In Conversation with Cyrille Vigneron, President and CEO, Cartier InternationalBy Wei Koh
In the five years that he’s led Cartier, Cyrille Vigneron has not only brought his venerable maison to its all-time height of success, but he has also become one of the most inspirational and thought-provoking leaders in all of luxury. In his closing remarks that marked the finale of 2021’s digital version of Watches and Wonders, he gave what is, in my opinion, one of the most important speeches ever made by someone in his field. Here was the CEO of one of the world’s hugest luxury brands explaining to us that the future belonged to deconsumption and that the only way for our sector to remain relevant was to create objects with singularity and perennial durability. He warned that the only thing we can predict was that the future would be unpredictable, and that the luxury industry needs to be far more reactive and to move with much greater velocity. Meaning that the existing long supply chains, or even worse, offshore supply chains used by some brands, were untenable for the future.
He explained that the world we are experiencing belongs far more to the seeming unpredictability and randomness of quantum mechanics than the rational predictability of Newtonian physics. He further asserted that while the last era had been about stereotyping genders, the future belonged to the unstereotyping of genders, and that true luxury was about the revelation of character and not sex. He emphasized that transparency rules the day and while luxury used to be a unidirectional communication from brand to client, today it is very much a dialogue. That dialogue, he explained, must be carried out over every medium to the best of a brand’s ability with the understanding that the requirements of each form of social media is different.
He had the courage to speak about ethics becoming one of the primary concerns for the luxury industry as they are already central to the decision-making process for any potential millennial or Generation Z customer. He explained that one of the best ways for our industry to express our ethics is to create watches that have durability, perennial value and enduring function. He discussed using technology, such as the luxury watch world’s first solar powered movement, as a response to ethical demands. He revealed that as an expression of its ethics, Cartier uses 95 percent recycled gold and has fitted its SolarBeat photovoltaic movement Tank Must watches with non-animal straps made from apple wastes. He explained that each and every individual and company must take ownership of its own carbon footprint and that it was “time for change,” because if we do not collectively make this change happen now, the next generation will never forgive us.
It gave me great pleasure to interview Vigneron during Watches and Wonders to understand his visionary leadership, which is proof positive that ethics and commercial success can not only coexist, but also actually empower us for the future.
WK: My friend Nick Foulkes likes to say, “Before he became CEO, I used to ask Cartier to bring back Collection Privée Cartier Paris (CPCP), but what Cyrille has done is even better — he has made the whole of Cartier CPCP, which is to say every watch is iconic.” How did you do this?
CV: Five years ago, we said, let’s bring Cartier back to what it was loved for — iconic products, beautiful design, a sense of proportion and elegance. When we deviated from this, it was when we began to lose our customers, so let’s get back to this and bring all these beautiful shapes back to light. I was asked if this means we don’t have creativity or that we lack imagination? I said no. To me, beauty matters more than novelty. That is not to say we do not have absolutely new designs. But especially in a world where customers are consuming less and are considering what they purchase more, it is even more important to have a durable quality, a singularity and a timelessness. When it comes to revisiting the past correctly, it actually takes great creativity because we must have respect for what is beautiful and what clients love the brand for. The more we do this, the more we see clients, journalists and collectors coming back to us and saying, “This is the Cartier we like.” Five years later, it seems obvious. But five years ago, it was not perceived this way.
WK: What were the greatest lessons of the pandemic?
CV: There are several lessons from the pandemic. The first is to be ready for the unexpected. In the last decade, we had the financial crisis in 2009; the crackdown on gifting in China in 2015; challenges related to Hong Kong in 2019; and we had a global pandemic in 2020. So it seems that change is constantly coming. You could say something significant changes every two to three years. In some ways, the unexpected is now the expected. As the author Nassim Taleb says [in his 2007 book], “Black Swans are coming.” So we must be ready, because even if something is not predictable, it can be anticipated. In this case, the fixed plan doesn’t work. We must be flexible.
In the watch industry, the long supply chain doesn’t work because it doesn’t allow for the unpredictability that has become the new norm. We have to react quickly. Also, to have offshore suppliers is not ideal because it lengthens the time needed to make watches, so manufacturing for the entire industry must consolidate more in Switzerland. 2020 was the perfect example of a perfect collapse followed by a fast rebound in the markets that were open.
The second thing we learned from the pandemic is to recognize that we are much more in an era of quantum mechanics than we are in Newtonian physics. Meaning: we live in a time of uncertainty, randomness where there are things you can know, but many things you can’t know. So the idea of making a plan, drawing a fixed line, it doesn’t work anymore.
The last thing I would say is, you must be true to who you are. This crisis has been a strong revelator. It has been a moment of truth. Aristotle’s philosophy, that can also be called [personified] by the Greek god Caerus, relates to what is timely and what is true. It is a moment where space and time gather as truth. This crisis has been that kind of moment. So you can see that those brands that have been true to who they are have done well. But those who have tried many things to place themselves far from who they are have been less and less convincing. In the end, I would say, we should embrace the Asian philosophy that life is impermanent and immaterial, and you must be true to who you are.
WK: Many are expecting a rebound to happen, one to be compared to the Roaring Twenties, once the majority of the world is vaccinated and the pandemic is truly over. Do you agree?
CV: I don’t know if you can compare it to the Roaring Twenties. But what we have seen in post-crisis behavior is that there is first an economic rebound. We don’t need to go back to the 1920s, but just to 2010, 2011 and 2013, when we had a massive economic rebound and governments and central banks put so much money back into the system to revitalize and support the economy after it had been disturbed and disrupted. This is usually a strong period of growth in general for the economy, and for luxury in particular. So we should probably expect to see this.
That being said, we should not expect this across the board and all countries. Some sectors will rebound faster than ever; some countries and even some cities will do the same. Others will not. We must recognize that we are in a diverging world. Some will soar to euphoria while others will stay in crisis. Until the vaccine has been broadly distributed, which will take about a year from now [at time of writing, March 2021], we will have this divergence. After that, we will see a rebound, but then again probably differently depending on where you are. We will see a renewed interest in travel because we have all been deprived from traveling, and there will probably be a great desire to do this again. In conclusion, we will see economic boost, we will see a lot of traction for luxury, and we will see renewed interest in travel, but maybe more for cultural travel and more selective travel.
WK: Is the Tank Must intended as a bridge to the next generation in the same way the Must de Cartier Tank of the ’70s was created for Cartier to reach an all-new audience?
CV: The interesting thing about this watch is that it really revisits the Tank Louis Cartier design. So in some ways, even though it is a modern watch and everyone is praising its modernity, it is one of our oldest designs. Into this vessel we place our most innovative technology, which is our SolarBeat photovoltaic movement , and added a non-animal strap. But certainly the colored dials and the Deco dials, for instance, are a tribute to what we did in the 1970s. When you have a long family tree, there are many moments you can select to celebrate. What we find interesting is that customers are equally interested in the Tank Must Innovation as they are in the red dial Tank Must.
In terms of being a bridge to the new generation, I think it is yes. Because the first thing it says is that there is no tension at all between heritage and innovation. We are about living heritage and living tradition. We must constantly revisit and innovate in terms of design, technicality, ergonomics and durability. So we took the oldest design like the Tank Louis Cartier and we put the most modern and technologically advanced movement, which derives its power from light, into it.
I would say it is not just for the new generation but everyone that has much more respect for the environment and for sustainability. This means we must be focused on durability, transferability and repairability. This is going to be a long-term trend. We actually already raised this question five years ago when we launched the new Panthère. As part of that campaign, we asked customers with existing Panthères to bring their watches back to us, and we would repair them for free and provide a new two-year warranty for the watches. We wanted to show we were committed to the sustainability of our watches. We had so many people bringing their watches in and in some ways rediscovering how timeless this icon is.
WK: You have made the luxury world’s first solar powered watch. Is this meant to be a statement of ethics or innovation, or both?
CV: People ask me,why don’t you do connected watches because the new generation really likes this kind of watch? I said no — because this technology is too perishable. At Cartier, we create designs that are timeless, that endure. If I put an electronic module into my watch that is obsolete in two years, what do I do with this beautiful design? Instead, I should use technology to enhance the longevity of my watches. That’s why we did the SolarBeat photovoltaic movement which can last for 16 years before it needs to be serviced.
Technology is not everything. The iPhone did not exist 20 years ago and probably will not exist in 20 years. But the Tank Louis Cartier, Panthère, Pasha and Santos will still be here because they are iconic. They can be passed on to generation and generation, because they don’t age. We need to make an effort to ensure that the movements are repairable so the watches are durable. One of the most ethical things we can do is make watches that last forever. From a design perspective, they will stay relevant. What is special about Cartier’s designs is that they are essential — if they hadn’t existed, we would have had to invent them. But we must also ensure the inner quality also enables our watches to endure indefinitely.
WK: I am really impressed with how accessibly priced the Tank Must collection is. How is it that Cartier is not only one of the hottest watch brands around, but also offers one of the best value propositions?
CV: Five years ago we said, let’s give back as much value as possible to customers. The point was not to make our watches as expensive as possible. For me, they had to be iconic and beautiful, but they also had to be good value for money. And they should be as easy to live with as possible. That is why our watches now all have interchangeable straps, and we can even retrofit these onto existing watches — to make watches constantly more beautiful, more durable, and with the best value possible. That is why when we created the Tank Must Innovation, we priced it the same as a normal [Cartier quartz] watch. I am sure we will reach a very broad audience who will find this watch beautiful, but also affordable.
WK: Cartier is one of the few brands that makes truly genderless watches. The Tank Must is the perfect example of this. What is the secret to appealing to everyone so universally?
CV: If you look at watches in the past, they were mostly genderless. That is because during the majority of the 20th century, gender in terms of how each sex would dress was already so strictly defined: men with their suits and women with high heels and permed hair. This lasted until the 1970s. But then we started to see some flexibility with the way you dress (women in Armani power suits in the ’80s), and some of these — jeans, for example — are genderless. So then, people needed other signifiers about their gender such as their accessories and in particular their watches. So it is really in the past 20 years where you have a stronger polarization between male and female watches, with men’s watches getting much larger, thicker and sportier, and women’s watches getting smaller and gem-set. But then, you have watches that are neither masculine nor feminine, and I would say that our icons are like this. The Crash, Santos, Tank and Baignoire are all genderless. They appeal to people with strong characters independent of their gender or their origin.
The Cartier customer has always been someone with strong self-affirmation. Cartier’s products have aspects that are both masculine and feminine. The Pasha, for example, is both round and square. Probably there are some models like the Pasha Chronograph that might be perceived as more masculine and sporty. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be worn by a woman. Quite the opposite, it can look very beautiful on a woman with a strong character. For her, it could be a sign of power. Whereas you would consider the Pasha 30mm to be more feminine, but it can look very elegant on a man. So today everyone can use what he or she or they want to express their own identity.
We have watches that have a strong sense of identity but are also genuinely genderless. The Tank Must can be suitable for all generations and all genders. In some ways, it is just the wonderful sense of beauty that is in there, and this appeals to everyone. What is clear today is that we should remove the stereotypes that dictate men should wear this and women should wear that. Rather, anyone can use any product from Cartier to express who they are. The past was about stereotyping the genders. What is happening today is we are becoming unstereotyped, where people have the latitude to wear whatever they feel expresses their identity. Don’t forget that no one needs a watch to tell time today. Your iPhone will automatically change the time zone when you land in a new city. So watches have lost their raison d’être as timekeeping instruments, but gained an even more important role in society to tell people who you are. When it comes to telling people who you are, the design is far more important than the movement. A Cartier watch is, therefore, to tell people who you are, what design you like and who you have become. Watches today are the witness of who we are and who we have become.
WK: I really love the new Pasha Chronograph, especially in yellow gold. Tell us about the hidden light signature you included in this design. It is great and unexpected…
CV: When we wanted to relaunch the Pasha, I told you that we looked through every version of the watch that has ever been made, but ended up using the very original watch as our source of inspiration. During that process, we saw a lot of watches that had this wonderful flamboyance, such as the Pasha Golf and, of course, the Chronograph. We wanted to bring back this sense of style in the new chronograph version with its oversized pushers and larger-than-life styling. There were examples of this chronograph with luminescent markers, and we thought it would be wonderful to bring these back but in a subtly different way. We were thinking that after the pandemic, we could appeal to people with watches that were very subdued such as the Tank Must, but also, there will be people who will want to celebrate by wearing watches that have a real energy and flamboyance, and that is what we achieved with the chronograph. Why do we add this ring of Super-LumiNova inside the bezel that lights up the whole watch? To bring an additional sense of energy. I think in a year from now when the pandemic is finally over, we will want to say, “We are full of sun and light again,” and that is what this watch says to me.
WK: What is the balancing act between being faithful to an icon and evolving it for today?
CV: This is where the work of the archives and the design studio come together. The question we ask is always what best embodies the spirit of that icon today? When we decided to transition the Tank Solo into the Tank Must family, one of the key ideas was to soften the brancards and go back to the original Tank Louis Cartier design. Then we asked ourselves, what would be the sense of proportion that would make the watch right today? What would be the elements such as an interchangeable strap or a solar powered movement that would make the watch right for today? What you don’t see is how many different designs are made by the creative studio before we decide on the one that will be for today. Once we have the right design, we ask how many variants can be explored within it. With Cartier Privé, for example, when we look at the Tank Asymétrique or the Cloche, we see if we can do versions with skeleton movements. Can we try it with different case materials and dial colors? How does it look? If it looks beautiful, we will often say, let’s do it in order to offer our clients more choice.
This is about the respect for the past, but also the creation of a new interpretation. It is like when you take classic music and reinterpret it and become re-inspired, or when classic becomes jazz — for example, when you have Édouard Ferlet reinterpreting Bach to give it a new relevance. This is what we do when we approach the revival of an icon. What we must first do is understand and appreciate the initial composition to see what made it so special before we can make the evolution to adapt it to the modern world. It is like looking at a chessboard. So many openings have to be made over time, but then a great chess player can invent new combinations.
The first step is to find the point of origin for the rebirth, then we define the right proportions for today. Finally, we explore how much latitude we have to play with it and add things that make it truly relevant for today. It is a collective process, but I must say the design studio does an amazing job.
WK: Cartier watches across all time periods — vintage, Cartier London, CPCP, and brand new — are exploding in popularity, collectibility and value. How did you make this happen?
CV: As I mentioned before, this crisis has been a moment of truth and if you are true to who you are, then you find your audience. I would say this has been the outcome of five years’ worth of effort to, as our friend Nick Foulkes says, “make Cartier entirely iconic.” I also think we are at a time when we need less novelties and more enduring icons, and at moments of crisis, people want those watches that are most familiar and most timeless. Finally, I think people arrived at the conclusion that Cartier watches are just beautiful, and that they want them now. There was this convergence where everything we’ve been trying to do paid off in this most crucial moment. It’s the kind of conjunction that you don’t plan; it just happens to be.
WK: You are the luxury watch world’s first proponent of deconsumption. In a world that is looking to consume less, describe the necessity of beauty.
CV: Beauty is more important than novelty. And when it comes to functionality, the truth is we need this less and less, especially when we are surrounded at every moment by so much technology. But why do you have an expensive watch if it is not so functional? Here you need to understand it is about a sense of beauty. Two years ago, we had an exhibition in London on the Santos, curated by Sir Norman Foster. He made many associations between architecture and watch design. During the opening speech, he said that for many years watchmakers have tried to master time. But the human experience of time is much more biological because time for us is finite. We age and eventually, we perish. But there is one way to transcend time and that is through design.
A beautiful design doesn’t age. This is the power of Cartier’s designs. They are ageless and they do not lose their relevance. For example, the Love bracelet has never been more popular, but many people don’t realize that it was created 60 years ago. Or the Tank Must… the new generation will see it and like it, and if they ask when it was first created, we tell them it was about 100 years ago. When we talk about things that are truly transcendental, we always arrive back at design and beauty, and following a global crisis, this is what we need more than ever to uplift us. This is the necessity of beauty. When watchmakers focus too much on function and not enough on design, they are in some ways missing what we are yearning for today. Beauty is the key to being timeless yet timely.
WK: You are Switzerland’s third largest producer of watches. But you never talk about this. Why?
CV: Well, that is the statistic that has been reported by others, but why should we mention it? Anyway, I think with the current trend, we should get back to the number two position quite quickly. But to me, that number doesn’t matter. Beauty matters.
WK: This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the amazing Tank Cintrée. Will there be any other celebration beyond the amazing tribute to the original that you stealth-launched early this year?
CV: For the Tank Cintrée that we launched earlier this year, the idea was really to create a very faithful celebration of the original with this very thin case, which is not waterproof because of the way it is constructed. Regarding this kind of design, the 150-piece special edition will be it. We will not make more of this kind of watch. Of course, the Tank Cintrée from 2018 was a different design which was water resistant, and we might always do something with this case in the future. But regarding the 100th Anniversary edition of the Tank Cintrée, that is finished and I would not want to repeat it — even though there is enormous demand for this watch — out of respect to the clients who purchased it.
WK: We all speculate which icon you will revive each year with Cartier Privé. Many of us are waiting with great anticipation for a Tank à Guichet. Tell us why you selected the very beautiful Cloche this year.
CV: It is funny that you asked me about the Tank à Guichet. You are the second person that has mentioned this watch to me. What I will ask you is to send me your sort of wish list for Cartier Privé regarding the icons that you would like to see revived and in which order. I have also requests for the Tortue Monopusher but would be interested to see from you and your friends’ perspectives [in] what order you would want to see these icons reborn.
Why the Cloche? It seemed like it was time after the Crash, Tank Cintrée and Tank Asymétrique. It was simply for this and no other reason. And it seemed the time was right as the reaction to the watch has been really positive — because we are, more than ever, in a period where people really want beauty. Of all our watches, this might be the one that is most challenging to read on the wrist, but then again I think that its primary objective is to be a masterwork of design, which it certainly is. What I really like is when you take it off and put it on the table, and it becomes a kind of small travel clock. It has this mysterious beauty, and I am very pleased it has been received so well.
WK: One of the questions I get asked often is how someone can enter the special order program at Cartier. What would you recommend?
CV: There is no great mystery as to how to enter the special order program. What you have to do is approach our boutiques and our sales associates. There is no specific restriction. It is more about what the occasion is and what is it that people would like to have. We cannot make a specific watch for everyone and it has to stay within the guidelines of what is Cartier. It is always best to stay within existing models with some adjustments in design, for example, to the dial.
We also do watches to celebrate certain moments. Two years ago, there were two exhibitions on Cartier: in Beijing in the Forbidden City and in Tokyo. The one in Tokyo was curated by Hiroshi Sugimoto, the famous architect and photographer, titled “Crystallization of Time” who made a lot of things that relate to time for the exhibition. He had placed stones throughout the exhibition that absorbed energy, and then returned the energy to you. It was about the crystallization of time; to say that after you spend 20 minutes here you will become 20 minutes younger because of the return of energy from these stones. To express this, he had taken an old 1908 clock and remounted it so that it ran counterclockwise. This was placed at the entrance with two huge crystals that functioned as the pendulum. And so we made for him a very special watch — a platinum Tonneau that runs counterclockwise. There is only one and it is just for him because to him it is very meaningful. For us, many of the special orders are approved based on their meaning, the specific need and significance to you.
We also love to work with the network of collectors and communities. If you say to us, for example, that your club loves the Tank Asymétrique and wants to make a special Asymétrique just for you as a celebration, then why not? We can do that for you too and it would be our pleasure.
WK: To me, the genius of Cartier Vintage is that it is proof positive that the watch you buy today can be a future collectible. Is this the objective?
CV: We have this collection called Cartier Tradition, when we find certain products on the market, we buy them back. This could be something like a mystery clock, jewelry or very old watches. We would buy them, refurbish them and then decide to either keep them in our permanent collection or to offer them to our clients. There has always been a strong demand for these objects. But what we realized recently was we had multiple ways of looking at the past and the message is always to express our timelessness. It means that it doesn’t matter if you bought something from Cartier 100 years ago, 50 years ago, 20 years ago or even today; it is equally timeless.
With Cartier Vintage, we decided with Pierre Rainero [Cartier’s Image, Style & Patrimony Director] to focus on watches made from the 1970s, which was when Cartier started to be offered at watch retailers, through to the early 2000s which marked the end of the CPCP project (1998–2008). These are watches that we had purchased on the market and refurbished to like-new condition, even making new parts when necessary. Some of these are watches we no longer make, or I should say, do not make at the moment. To me, this [Cartier Vintage] is highly complementary to vintage themed re-editions such as the 150-piece Tank Cintrée watch that celebrated this model’s 100th anniversary. It also complements Cartier Privé which is about revisiting our iconic shapes but with some new elements. Having them all sitting side by side with each other offers customers three choices. Actual vintage watches with Cartier Vintage, a revisitation of the past with a limited edition, or a reinvention of the past with Cartier Privé.
The message is that today’s creations are tomorrow’s treasures, and that Cartier watches today are as beautiful as they were at the moment of their inception, because true beauty in design never fades.
I think what we do today can only be fully understood in 20 or 30 years’ time. For example, the Tank Must was at one point not considered to be a serious watch by collectors because it was in a vermeil [gilt-silver] case. Today, this has become an object of great collectibility. In the 18th century, Telemann was much more accepted than Bach because he was far more mainstream and his music was easy to understand and appreciate; Bach was considered to be a bit weird with so many polyphonies. So when we look at the past with fresh eyes, it allows us to identify true beauty. But we need to look at everything we offer together with these collective eyes. It is like arriving at an old palazzo. The first thing you need to do is open the windows and let the fresh air come in, clean all the walls so you can see the beautiful frescoes, and be inspired by the beauty before making any transformations to the house.
WK: If you look at the other successful brands in the watch industry, many of their most desirable models are always out of stock. As you continue to grow, how will you manage the balance between supply and demand without upsetting customers as others have?
CV: To me, I feel that anyone that wants to buy one of our watches should have access to it. There are some watches that are produced in a limited edition because they are a celebration, and to me, they should be a bit rare. The Tank Cintrée this year is finished, and when it is finished, it is finished. Because we do what a celebration requires — which is to make it special. If you have a birthday every day, then it loses value. For some of our complicated watches like the Astrotourbillon, they are limited by how long they take to make. But in general, there should be no production limitations as long as things are done nicely, meaning executed at the highest level of beauty and quality, which makes them durable. We do not monitor scarcity in a way just to tease the market.
Some watches will be limited because they celebrate something special, but others will not be limited because there is absolutely no reason to deprive people. The point for me is to be universal without being banal. If you oversupply, then this is wrong. If you try to push products onto the market or to customers that don’t want them, then you are wrong. Luxury is related to desire and if you oversupply, you kill the desire. At the same time, you should not deprive them of pleasure.