MOUAWAD PRIDES ITSELF in “crafting the extraordinary”. The gem dealer isn’t being hyperbolic. The family-owned jewellery house is famous for creating the Victoria’s Secret fantasy bras — the world’s most expensive lingerie, as certified by the Guinness World Records.
The debut, if you recall, was the gawp-worthy US$12.5-million Heavenly Star Bra, worn by Heidi Klum at the 2001 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. The post-coverage photos of the bra, studded with pink sapphires and an emerald-cut diamond, ricocheted throughout the globe.
Mouawad went on to create 10 fantasy bras for the lingerie empire from 2001 till 2017. Then, the pieces were the much-awaited must-sees for the mail-order brand each winter season.
The play for attention via Victoria’s Secret was conceived by the Mouawad brothers Fred, Alain and Pascal, the fourth-generation heirs of Mouawad, founded in Lebanon in 1890. Mouawad typically proffers rare rubies and triple-digit carat diamonds, fashioned into decadent necklaces or whatever the ultra-rich fancy.
The Victoria’s Secret Fantasy lingerie was a controversial move, Fred, the eldest brother, says. “Many people said ‘Yes, it’s nice — but it is, after all, a bra’. They asked: ‘You’re a high-end jeweller, (how can you) go into lingerie’. But it has worked for us,” he explains, smiling like a cat that got to the cream.
The brothers took over the company from their father, Robert, in 2010. Fred oversees manufacturing and diamond procurement (“I love gemology, diamonds,” he says). Pascal takes care of retail, while Alain looks after the watch division.
“We all naturally fell into our positions,” says Fred, who has a genteel demeanour which belies an adventurous start-up spirit.
Keyyes caught up with Fred, a serial entrepreneur who runs over 10 businesses, including a 200-store coffee chain in Thailand. He talks about lessons learnt from his father, gemstones, and his penchant for risk and reward.
What is the best piece of advice your dad gave you?
My father taught us a lot by having us watch him, not necessarily by telling us what to do. (We learnt) that the most precious asset we have is not our jewellery, but our reputation. He sometimes left family vacations to go and talk to customers. That’s a huge commitment.
How does Mouawad stay competitive as an independently-owned, family jeweller?
It’s an advantage. We can buy diamonds, precious stones, and create an inventory without having to ask anyone. We can take our own risks because there’s no board to report to. There’s no one telling you that you are overstocked, or that your return on investment is low. When any customer wants a piece, we know we’re very competitive (and can deliver quickly). Why? Because we have the inventory. That’s the key.
What drives you to invest in a wide range of businesses?
I’m driven to realize visions. I love dreaming. But what is really important for me is to see my dreams turn into reality. So when I have an idea, I like executing on it. That’s why I love start-ups. After a while, when the business becomes a bit more mature, I sort of lose interest.
Entrepreneurship is full of ups and downs. What keeps you going?
Today, we talk about how failure is acceptable. I’ve had that mindset since I started out in business 30 years ago. I understood that innovation meant trying different initiatives, and some of them will not succeed. You have to accept that failure and learn from it.
You enjoy activities like rock climbing. Is there a parallel between this liking for adventure, and the way you run the diamond business?
Yes, absolutely. I love taking calculated risks. I love challenging myself. That’s why these sports suit me. I love dirt bikes, snow skiing, sky diving. When climbing a rock, I want to climb a bigger rock. I like to test my courage and my ability to overcome obstacles.
It’s the same thing when you buy a big rough diamond. You’re never sure of the outcome. I cannot tell you what our sales will be three months from now. We simply collect, and have faith that at one point, it will sell. So, it’s not a business that’s predictable.
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