have a good idea,” which became La Vie en Rose, and it launched a whole trend in the jewelry and watch business because before that nobody set pink pavé diamonds on a watch. And then came the yellows and the browns, and today the same lot of pink diamonds would be thirty times the price, easy.
So that launched the high jewelry at that point?
What really launched the high jewelry, I would say, is the film festival in Cannes, some forty years back. That was the first step into the high end of watchmaking and jewelry.
It can’t be easy to keep an eye on tradition and innovation at the same time. Is there a family recipe?
Obviously, you have to be innovative and come up with new ideas, but somehow always keep the tradition and the know-how of watchmaking, even in the jewelry. I think Chopard is known for being very creative and innovative, and this is also what the brand stands for while at the same time cherishing knowledge from before. The first picture in the Chopard museum is from 1860, and I often go into the museum and see whether I can get inspired somehow from some older pieces.
Is the work divided between you and your brother—Chopard’s co-presidents—according to talents or interests?
For sure. My brother Karl-Friedrich is a car collector and loves antique cars, so along came the Mille Miglia collection and the involvement of Chopard with the Mille Miglia race. It was not the reason that we are involved in Cannes, but I am a big fan of cinema.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind regarding the reason you joined the family business?
Well, my interest in the field of jewelry and watchmaking; I’m sure if my father had had a company producing cars or trucks I would probably not be there, but this is something very artistic. I think that’s what really made me start because neither my brother nor I were pushed to do that. When I was a small girl, I always used to put my mother’s jewelry and her high heels on and walk around the house.
How important is it for you and Chopard for the company to remain independent as a business entity?
I think it gives us a completely different position in the market vis-à-vis our competitors because as I said, the clients appreciate the “family spirit.” We’re not just a family that owns the company, the family also works. Some family businesses are owned by the family, but somebody else is running it and they look at the figures twice a year and say okay or not. We sit in the cafeteria, we have lunch with everybody.
You can’t just rest on your laurels, either…
Indeed, we have projects. We are opening more and more boutiques around the world. It’s very challenging, but it’s fun, so we have a lot of growth projects.
Chopard’s design and distribution strategy was established in the 1970s and subsequently amplified, reads one sentence from a press release. How so?
Of course we varied because in the 1970s Chopard was a company producing watches only and distributing through retail stores, not our own. It took some time, but we started to open boutiques and today we have nearly 150 boutiques. I think it was the right way forward because we bring the brand much closer to the public and we can express ourselves exactly as we want to toward the final customer, and on top of that we do help the retailers some because the brand is more known.
You will continue your partnerships