Swarovski is a uniquely accomplished family-owned business, with its headquarters and crystal museum based in Austria. Company scion Nadja Swarovski describes how she and her family have reinvented the 123-year-old business – collaborating with leading architects and fashion designers – for the 21st century.
“I never forget that my great-great-grandfather’s aim was to create ‘diamonds for everyone’,” says Nadja Swarovski, one of the heads of the eponymous crystal-making company that has remained in her family since it was founded in 1895. “This meant good quality, light-refracting faceted stones at reasonable prices. From the start, he worked with fashion designers such as Charles Frederick Worth, who was considered to be the first couturier. And my grandfather worked with Coco Chanel and Christian Dior.”
Today, with the company now a leading global brand, Nadja keeps founder Daniel Swarovski’s driving principle firmly in mind. Swarovski combines the industrial production of crystal and glass with its own high-end design products and collaborations with luxury fashion brands, which use the Swarovski crystals in their clothing and accessories.
Nadja’s strategy of propelling the company visibly into the luxury sphere is very different from anything that has gone before in recent times. In doing so, she has become the well-known face of the brand in the worlds of fashion, film and art, and at the sponsorship of events such as the CFDA Fashion Awards in New York. Yet she works from a position of strength, as one of the fifth generation of Swarovski’s founding family and a member of the five-strong executive board, all of whom are descendants of Daniel.
Of the members, Chairman Robert Buchbauer looks after the consumer goods business, while Markus Langes-Swarovski heads Swarovski Professional, the business-to-business arm. Nadja is responsible for corporate branding and communications. She is also Chair of the philanthropic Swarovski Foundation, which she was instrumental in founding in 2013.
The areas that she is in charge of have the highest profile and revenue. Although it is a private company, Swarovski’s revenue figures are publicly available. The Swarovski Crystal Business accounts for €2.6 billion ($3.2 billion) a year, about two-thirds of Swarovski Group’s total (the other businesses in the group being Swarovski Optik, which supplies optical products, and Tyrolit, which makes glass-cutting, drilling and grinding machinery and tools for the construction industry). The Crystal Business is placed 22nd in Deloitte’s 2017 list of the world’s top 100 luxury goods companies, and there are about 2,800 stores globally.
Nadja says that her upbringing was more international than that of previous generations of the Swarovski family – she is half-American – and she did not assume that she would join the family firm. “Of course, I grew up around the company, but I loved the art world and started working in a New York gallery,” she says. When she arrived at the company in 1995, it had long been a highly respected business-tobusiness supplier to the fashion industry, but the success of its retail side was still rooted in the crystal figurines with which it had become synonymous, especially in the US and Germany. “Our retail side concentrated on the figurines, which were our heritage, but there was less thought about the future,” she says. “I worked for a New York fashion PR who dealt with European houses and I saw the public’s interest in these brands and began to think maybe Swarovski could work with them.”
Her lightbulb moment came when she was introduced by the late British fashion stylist Isabella Blow to designer Alexander McQueen, who was already an explosive talent but with little finance in London where fashion lacked big luxury-brand backing. “He was so creative and I thought we could work to both his benefit and ours,” says Nadja. “I felt if I was going to enter the family business, there would be pressure to bring something new to the party and my experience and contacts in the fashion industry could do that.”
The immediate effect of that first initiative with McQueen (in which he showed crystals in his collection on the Paris catwalk in 2003), both in publicity and sales terms, gained her the financial backing she needed. It was “a blueprint for working with talented designers who would see crystal as a creative product,” says Nadja. Since then, the company’s designers and fashion names have fed off each other creatively on innovations in crystal types, colors and settings. In October 2018, Swarovski’s Manufaktur, a new crystal factory, opened at the company headquarters in the Austrian Tyrol, primarily to create prototypes for designers who want their own exclusive crystals. “[The product designers] want to know how far they can push the boundaries, how complex they can make hand-cut designs that can then be adapted to machine cutting.”
At this point, she refers to the company’s heritage, to the 1950s when her grandfather, Manfred Swarovski, invented the shimmering ‘Aurora Borealis’ crystal finish, now a Swarovski classic. It was developed in collaboration with Christian Dior, who wanted crystals with more color and iridescence. Today, keeping fashion designers excited by crystal innovation is just as crucial, and the construction of the new plant is justified by the huge number of fashion brands now using Swarovski stones. The fashion industry accounts for about 35 percent of the crystal division’s business-to-business revenue.
The wealth of designers with whom Swarovski collaborates spans from established labels such as Valentino and Jimmy Choo to emerging designers such as Faustine Steinmetz, whom Swarovski supports throughout their careers as part of the Swarovski Collective. One of her early schemes was the profile-raising event Fashion Rocks, for which big-name designers created innovative, crystal-encrusted outfits for dedicated Swarovski fashion shows. In 2007, Nadja started another headline-grabbing project, Atelier Swarovski, of which she is Creative Director and which she describes in its 10-year anniversary book Brilliant, as “a voyage of experimentation for creative talents and our own craftsmen and technicians”. Her penchant for creating partnerships at the highest level is exemplified by the book’s contributors, who include Chanel and Fendi Creative Director Karl Lagerfeld, and the late couturier Hubert de Givenchy.
For the Atelier Swarovski collection, Nadja gives her collaborators creative freedom. The result is commercially successful crystal jewelry from the most exciting fashion talent, including Christopher Kane, Viktor & Rolf, Jean Paul Gaultier and Mary Katrantzou. Nadja also invites makers of precious jewelry to create collections, such as Pippa Small and Philippe Ferrandis, or avant-garde product and furniture designers such as Fredrikson Stallard. In 2016, the logical move was into home accessories, launched annually at the Milan Furniture Fair. The collections span from chandeliers to table-top objects made by household names – for example, architects Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid and designers Tord Boontje and Ron Arad. The collaborative work of all these creatives and more is on show at the spectacular Swarovski Kristallwelten, the company museum in Wattens.
In a fashion world where marketing depends increasingly on collaborations, Nadja was early to the game and believes there are plenty more to come for Swarovski in all areas. “The power of them is in choosing very carefully to get the right partners.” This is crucial for the fast-expanding market in eastern Asia where, she says, “people only know Swarovski as a modern luxury brand. It was only in the late 1990s that people in China started to dress for self-expression.” For young people there, and increasingly worldwide, she adds, “jewelry is about symbolism and the story behind it. Charms such as the evil eye, the peace sign or a clover leaf illustrate two aspects of motivation in jewelry buying today: adornment and intellectual expression.”
Film and music collaborations are another success, as young consumers identify with favorite characters and performers. Nadja is also facilitating links across the different areas of the company. A pair of Marc Newson-designed binoculars, for example, embraces Swarovski’s expertise in both technology and design. It is this new perception that is making her rethink the brand’s marketing strategy. “When I started, there were about a thousand stores and we needed to expand, but now we are drawing back a little,” she says. “Our three main markets are very different. We are associated with fashion in Europe, with the figurines in America, while in Asia the crystal is appreciated as a luxurious product alongside jade. So, we need to think global and act local. This might mean closing some small stores in America where increasing e-commerce is reducing footfall, while opening design-led flagships. This will offer the complete experience in growing markets where we already stand as a luxury brand.”
She admits Swarovski has been slow to focus on e-commerce, “because crystal is a tactile product and we want to offer the experience of it, but this is about today’s consumers, who have all the information at their fingertips. We never underestimate them and are embracing the opportunity to attract the new generation by restrategizing with a user-friendly, informative site.”
Nadja also brings something new to the table as the first woman at Swarovski with board-level power. In a company with an overwhelmingly female customer base, she says, “It’s useful thatam the customer, but I also think women naturally have a distinct approach to power. Our interest in empowerment [a word she uses a lot] and making an impact is for the business rather than personal ego. As a mother, you are naturally more nurturing and inclusive, and we should make the working world better for each other. I have met women who are Machiavellian, but I feel they are copying men.”
Nadja admits that the hardest thing about her job is the absence from her three children. She is married to a British hedge fund manager and, with homes in London and Florida, she is the prime example of today’s time-juggling female executive. As the brand has a presence in 170 countries, she travels a lot. “My husband supports me and I have always had help. And the children have their friends and each other,” she says. “They have stability and family and that is my strength, but I have no illusions about ‘having it all’. We have to deal with it and it’s difficult.” For her employees, she offers flexible hours for mothers (“which I would like to extend to men”) and crèches.
“I have to manage my time and every meeting effectively,” she continues. This also applies to her dealings with Swarovski’s executive board members. “We communicate weekly and meet monthly, setting the diary a year ahead. We respect each other’s areas, but decisions are made together and include other family shareholders. It’s an interesting dynamic but we manage.”
At the heart of this family business is environmental sustainability, which has been integral to the company ethos from the beginning. The headquarters is still based in Wattens where Daniel Swarovski – a trained glass cutter who invented a machine to speed up the cutting of crystals – founded the company in 1895. He chose the site for its copious supply of clean mountain water, which was necessary for the mechanized process of crystal production. “I am very proud of our long-term factory record – machines powered by cleaned, recycled water, with the cadmium and lead removed from the crystal-making process,” says Nadja. “We are members of the Responsible Jewellery Council; and we currently meet six out of 17 UN global sustainability goals. We still have work to do.
“I see great changes in consumer attitudes,” she adds. “People want to know how and where things are made; they demand sustainability, which we have always supported and is now more essential than ever.”
Through the Swarovski Foundation, Nadja is involved in several initiatives around the world. The Waterschool project was set up in 2005 to teach communities in developing countries about this important resource. Teachers are supported in the education of children and the programs are tailored to each country’s problems, from water scarcity and pollution in China, to sanitation in Africa and wells in India. The foundation also supports many charities around the world, focusing on those dealing with women’s empowerment and education.
Sustainability and empowerment are captured in a new innovation at Swarovski. The Atelier Swarovski fine jewelry collection features man-made (‘created’) diamonds and gems such as emeralds that are identical in chemical structure to the real thing, but sustainably made in a laboratory. “They are not yet well understood, including their implications for unsustainable mining,” Nadja admits. “But I believe they are the future.”
So, just like her ancestors, Nadja is steering Swarovski crystal into new territory as a great innovator and collaborator. Her greatgreat- grandfather would be proud.
Avril Groom writes about luxury fashion and jewelry for the Financial Times and Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.
This article first appeared in the May 2018 issue of WERTE, the client magazine of Deutsche Bank Wealth Management.