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If you doubt necessity to be the mother of invention, speak to the man behind Swiss jewellery house de Grisogono. Fawaz Gruosi shares his rags-to-riches story
If you would have told 18-year-old Fawaz Gruosi that one day, not only would he not be cleaning windows, but he would be the founder and creative director of an international jewellery company, he probably would have cried from disbelief. But that, ladies and gentlefolk, is exactly what happened… With that foreshadowing (or spoiler, to use more updated parlance), you know how our Aladdin tale ends.
But what about the middle? How did a half-Italian, half-Lebanese young man with a baby on the way and an urgent need to make money become one of the biggest thorns in the side of the haute joaillerie and horlogorie world? As the brand celebrates its 25th anniversary, we sit down with the man behind Swiss jewellery house de Grisogono at his boutique in The Dubai Mall to find out.
You say that you’d like to be independent of prejudice and preconception. The world of high jewellery is very set and has its own old-fashioned rules and doesn’t move forward very quickly. How do challenge preconceptions in Geneva? Easy — I never follow the rules. Since I started in 1993, I actually did the opposite of the rules. And that’s really because I didn’t have enough money. It’s the truth. I had only 16,000 Swiss Francs to start, and you cannot really have a little shop with that.
So, the only way I thought I could maybe make it was to be different, and the difference was that I just transformed minimalism into something big. I started producing merchandise that was all handmade and still is today. I forgot about the traditions and mixed precious with semi-precious stones. They thought I was totally mad.
The first four years were very difficult. I almost closed down that shop one time. But then, slowly, I started gaining success. Every year up until 2008, the company was growing very well — we were doing extremely well, in fact.
And then the crisis came in September, 2008. Again, I almost had to file for bankruptcy; everyone was going bankrupt — big companies, medium and small sized. But I started to recover, slowly, slowly.
So what was it like being an outsider and cracking the high jewellery market? You talk about high jewellery. I never took into consideration high jewellery that or low jewellery this — for me, it was always a matter of love. I know people don’t believe me when I say this, but I don’t work for the money. I work because it’s what I love to do.
Alysia Thomas London
Would you say your goal was not to break into the high jewellery market it as much as it was just to create? It’s actually about the creation. I could create an item and produce 10,000 of it. But we don’t. We’re small that way. It means we’re much smaller than all of them, but that’s because our most important viewpoint is not mass manufacture — it’s creativity. I think that’s what led people to us.
People like Sofia Loren; she came to me in around 1990 and we talked and she liked us.
Had you known Sofia before that or was she just attracted to the brand? No, she had gone to the shop of a friend of mine and from there, she came to visit our boutique, and she was great. She spent a couple of hours there.
From that moment, our lives changed. Ever since then, we haven’t stopped having models and actresses interested in us.
What else is different about de Grisogono? Oh, you know, when we do soirées, it’s not the same as other brands with everyone being older than 50 and in a suit and tie. No, I mix people together. A young person, some 18-year-olds, 60-year-olds, 85-year-olds — and they all look at each other like, “What in the world are you doing here?”
At the first event one was a judge, one was a musician, there were some models. There was a lot of music, a lot of glamour. After the second year, people would kill themselves to be invited.
[At this point Gruosi takes a call, excuses himself and I can overhear him switching languages halfway through.]
How many languages do you speak? Three. Well, three and a quarter. The quarter is Spanish [laughs].
“From the outset, my creative vision has been entirely different from what people were used to seeing ... It was about making a complete break with existing conventions.”
Talk to us about the watches. There are no watches in Geneva that look like yours. You won’t believe it, but I’ve never been a watchmaker. I never liked watches, strangely enough. By the time I started producing watches I already had four boutiques. But the traffic in these stores was very slow, because I was producing only high-end jewellery.
I figured the only way I could change that was to make watches. It’s the only thing that goes well with jewellery. This was in the year 2000, and my first watch was called Instrumento Numero Uno. It came about because I was watching TV at home and I looked at the screen. And the watch I designed was exactly like the TV at the time — it was flat, and it looked like a TV screen on the wrist. It was an immediate success.
We took it to Basel that year and presented it on a tiny table. I said to my collaborator, “If we sell 15 watches, we’ll throw a huge party! Well, we sold 840-something. We hadn’t even manufactured any! They were for future orders [laughs].
I was so excited. I went back to my accountant with all these ideas, and he said, “But we don’t have the money to do that!”
I wanted to shoot myself, because the way he said it just killed me. So I went to see one banker, two bankers, three bankers… Finally, somebody felt very, very sorry for me and we did it. The success was immediate.
The people who hated you for cracking the high jewellery market must have really despised you for getting into the watch game! I can tell you one story. There was a very good brand in Germany. The CEO was asked in an interview, “What do you think of de Grisogono?” He replied: “Well, de Grisogono is a great brand. Very young. They’re very talented, but for watches, they’re really not, you know…”
And I was so upset about that! That was it — I immediately went into very high-complication watches. The mechanical, the digital, etc, etc. And I went further and I kept doing more and more sophisticated watches for ladies. I just wanted to prove to them that I could. And I did. I was happy. Now, they couldn’t say this again.
Let’s talk about your 25th anniversary. What were some of the mistakes and challenges you faced? Well, it’s always been a bad time for me from ’93 until today [laughs].
But no, it’s been a good journey. I just forgot about all the other brands and I just went my own way.
I always wanted to be close to our clients. You know, we don’t have a big staff turnover in the shops like some huge companies. We have intimate relationships with the clients; we go on vacation together. Our sales people go for dinner, lunch etc, and friendships have grown out of these relationships.
A client could even be lawyer and they would never ask me for further discounts. Not because they’re afraid, but you become such close friends that you wouldn’t dare. If we’ve been friends for five or six years, I’m not going to cheat you — I’m going to be fair with the price. And they know this.
Would you mind talking a little bit about your training? I’m guessing you studied gemology? And how did you start on that course? You’re going to laugh! [pauses] I never studied gemmology, never studied marketing. To make a long story short — because it’s too long! — I was 17 and my girlfriend was pregnant. And I didn’t have a job. One day while walking, I saw a jewellery store was looking for a jeweller. I knocked on the door and walked in. The manager put a rag in my hand and said, “Go and clean the windows!”
And I did it. That’s when I really grew up. I went out to clean it so quickly. I was like Speedy Gonzales! Because I was scared that my friends would see me cleaning windows.
Anyway, I was there for a long time. I was just watching, learning. Everything in that shop was handmade, artisan. I took in so much knowledge without them knowing. I was lucky.
From there, I went to London and, long story short, I was hired to sell for Harry Winston. Then they made me a general manager of Saudi Arabia — from 1970 to ’82. That was the time of money falling from the sky. It was the moment of oil. It was pumping money out everywhere.
And then I left and started my own business. Alone, because the money I was making — well, I thought it would be like this all my life [he gestures around the plush boutique]… It was not like this when I started, let me tell you! But now it’s good.
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