Tea With Claudia: Michael Belleveau

claudia juestel, michael bellevau
Claudia Juestel with Michael Belleveau (Photo: Liam O’Donnell)

I had the pleasure to meet for tea with Baccarat’s President and CEO Michael Belleveau at the San Francisco unveiling of Jaime Hayon’s collection of art objects at Gump’s recently. Not only an expert in his field, Mr. Belleveau was also disarmingly charming and a joy to listen to. We had an in-depth and most stimulating conversation about the light and dark sides of the renowned fine crystal manufacturer.

Surrounded by exquisite Baccarat crystal and seated on a sofa by Barbara Barry we were sipping her namesake tea “Barbara Barry’s Orange Grove” from graceful “Radiance” tea cups, served from an antique silver tea pot. Gump’s certainly made this interview an elegant affair.

Gump’s window (Photo: Liam O’Donnell)

Claudia Juestel: You’re here to introduce Baccarat’s new collection at Gump’s. How often do you come to San Francisco?

Michael Belleveau: I come to San Francisco as often as I can. I’m a former resident of San Francisco. I lived on the Peninsula for two years, and I was here in the City for two years. I was too young to appreciate it then, and I’m glad to visit it whenever I can. It’s a wonderful city that offers a myriad of activities in every walk of life.

CJ: And what are some of your favorite things to do, or your favorite places to visit when you’re here?

MB: My family has relatives here. My wife is from southern California originally. Given the proximity to the Wine Country, we typically visit there when we come. We will sometimes take an excursion to the City for shopping and dining. We visit Gump’s often, because when we lived here years ago, I was a sales representative in charge of Northern California and Gump’s was my most important customer. So there’s a lot of nostalgia here for me. I always have pleasant feelings when I come back.

CJ: Prior to taking the helm at Baccarat you’ve had extensive luxury retail experience with firms such as Raymond Weil, Bulgari and Cartier. What is different about running a company that has its core in fine crystal, compared to one that sells jewelry and watches?

MB: This question can be answered in a couple of ways. For me, being at Baccarat is, in a sense, coming back home as I began my career in the decorative home and table top industry at the when I lived in California the first time. I was in the silver flatware, giftware and decorative accessories business then, representing an old New England company called Towle Silversmiths.

After that, I entered the Swiss watch business for 15 years, working with four different companies. During these years, I was introduced to luxury goods marketing for the first time, while working for Cartier and later for Bulgari. I became knowledgeable, very comfortable, and developed a love for the luxury end of the business. Certainly, this stays with a person once one has experienced it.

So I’ve been fortunate to return to Baccarat in that I’ve been able to combine my knowledge of the home business from the past, with the affinity for and understanding of luxury that I gained during my time in the watch business.

Glass Blower at the Baccarat Factory (Photo: Baccarat)

CJ: Baccarat was founded in 1764. I understand that by 1816 they had an impressive 3,000 people working for them at its the factory. This is a company with a remarkable history over the last 245 years. What would you consider Baccarat’s most compelling achievements?

MB: That’s a difficult question. I think that if I were to characterize what’s important about Baccarat, both in terms of its history and today, I would say that we are, as the question states, a very old company. But it’s very important to note that old, in our case, doesn’t necessarily connote only a chronological age. I think that age provides us with authority. It gives us a certain heritage. It has given us, over the years, the ability to create perfect products that have become classics over time.

But very importantly, throughout our history we have always worked with living designers of the time. An example would be George Chevalier (1894-1987), who worked with us for 50 years. He introduced the Art Deco sensibility to Baccarat, among many other things. And we can very easily list designers who are associated with us today who’s age range from 25 years old to 60 years old who are steeped in what’s happening at the moment, not in the last century. And it’s through these designers that, over the years, we have nurtured our own internal DNA as a contemporary company.

george chevalier vase
“Celimene” vase, designed by George Chevalier in 1950

I think of Baccarat as a contemporary company of a venerable age, a 245 year old modern company. Therefore, preserving this dichotomy between having a long history and remaining contemporary is a very important ongoing achievement for us. It’s very important that our seasonal new product introductions reinforce that important characteristic of Baccarat.

Certainly, there are more individual achievements that we have amassed during our history. We have won many design awards in the past. At the French Expositions of 1816 and 1823, for instance.

It is through this “early PR” that we became known among the crowned heads of Europe. This is the way that our renown was spread in those days, through the monarchs of Europe, the czars of Russia, and later the presidents of the United States. For this reason, we came to call ourselves the “Crystal of Kings”, because we became famous through the kings. This was not merely a tag line in an advertisement.

harcourt goblet
Harcourt goblet, designed in 1841

CJ: And do they still have such expositions and competitions?

MB: Well, today things have changed a in terms of how we expose our products. We attend trade fairs that are very important to us. We have Maison et Objet, which takes place in Paris twice a year, within which we participate. That’s a very important exposition for us because it broadens the appeal of the brand for us. It exposes us to a wide audience, including retailers, press, designers, and developers. This event gives us a chance to expose our work to designers with whom we can collaborate at the same time. Also, we have a grand presence at the Baselworld in Switzerland each year devoted to the introduction of new jewelry products each spring.

CJ: You mentioned that you’re collaborating with designers, designing products specifically for Baccarat’s special collections. The first independent designer who created a collection for Baccarat, from what I learned, was Roberto Sambonet in 1972. Since then many international designers and artists have worked with Baccarat, among them Van Day Truex, Salvador Dali, Andree Putman, Philippe Starck and Barbara Barry. Please tell us about more noted designers who have created collections for Baccarat more recently.

MB: We have a fantastic designer from Israel by the name of Arik Levy who is extremely prolific and designed a beautiful collection for us and continues to work both in table wear and lighting.

ari levy
“Fantome” ceiling light, designed by Arik Levy in 2007

There are a number of extremely talented women who have designed for us over the years, recently a talented young designer by the name of Stephanie Ballini. In 2005 Stephanie Balini was still a student in her senior year when she took part in the Young Designers competition devised by the Comite Colbert as a showcase for burgeoning new talents. For this competition devised for art school students, the luxury firms in the Comite’s membership brought together a group of young participants to work on a design theme appropriate to their brand philosophy.

Stephanie Ballini chose Baccarat and its objective: the creation of a new luxury stem. At the Baccarat selection board, Stephanie’s project won hands down among some forty proposals. Among other rewards, winning gave rise to a training period at the Baccarat manufactory in which to complete her project, which we later launched worldwide to much success. Although Stephanie’s name might not be well-known yet, she will certainly make her mark in the design world in no time.

stephanie balini
“Damoiselles” collection, designed by Stephanie Balini in 2005

On the other spectrum of noted designers you mentioned Philippe Starck. We’ve had a very exciting and productive relationship with him. He collaborated with us first to redesign our headquarters in Paris.

philippe starck
Philippe Starck at the Maison Baccarat in Paris

CJ: The Maison Baccarat in Paris is fabulous!

MB: It is a fabulous place. It was a residence that was a 10,000 square foot home originally, in a beautiful residential area of Paris. It had been owned by a former patron of the arts of Salvador Dali, Marie-Laure de Noailles, back in the late 1800s. The home is steeped in history, and it’s connected with a designer with whom we worked in the past. So, the appropriate juxtapositions were all in place.

maison baccarat
“Crystal Room” Maison Baccarat, Paris

Starck approached the project with a terrific sense of creativity and maintained the lighthearted approach that he takes to all his projects, contrasting light and dark, good and bad, black and white, to create provocative conflicts within his work. And at the same time, he saw the need for Baccarat not to take ourselves too seriously, and for our clients to derive a sense of whimsy and fun from the brand.

It’s easy for us to impress people with beautiful chandeliers, fabulous table settings and very luxurious products that sparkle in the light. But Starck didn’t want us to appear intimidating in the process. Instead, he decided to position our products in an environment that was very different. He wanted to create, in the store that exists within our headquarters, a backdrop that was very stark, almost urban, gray and flat in order both to accentuate the products and make fun of them a bit. He created walls inside our store called “trash walls”, that are cement walls randomly decorated with graffiti.

And whimsically, he said ‘We’re going to create a beautiful long crystal table that I will design, that’s electrified from the base, and we’ll put it on a carpet within which is printed a man’s arm holding up each leg. We’re going to take a beautiful chandelier, and we will find a way to light it while it’s submerged in a tank of water. We’ll take your beautiful “Abysse” vases from your archives, and project holograms of two ladies having a conversation about Salvador Dali on them.’

He turned our headquarters into a place that respected our brand, that brought us very much into the present moment, that became a showplace for us, a place for our customers, our clients, tourists and residences of Paris to visit. It houses a store, a museum, a very fine restaurant, a ballroom that was imported from Italy in pieces and reassembled in the house. It’s a very special place. We have since, inspired by that, created a second Starck-designed Maison Baccarat in Moscow. He was able to transform a similarly unique space into a different, yet very identifiable, brand headquarter in Moscow.

maison baccarat moscow
Maison Baccarat, Moscow

Also, Phillippe Starck created commercial creations for us. He created a “Dark Side” collection, which started with the first perfectly black crystal chandelier, an inspiration from our traditional “Zenith” chandelier, but in pure black.

Then he created a grouping of accessories around that, of vases, stemware and barware that all had their own individual little story to tell. For instance, one of the pieces he created was a set of “Harcourt” stemware, which is our most famous, one of our oldest patterns. He went to our designers in the factory and he said ‘If I wanted a perfect black Harcourt goblet, how many pieces would have to be made until a perfect one was produced?’ And the artisans in the factory answered that typically it would require the manufacture of five pieces to make one perfect black one, because black crystal is harder to realize perfectly than clear.

From this thought, he fashioned a conversation piece that shows the collector all the steps that led up to the perfect black goblet. The “Un Parfait” collection, with five goblets included — four imperfect and one perfect beautifully packaged and dedicated it to Salvador Dali, the artist who was a friend of the original owner of the house in Paris.

philippe stark baccarat
“Un Parfait” collection, designed by Philippe Stark in 2005

CJ: How many did you produce?

MB: I don’t know the answer to that question, but it was many, many sets. It became, from a brand communications standpoint, a very important piece for us. It spoke to the company’s agelessness and continued to reinvent us as a fresh and new concept.

CJ: It sounds like Philippe Starck was a turning point, an impetus for Baccarat.

MB: Yes, exactly. He was very important in our life. And it was a turning point that occurred recently with the 2003 launching of the Paris Maison Baccarat, an achievement that has taken on a life of it’s own. The successful collaboration with Starck and other fine designers has paved the way well to our newest association with Jaime Hayon whom we’re here to celebrate today.

jaime hayon
Jaime Hayon with pieces from his “Candy Set” collection

CJ: Tell me a little bit about him and how that came about.

MB: This was an idea, which emanated from the United States. Meeting Jaime happened somewhat by chance in that Jaime Hayon was acquainted with one of our executives, Jaime Jimenez, here in the United States. Knowing that we’re always looking for new ideas and new collaborations he introduced Jaime to our marketing and development team in Paris because he had an idea that his work would translate beautifully into crystal, and that Jaime’s wonderful personality and flexible outlook on life would create a nice working atmosphere. This turned out to be correct.

jaime hayon
Sketch by Jaime Hayon

Jaime began the “Crystal Candy Set” project well over two years ago, developing a special collection for Baccarat that we’re presenting today at Gump’s. It seems to have been a labor of love for him, and something that, turned out to be quite unique and breathtaking when seen for the first time. And it has been commercially successful as well.

candy, baccarat
“Crystal Candy Set” presented in the Maison Baccarat ballroom, designed by Jaime Hayon in 2009

To give you some specifics on Jaime’s collection: As he began working and translating his vision into crystal, he decided to combine two important elements, crystal, both cut and colored, using a process called “casing”, pouring colored crystal into clear crystal. He combined our crystal with Italian ceramics, using a small ceramics house outside Venice, to create what he ultimately called the crystal candy set, which are nine, limited edition, individually signed and numbered pieces of contemporary decorative art.

The nine vessels are limited to twenty-five units each to satisfy worldwide consumption. As they tour the US in special trunk show events, the nine pieces are always shown together as an entity.

“After Nine”
harcourt lolly
“Harcourt Lolly”
“Red Passion Golf”
“Pia Passion”
“Lucky Green”
“BonBon Treasure”
“Blackberry Freeze”
“Jelly Copper”
“Nuclear Pomegranate”

People are surprised by the amount of detail, the color, the marriage between the two mediums, but also the scale of the pieces. They are large, impressive, and are pieces that certainly make an extremely strong statement individually.

CJ: It is a very exciting collection, most impressive seen in person! You mentioned Baccarat collaborating with a company in Venice. You are including materials that are not produced by Baccarat. Baccarat stands for perfection. How did you decide that their work was up to Baccarat’s high standards, how did you test them, how did you find them?

MB: Jaime introduced us to them, and their product is sublime. And frankly, the way that we achieve perfection at Baccarat is the way that this ceramic manufacturer creates, and it’s by breaking a lot of imperfect pieces, only keeping those pieces, which are perfect.

CJ: Can we mention the name?

MB: They prefer to maintain a low profile.

CJ: Do you recycle all those materials?

MB: Yes. We do what’s called cullet the broken crystal, and that is part of the secret crystal recipe that we have at Baccarat, that’s not fully disclosed to the outside world, that includes a silica, potash, and lead oxide is a very important component as well.

CJ: I assume that any luxury brand needs to take somewhat a consistent approach worldwide. However, do you have a different modus operandi in regards to American consumers compared to Europe or Asia, for example?

MB: Well, you’re right. Consistency is very important in luxury because the hallmark of a successful luxury brand is the fact that when a consumer touches that brand in any way, whether it’s through physical contact, through advertising, editorial, printed materials, brand codes of any kind, he should leave that experience with the same feeling, and with a reinforcement regarding what they already love and trust about the brand.

That is of ever increasing importance to us. We are well known as the finest crystal maker in the world, and we embrace the discipline that goes along with managing a luxury brand, as well as spreading our wings from a diversification standpoint to include more product categories, which successful luxury brands also do. If you think of the finest brands in the world, like Chanel, like Cartier, like Hermes, just to pick three, they are diverse in terms of their product offerings. They all have a core from which they were born, and from there they gained authority to expand their collections, which were acceptable by the luxury consumer.

Obviously, our core product is fine crystal for the home, but we have already successfully branched out into very fine crystal jewelry as well, set in 18 carat gold and sterling silver, with beautiful colors and treatments, that has been very well received by consumers.

“Pampilles” limited edition mordore necklace in yellow gold, designed by Stefano Poletti, 2009

We also find that we must continue to accentuate the fact that we not only produce tableware and accessories in crystal, but also electrified lighting. It’s a very important area of re-education for consumers because we find that, particularly in the United States, consumers do not necessarily understand our expertise in this area, even though we have been making chandeliers since 1850. It’s taken a while, but we’re patient.

In terms of managing the brand with regional differences, yes, we do have to be somewhat sensitive to cultures in various parts of the world. The strongest three markets for us in broad terms are France, the United States, and Japan. Our Japanese subsidiary is extremely successful. It’s extremely pure and well managed in terms of its presentation of the brand and its qualities.

Culturally, we must be flexible. There are differences in terms of which items consumers chose to buy. And we will accentuate those in a particular market based on their popularity.

CJ: Can you give us some examples of which markets buy certain products?

MB: There’s one very interesting example that relates to Japan. Our business in tumblers is huge, in Japan because our Japanese management team has positioned the double old fashioned as a very appropriate gift for many occasions at a certain price point that is acceptable to the Japanese consumer for those occasions. And they sell tens of thousands of these every year, for business gifts, for wedding gifts, for return gifts, for holiday gifts. This particular phenomenon doesn’t exist anywhere else in our world.

CJ: That’s very interesting. How about jewelry? What’s your strongest market?

MB: France is the strongest market for jewelry because of the inherent strength of Baccarat in the mother country. There’s no question about the brand’s power there, which is greater than it is in a market like the United States. There is still much of work ahead for us, a relatively small luxury goods company, to break through to the American consumer in newer product areas.

Jewelry is still a relatively new category for the company. We didn’t enter the jewelry business commercially until 1993. It began in a rather small way, but has grown now to a point where, in our own shops, 25 to 35 percent of the business is attributed to jewelry.

“Insomnight” necklace in yellow gold, designed in 2008

CJ: That is an impressive success in such short time, given that Baccarat has been specializing in home decor for almost 230 years prior. The pieces are stunning!

MB: We see it as an interesting area of diversification because it invites new consumers, specifically ladies, into our stores to discover not only the jewelry, but everything else that we make at the same time.

CJ: So which product categories have had the most growth?

MB: I would say that the jewelry category has grown the quickest in recent years. The category of chandeliers and sconces is poised for growth because our product development effort in that area has been concerted effort over the last couple of years. We are able to bridge the gap between contemporary and traditional here, which many clients find surprising.

“Mille Nuit” ceiling light, designed by Mathias in 1998

CJ: How does the trend towards a more casual lifestyle affect Baccarat, especially in the core categories?

MB: It causes us to be creative, there’s no doubt about it. We still have a solid foundation in the stemware, barware and bridal business, but at the same time we realize that we cannot pin our future growth on that segment of the business, which is what makes diversification so important. We do must continue to attract the attention of high net worth individuals to our brand. To this end, we must continue to delight clients with objects of some scarcity or uniqueness associated with them. Our designer collaborations are helpful here.

CJ: Speaking of collaborations, one of my favorite ones is the creation of the hand-blown bottle for the Louis XIII de Remy Martin. I own a mere vintage bottle, which I purchased empty, but I’ve seen the limited edition, called “Black Pearl” sell for as high as $99,999.99. But that includes some very fine cognac, of course. Do you feel that collaborations with other luxury brands are a great way to expand the brand, and are you doing more such collaborations?

MB: Yes, we’re constantly seeking out such appropriate collaborations as the one you describe with Louis XIII. We actually have formed a small committee within the company to evaluate such projects, because we are, on a fairly consistent basis, approached by spirits companies and fragrance companies to produce bottles for them.

remy martin
“Louis XIII” de Remy Martin “Black Pearl”
Limited edition Grande Champagne Cognac in a Baccarat decanter
(Photo courtesy of Remy Martin)

CJ: Yes, I was thinking that would be a natural.

MB: It’s very natural for us. One of the important characteristics we look for when we evaluate a project is whether there is an appropriate marriage between the two brands so that neither brand is using the other one inappropriately in that they’re both of similar quality, both in the luxury world, and can both help each other in a productive way. We are seldom interested in becoming simply a crystal bottle supplier.

CJ: How do you envision the future of luxury retail?

MB: The luxury business has become more complicated over the last 18 months with the worldwide recession having taken hold. There is a certain danger of luxury retail having been compromised by what’s happened. Last Christmas was rather difficult. We did see many luxury brands around us that were rather aggressive in their strategies in order to try to combat the economic conditions. I feel that this may have changed the consumer’s perception of the value of luxury, In many cases, it has been conveyed to consumers that if they look hard enough, that they can find the luxury that they seek at a price lower than what they might have paid in the past.

But I think there is still a bright future for luxury, for brands that have deep roots, that have meaning to consumers, who feel that there is no substitute for that brand or that product, and will still be loyal once the dust clears. I think that these consumers are still waiting in the shadows, just in smaller numbers than they might have been two years ago, but they will come back to us as long as our proposal remains pure, that we don’t compromise quality, and that we offer enduring value. And what value means to Baccarat is perfection in our products and innovation in our designs.

Baccarat crystal display at Gump’s (Photo: Liam O’Donnell)

CJ: I think so too. Since the closing of your San Francisco store, which we miss terribly of course, where and how can we fully experience Baccarat here, and are you planning to open another store here at some point?

MB: We have no current plans to reopen our own shop in San Francisco. The good news is that we have a headquarters at Gump’s. We have had a relationship with Gump’s for close to 50 years. Baccarat started doing business officially in the United States in 1948, and Gump’s was one of our first customers.

They have dedicated a very significant amount of floor space to us through the Baccarat gallery on the mezzanine. They have an extremely knowledgeable staff. They have a following of clients that’s generational, going back to moms and grandmothers that have purchased Baccarat from Gump’s for years. And yet at the same time they are very progressive, changing with the times. Today they are showing the Jaime’s collection, which is a completely modern manifestation of Baccarat, and they’re not afraid to embrace it, because they are changing with us as time passes.

CJ: Last but not least, on a personal note, running an empire takes passion. What might you be doing if you were not in the luxury retail business, and the world was your oyster?

MB: If I weren’t very happily running a luxury goods company, I would probably be doing some writing, which is something that I enjoy that I did not develop to the extent that I might have when I was younger.

CJ: A book about Baccarat, perhaps?

MB: Who knows? There are plenty of stories to tell about Baccarat and it’s history, so that would be an interesting beginning.

CJ: In the spirit of Philippe Starck: the light and the dark sides of Baccarat?

MB: Why not ? Researching the dark side would be interesting…

Harcourt” highball glass, designed in 1814
“Black Angel” highball glass, designed by Philippe Stark in 2005

About Tea With Claudia: “Tea With Claudia” is an interview series by Claudia Juestel. As founder of one of San Francisco’s leading design firms, the Adeeni Design Group, Claudia has access to some of the most exciting figures in the world of design, whether it’s architects, craftsmen, authors, artists, painters or other designers. In this regular feature, she allows us in on her world, with engaging conversations taking place over a lovely pot of tea!