Walking down Geneva’s Rue du Rhône is like leafing through a glossy magazine: some of the world’s most coveted jewellery, watch and fashion brands are all present here, and outdoing each other by the splendour of their flagship stores and the elegance of multi-million dollar creations within. How did this Calvinist city, where obvious displays of wealth such as jewellery and adornments were banned in the 16th century become a mecca for today’s luxury shoppers from four corners of the world? And will Geneva’s love affair with luxury continue?
Earlier this week I attended an event that discussed just that. Held in one of Geneva’s finest hotels and organized by one of Switzerland’s foremost private banks, the discussion was led by the heads of two exceptional family-owned luxury brands that trace their roots to the city on the shores of Lake Léman. In their personal testimonials, they shared their companies’ and dynasties’ stories, their ongoing challenge of maintaining independence in an era of an increasingly consolidated luxury landscape, and reflected on the notion of “swissness” in today’s global marketplace.
There was talk of sustainability, too — from installing solar panels on the rooftops of their factories and eliminating toxic materials used in the production to signing up to the highest standards for sourcing raw materials and supporting charitable causes.
But the biggest question on many a mind was: what will be the future of luxury in Geneva and beyond? Will wealthy consumers 50 years from now still desire a bejewelled pen or a complicated mechanical timepiece — or will they be lured by new gadgets and status symbols? And will they still flock to Geneva for their luxury shopping weekend or will they hotfoot it to new ‘it’ destinations like Guangzhou?
Already, 30 percent of customers of an iconic Swiss watch and jewellery brand, which is well known for its association with the Cannes Film Festival, are Chinese. While Europe still remains an important luxury market, with a 40-percent share, all eyes are on new and emerging economies – from South America to Central Asia. Opening a flagship store in Ulaanbaatar and selling exquisite watches and jewellery pieces via an e-boutique are just some examples of how Swiss luxury companies are adjusting to this 21-century reality. The rules governing the use of the ‘Swiss-made’ cachet are also getting stricter.
Alongside the rest of the industry, Geneva’s luxury companies are today redefining themselves, emphasizing their enduring appeal, personalized approach and outstanding quality. However, in order to survive and thrive in the future, they will also need to think big and redefine the concept of luxury itself. After all, as another famous Geneva resident Jean-Jacques Rousseau said: “The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.”