Creative leaders: a Conversation with Laetitia Hirschy of Backes and Strauss

Posted September 9, 2014 at 3:28 pm in Art, Digital, Fashion, Jewellery
  • Piccadilly Princess Royal Colours by Backes & Strauss. Each watch in the collection is unique

HERITAGE is a powerful but seldom analysed word when it comes to the world of high jewellery and watch-making. This is not to say that brands take their history for granted insomuch as they do not necessarily leverage upon it to educate and communicate with modern consumers. However, one exception is British luxury brand Backes & Strauss, one of the most quietly prestigious  watch-makers in the world, for whom heritage is a fundamental element in their corporate DNA.

Formed in the late 18th century, Backes & Strauss began as a diamond company and, like many jewellery firms, quickly expanded. In the early 19th century, the company widened its mandate to include fine watches, through a unique partnership with the Franck Muller workshop in Switzerland. Backes & Strauss now predominately focus on producing a wide range of unique timepieces rather than jewellery.

We sat down with Laetitia Hirschy, Head of Marketing and Communications for Backes & Strauss, to learn more about the brand and how they are leveraging upon their history, quality, and name in the 21st century.

Jewellery and watch-making is a highly specialist profession. What inspired you to enter this field?
I fell in love with it as a child. You could say part of it is my Swiss heritage and the other is my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother grew up in one of the cradles of watchmaking, La Chaux-de-Fonds and in her younger years worked in a watchmaking workshop. On my mother’s side, my maternal grandmother hailed from Antwerp, known as one of the most prominent diamond trading centres in the world. She didn’t have any connections in the business but always had the most fabulous jewellery. Both grandmothers definitely transmitted their infectious passion on to me.

What are some of the highlights of your career with Backes and Strauss?
I joined recently but so far I would say seeing some of our very special unique pieces come to life from the workshops after two years from conception to final product is definitely a highlight. With our increased focus on bespoke, the best is really yet to come.

Backes and Strauss has a long and storied heritage dating back to 1789 and is the oldest diamond company in world. What role does the company’s history play in the modern practice of jewellery and watch making?
We are the world’s oldest diamond company. Since 1789, our diamond expertise has spanned the globe. As a high-end luxury brand we constantly reinvent ourselves to meet new demands and challenges and in 2006, we began our partnership with expert Swiss watchmaker Franck Muller, launching the Backes & Strauss luxury watch brand. Combining a brilliance for horology and a passion for diamonds, Backes & Strauss today is the ultimate diamond watch company.

Backes and Strauss is a highly prestigious and well-established brand. In your opinion what is the future for luxury?

Increasing demand from customers for bespoke craftsmanship. As far as we’re concerned, from this year and the years ahead this is an area we are very much focusing on. We feel we have established a platform and benchmark in our bespoke capabilities and we want to encourage our clients to challenge us to push our boundaries further.

How has the landscape of digital changed for luxury brands over the past decade?
Where to begin …

What is Backes and Strauss’ approach to digital and e-commerce?
Digital and social media are an integral part of our marketing strategy and we believe an excellent tool of communication, allowing us to educate and engage directly with our customers and fans. We are present on all of the major social media channels and in the process of redoing our website, which should be launching at the end of the year.

We find videos as well to be an excellent way of communicating our craftsmanship and diamond heritage and are using this highly effective media outlet more and more. Our partnership with the Franck Muller group gives us access to their exceptional in-house capabilities. We share a deep appreciation for handcrafted precision at a very fundamental level: Franck Muller works with time, while we manipulate light through geometrical symmetry in our diamonds. The combination of our expertise is a collection of timepieces so intricate they are veritable masterpieces inside and out. This is the message we want to convey through our videos by filming the various crafts involved in making a Backes & Strauss timepiece.

A few years ago we launched the Backes & Strauss App where you can design your own watch and make an appointment at your nearest retailer to pick it up. This is just a small part of the bespoke capabilities that we offer.

As far as e-commerce is concerned, due to our very limited production, we feel (for the time being at least) that is is not the right fit for our brand. We do not produce limited collections just for the sake of it. This results purely from the scarcity of the materials we use and the complexity of the craftsmanship.

How do you feel most luxury brands are performing when it comes to digital?
I think huge progress has been made in the past few years by luxury brands, especially high end watch and jewellery brands (which until recently aired much more on the conservative side with regards to digital compared to other luxury segments such as fashion, beauty, hospitality, cars to name a few). A few years ago some of the more conservative brands were still barely active. Today luxury brands have understood that if managed properly digital can be a huge asset for any luxury brand.

What challenges does a brand with such a well-established heritage face in the digital era? How has this affected Backes and Strauss’ market in your opinion?
We have a long and rich heritage which we are very proud of and communicate both on and offline. We do not see our heritage as a challenge in the digital era, quite the contrary. To give you an example, we frequently use the common #tbt hashtag associated with images from our archives. We brand most of the visuals in our posts with our trademark which was designed at the beginning of the 19th. “Strauss” means ostrich in German, and the trademark remains to this day the symbol of the brand.

What problems have you had to overcome?
High-precision craftsmanship and the limited supply of some of the diamonds we use poses many challenges. Each piece requires a very time-consuming planning process even prior to production. It takes Backes & Strauss up to a month to choose how best to cut a rough diamond and up to another two months to hand-polish it to perfection. More than 50 per cent of the original rough diamond is lost when making an Ideal-Cut diamond.

Perhaps more remarkable, however, is the sheer rarity of the diamonds that we used to create special pieces such as the Princess Royal Colours pieces. To yield only a one carat diamond, it is necessary to blast, crush, process and X-ray more than 250 tons of rock; each year, more than 120 million carats are mined, but just a quarter of this quantity is of sufficient quality to be used in the making of jewellery – and, of this, only one in 10 thousand carats is a natural coloured diamonds.

The quality of diamonds is clearly very important. How do yours differ to other high end watch brands that also put a lot of diamonds on their pieces? 
As the world’s oldest diamond company we pride ourselves on our moniker as the Masters of Diamonds. For over two centuries, Backes & Strauss has constantly looked forward, pioneering new diamond cutting techniques and enthralling connoisseurs with its compelling designs. Every round, brilliant diamond used at Backes & Strauss is an Ideal Cut diamond, designed to emanate optimum fire and brilliance.

The perfect symmetry and proportions of and Ideal Cut diamond ensure that the light entering the stone refracts internally from 57 precisely placed facets and travels out through the top of the diamond, creating a mesmerizing sparkle. We work with only the highest specification diamonds. Every diamond at Backes & Strauss is a D, E or F and internally flawless with a very, very slight inclusion. The diamonds show the “Hearts and Arrows” pattern when viewed through a special instrument called the “Hearts and Arrows viewer”, demonstrating the perfect symmetry and proportions of our diamonds. This is our unique selling proposition.

Why is London so integral to your watches?
We have been present in London as a company since 1814 and the spirit of 19th century Regency England lies at the very heart of our brand. Our Regent, Piccadilly and Berkeley collections were inspired by London’s Regency architecture, using the classical proportions and symmetry of English architects like John Nash and William Kent.

How difficult is it to ensure all the watch families keep their own identities?
There is a story behind every Backes & Strauss collection. Take the Berkeley collection for example, which was inspired by its namesake, the Berkeley Square a charming garden square in the heart of Mayfair. Its great plane trees were planted in 1789, the year Backes & Strauss was founded.

by Jessica Quillin

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