What could be the best antidote to the bleak news pouring at us from almost every corner of the globe? How about trying on a woven gold cuff bursting with sunrays of flamingo-pink and brightest azure sapphires for size? Impossible to feel mired in gloom with such a creation twinkling from your wrist.
It was back in the 1960s and ’70s – decades of renewed optimism post- two world wars – that Piaget, the Swiss watch and jewellery brand born in 1874 in the tiny village of La Côte-aux-Fées nestled in the Jura mountains, became a byword for bliss. “Sharing joy is something that has seen a peak in the ’60s and ’70s with the Piaget Society,” says Chabi Nouri, who takes up the mantle of CEO this month. “A lot of people in the creative field were gathering together and enjoying a really good, authentic time,” she smiles. It’s a spirit that Chabi will be reigniting as she takes the reins at this 143-year-old company, so it’s timely that the launch of Piaget’s newest high jewellery and fine watchmaking collection, Sunny Side of Life, coincides with her appointment.
“We’re amplifying the solar side of the brand,” she says. Solar? “As in the sun, as in the positive energy of it. We like to say that Piaget walks on the sunny side of the street,” she laughs.
Optimism is embedded deep in the DNA of Piaget. It was in 1943, when Europe was still in the grip of World War II, that the founder Georges Édouard Piaget’s grandsons Gérald and Valentin officially registered the brand, building a new manufacturing facility two years later to keep up with demand for its watches with their signature ultra-thin movements. “It really shows the confidence the family had in the future, even in difficult times,” Chabi points out.
This sanguine approach resonates today more than ever, says Chabi, whose appointment as CEO marks a first for Richemont, the owner of Piaget. Bloomberg reported that last year Johann Rupert, chairman of the group, which also controls Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier and fashion brand Chloé among others, told investors, “I want to see less grey men, less grey Frenchmen,” on the board, adding, “We have too few women. We don’t have enough diversity.” While Chabi’s appointment, which makes her the first woman to lead a watch and jewellery brand within Richemont, is a sure indication of glass ceilings being shattered, she insists that her career path has never been stymied by her gender.
Chabi completed her masters in economics at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, before joining Cartier as a new graduate in 1998. Progressing to roles such as jewellery group manager at Cartier International and international director at British American Tobacco, before joining Piaget in 2014 as director of marketing, communications and heritage, she says of the watch and jewellery world, “I’ve never felt that it’s a male-dominated industry. I personally never felt this ceiling.”
That said, Chabi is conscious of the need for a successful brand to reflect its global audience. “Diversity is key for a company, and not only gender but nationality too,” she asserts. And while she won’t classify her management style as necessarily feminine, she does lean towards a more inclusive, intuitive approach that often typifies women at the top. “I believe in sharing – discussions, information. I believe in brainstorming, in trying to always do something different. I believe in including people in the decision making process. I try to have a leadership style that is much more into coaching,” she says.
With women buying ever-more jewellery for themselves, rather than relying on men to gift it to them, it is commercially savvy that their voices should be heard at the uppermost reaches of the industry, reflecting the growing autonomy of its client base. “It’s really more empowering that women gift themselves,” Chabi agrees.
Exemplifying this perhaps more than anything else in the Piaget stable is the brand’s Possession line of rings, pendants, open bangles and necklaces, which will be available on Net-a-Porter this month for the first time. Launched in the 1990s, the collection reclaims ownership of jewellery for women by women. Women possess it on their own terms, challenging notions that tie jewellery to male control. “It shows again the empowered woman that buys for herself,” Chabi says, adding, “It’s a very playful product because you can turn it. It’s almost addictive.” With the tagline ‘turn and the world is yours’, the pieces are designed to foster an intimate connection with their owner, “Because by playing with it you go back into your memories, your comfort zone, your stress level goes down,” Chabi smiles, “We believe it’s a way to control your emotions.”
Arguably the most iconic piece in Piaget’s oeuvre is its Altiplano watch, which is 60 years old this year. Known as the world’s thinnest watch – its latest hand-wound incarnation has a thickness of just 3.65mm – the model is subject to constant research and development in order to streamline its movement and allow for ever-more elaborate designs by devoting space to the dial. “That has been the reason we went beyond the necessary to find technical solutions,” Chabi explains. It’s not a movement that shouts about its technical prowess, “It’s a movement to liberate creativity.”
Left: Manchette Story pink gold cuff, Piaget High Jewellery. Right Clockwise from top: Possession open bangles in 18-carat pink gold set with 30 brilliant-cut diamonds and two malachite cabochon, Dhs21,000; 18-carat pink gold set with 30 brilliant-cut diamonds and two black onyx cabochon, Dhs18,300; 18-carat pink gold set with 30 brilliant-cut diamonds and two lapis lazuli cabochon, Dhs22,200, all Piaget
Chabi is reticent to disclose the weighting of the business between watches and jewellery, or men’s and women’s creations, conceding only that it is, “quite balanced”. She points out that the line between timepieces and jewellery is often blurred, especially when you consider the cuff watches that Piaget pioneered in the 1960s that fold precious stones into the artisanal field of timekeeping. This lack of categorisation or reluctance to pigeonhole is something that she says is also deep-rooted in Piaget’s soul.
“Pieces are designed to accompany someone rather than to give a status to someone,” she explains of the fluid approach to defining Piaget creations. Indeed, the five Possession bangles encircling her left wrist nestle there harmoniously and with an unforced ease.
Rather than forging a status symbol, “The priority is the person, the charismatic woman,” she explains. Pieces are intended to be an extension of oneself, an approach which is derived from the bucolic beginnings of the brand in the Swiss countryside. “Our creations are very organic, there are a lot of mineral stones worn very close to the skin.” This knitting together of nature with humanity results in second-skin pieces that “exalt someone’s charisma,” Chabi says.
Born to a Swiss-Italian mother and Persian father – who met when he moved to Switzerland to study around 45 years ago – Chabi’s Middle Eastern connections are enhanced by her Lebanese husband, who works in hospitality. The couple has twins, a boy and a girl who are nearly 10, and the family lives in Geneva with two dogs. Although they speak French at home, the children can understand basic Arabic thanks to their paternal grandparents. “I have a lot of really close friends from the region, which helps to see the region through their eyes, their filter and that’s very valuable in terms of insight,” Chabi says.
As the headline sponsor of Art Dubai for the second consecutive year, Chabi believes that the city “resonates completely with Piaget. It represents the sunny side of life; very dynamic, positive energy.”
She first visited the UAE in the late 1990s, travelling from Ras Al Khaimah around the Emirates, and was immediately drawn to the dynamism of Dubai, she recalls. “Coming from Europe and Geneva and Paris at that time, I so wanted to live here because I thought it was going so fast and developing so well,” adding, “Even if it’s not in the middle of Europe, it’s much more advanced in so many ways. I would have done anything to work here and live here and to go as fast as the city goes,” she laughs.
“The Middle East was one of the first regions that welcomed the brand internationally in the 1960s,” she points out, generating a historical connection with Piaget, “that everyone has experienced through their grandparents, their uncles... There are a lot of emotional moments around Piaget creations that people have in the region, and that’s very strong.”
In turn, Chabi credits Middle Eastern clientele with influencing global jewellery trends. “Most of the women – and the men – here are very advanced in taste, in trends, in understanding things,” she says, adding that when she is in the region, “we feel very quickly what’s going to happen,” pointing out that the jewellery stacking trend first took hold in Arabia.
The sub-text is that jewellery brands would be wise to approach the region with an element of humility. “I don’t think anyone can come here and say, ‘Okay this is a trend and you have to follow that.’ Clients here have real taste and their own personality. And they want us to talk to them in the way people talk here in the region and not come here with a certain European way of thinking,” Chabi explains. She describes the way women wear jewellery across the region as “with a lot of self-indulgence” but only in the best possible sense. “It’s really about wearing it without so many dogmas. It’s just a pleasure to wear and that’s it.”
Beyond its ultra-thin movements, second skin creations and self-soothing functions, the only thing Piaget can’t provide Chabi with is her ultimate luxury, time. “Time with my family, with the people with me at work. Just time. We need to find an invention that gives different time so you can live in a different space,” she laughs, “That would be great.” Until then, Chabi will have to console herself with the knowledge that her time is now.
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Harper's Bazaar Arabia
Fashion Editor: Gemma Deeks. Photography: David Wang at MMG. Photographed at Jumeirah Mina A’Salam