For the Swiss luxury watchmaker, Israeli model Bar Refaeli will boldly go where only man has gone before
Long ago, the domain of fine watchmaking belonged exclusively to men in curled-brim bowlers and high collars who set timepieces to steam locomotives as they snorted past. Despite a deep affinity to the halcyon days of traditional haute horlogerie, watch industry icon Jean-Claude Biver is happy to live in such egalitarian times.
“Timepieces were just for men maybe 100 years ago when doctors or lawyers were mostly men,” said Biver, Chairman of the Administrative Board at Swiss luxury watchmaker Hublot. “Time has, thank god, changed. Today a watch is a piece of art, tradition and culture, and as such, it attracts both men and women. A Swiss quality watch is not only ‘eternity in a box’, but it’s also a piece of fashion and jewelry, which is another reason why it should not only talk to men but also to women.”Biver throws his curled-brim bowler into the ring. In a bid to charm a younger, female demographic, Hublot recently appointed Israeli model Bar Refaeli as the first international female brand ambassador in its 34-year history. It’s an unexpected, terra nova nudge from Nyon-based brand, which annually produces nearly 40,000 watches, with indigenous components, from its Switzerland plants. The LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton-owned luxury watchmaker—where Biver is the President of its Watches Division (and oversees Zenith and Tag Heuer as well)—boasts 750 worldwide points of sale, over 70 exclusive boutiques, and has market share majorities in Japan, Singapore, Russia and America.
Refaeli—a twenty nine year-old, blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty—enchants a mix of Bridgette Bardot’s bounce, Esther Williams’ life aquatic and Ann-Margret’s smolder. Envied for her eternally-tanned, beach-toned limbs, she’s been a glossy cover girl since 2006 at style titles such as Elle, Marie Claire,Glamour and Harper’s Bazaar.
On the arm of Hollywood heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio, she became grist for the paparazzi mill—a March 2006 GQ italia cover emblazoned ‘La nuova sexygirl di DiCaprio’ over her nude portrait, modesty shielded by lithe arms crossed to chest. Before the six year relationship ended in 2011, the duo were snapped in luxurious idylls over Nobu Malibu sushi dinners with legendary cinema directors, courtside at Los Angeles Lakers games with Beverly Hills real estate moguls and music producers, and aboard Cannes-anchored super-yachts ripe with Leo’s raucous entourage. After gracing the Sports Illustrated 2009 swimsuit issue cover, she was folded into the plasticized modeling scrum of American lingerie retail giant, Victoria’s Secret.
On brand ambassadorships, she’s lensed various beauty campaigns including Escada Fragrances, Guerlain, Garnier and L’Oréal, and she’s mastered the watch and jewelry realm as testimonial for H. Stern, Marco Bicego, and Piaget. Although Refaeli touts airtight credentials, brand testimonials are slippery. Meticulously-woven, aspirational narratives must allure without alienating fickle audiences. Pick a famous protagonist and you overshadow the brand. Pick an obscurity and no one blinks. Pick a wildcard and you smudge the heritage.
Refaeli strikes a balance—raised in the dressed-down suburbs of Tel Aviv, her off-duty uniform is t-shirts and jeans. She’s got an easy-going approachability that’s divergent from her haute couture, Amazonian forerunners—the tempestuous monsoon of Naomi Campbell, the otherworldly myth of Elle Macpherson or the aristocratic ice of Linda Evangelista. “Her natural beauty, her authenticity and her fantastic feeling—with a touch of fashion, style and design” is what Biver believes makes her complimentary to the brand.
Based on career provenance, Refaeli’s a grand departure from Hublot’s sports-minded mien. The watchmaker is the official timekeeper of professional sports teams and championships such as the Dallas Cowboys, the Miami Heat, the Los Angeles Lakers, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Ferrari and FIFA Football World Cup. Its rotating deck of highly-competitive sports ambassadors is exclusively male: José Mourinho, Pelé, Usain Bolt, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and Dario Cologna.
For the record, Hublot currently has two female affiliates—Jacqueline Bracamontes and Maria Höfl-Riesch. However, Bracamontes is hedged to the Latin American market where she rides on domestic communication, while Höfl-Riesch is tethered to a limited series, similar to the agreements with Mourinho and Pelé.
So how will fashion industry darling Refaeli fit among Hublot’s outdoorsy ambassadors and why choose a model over an actress, artist or musician? “Hublot is not just sports and so are our customers,” said Biver. “We have to reach a larger audience than just sports, although it remains one of our major focuses. As with all our other ambassadors, Refaeli is sharing authenticity, a taste for design and performance, as well as prestige and success.”
Hublot’s newest appointment reflects a recent downturn of celebrity endorsements, which have saturated luxury brand ambassadorships over the last decade. It’s sparked a throwback to the Nineties when supermodels adorned magazine covers and lensed ad campaigns. At the September fashion shows in New York, London, Milan and Paris, industry insiders swanned into front rows while anemic Hollywood lightweights were relegated to darker seats.Hublot also takes cues from top brands that are scrambling to harness female purchasing power. Women sequester the largest growth market slice in the world, attributed to upticks in earned income. Last year, women spent $20 trillion globally, and in the next five years, it will balloon to $28 trillion. American megabrands such as Nike are aggressively courting the thriving female demographic while shedding the outdated notion that fitness, sport and athleticism is purely the domain of men.
By 2017—entirely from its female customer base (its digital global community tallies it at 65 million)—Nike will net an additional worldwide turnover of $2 billion, up 40 percent from its current $5 billion in annual turnover.
As one of the most seasoned players in the Swiss watch industry, Biver has seen trends come and go—he’s masterminded some, too. Part impresario, part visionary and part maverick, he’s rocketed anonymous, dormant brands into luminous firmaments and has orchestrated industry-sweeping reforms.
Luxembourg-born and Switzerland-raised, he learned sales and business at Audemars Piguet in the Seventies. In the early Eighties, he took a managerial position at Omega, and in 1983, with Jacques Piguet, he bought the Blancpain name after the manufacturer had gone out of business.
When the watch industry embraced quartz technology, Biver rallied for traditional watchmaking, mechanical movements, craftsmanship and vintage design, and led the revolution by shepherding Blancpain back to its historic, circa-1735 roots. Under his guidance, Blancpain became an haute horology touchstone and the watch industry embraced a mechanical renaissance. In 1992, he sold Blancpain to the group that’d later become the Swatch Group, jumped aboard Nicolas G. Hayek’s management team and bolstered its sleepy Omega brand with celebrity and cinema endorsements.
In 2004, he turned his attention to Hublot, sat as its CEO and rolled-out definitive collections. By 2008, after increasing turnover by almost tenfold, he sold the brand to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and passed the CEO crown to trusted colleague and friend Ricardo Guadalupe in 2012.
Hublot’s brand value to a younger, female audience rests on the bronzed shoulders of Refaeli, who officially begins her ambassadorship on January 1, 2015 with a forthcoming advertising campaign. No doubt Refaeli, under Hublot’s auspices, will slink red carpets and galas in floor-length gowns—and when she does, Biver recommends the Hublot Big Bang White or Black Caviar, “or like my wife, the Earl Grey with Baguette Diamond Bezel.” One can only hope that when Refaeli—whose beach-toned body is the greatest weapon in her arsenal—navigates the red carpet, attention will be turned to her wrist
Article by Courtney Smith