Nadja Swarovski on bringing glasnost to crystals
“My father was in charge of manufacturing for 45 years here and never wanted anyone ever in our factory,” chuckled Nadja Swarovski, a day after opening the doors of the family´s famed crystal making plant in the Austrian Alps.
Papa Helmut was not around to witness the event. He is currently on holiday in Rajasthan, visiting Jaipur’s Gem Palace. But bringing to an end his Verboten appears to have been a very smart idea. For one thing it allowed several score of editors, architects, jewelry makers and runway designers to discover how much influence Swarovski has had on fashion, and how much high technology and bespoke customization it can supply to so many creative types.
From the figure-hugging silver column in which Marilyn Monroe staged her legendary performance of “Happy Birthday Mr. President” for JFK, to epic Gianni Versace rock-star couture shows in the Ritz in Paris back to the early Nineties to Jean Paul Gaultier´s jet black crystals for Madonna, Swarovski crystals have swarmed all over legendary fashion moments.
The opening marks a paradigm shift for Swarovski, the world´s most important supplier of quality crystals to the fashion industry. Underlining the change in direction, Swarovski staged its opening in a freshly built exhibition space, the Manufaktur, designed by the award-winning Scandinavian architectural firm Snøhetta; a 75,000 square-foot space that cost €28 million.
“We built this building with this opening in mind. It´s an environmentally friendly building and more inviting than a hardcore factory. Though, believe me, high-powered designers have no problem coming into our factory,” says Nadja, a GIA-trained entrepreneur who is the fifth generation to manage the business, ever since her great-great-grandfather Daniel opened his first factory back in 1895.
“For over a century, we’d go to the fashion houses, accessories brands and architecture firms with our products, creating bespoke crystals for our customers. But here in Wattens, we were always closed, closed, closed,” stressed Nadja.
That said, their formulas remain a closely guarded secret: nobody got to see how colors are made or crystal are melted, and there was a strict air of intense security around other buildings worthy of the Pentagon. However, there were dynamic displays of cutting and crystal design.
Things were not always so strict. Over a century ago founder Daniel took three days to drive to the Great Exhibition in July 1900. In Paris, he encountered Charles Frederick Worth, the first ever designer, who created grand robes for Queen Victoria, whose lace tops included embroidered crystals by Swarovski.
Grandfather Manfred worked with Monsieur Dior, creating the first Aurora Borealis stone for that house, and igniting a long tradition that continues today. For Giorgio Armani, Swarovski created the Diamond Leaf; for Gaultier, super stone in sci-fi grays.
“The thing is, you can dream up some complicated idea for crystal beading in an unlikely color, and Swarovski always comes up with the goods,” stressed Peter Dundas, joined at the event by fellow designers Olivier Theyskens, Arthur Arbesser, Viktor & Rolf and Chantal Thomas, who wove Swarovski crystals into Crazy Horse cabaret costumes.
“The idea of Manufaktur is to combine the showroom element with the roughness of a plant. A wonderful competition exists between designers. So we love when they come here and get inspired,” she adds, noting that Swarovski offers over 350,000 crystals in terms of shape, size and appearance.
With the 125th anniversary coming up, expect the house to dig into its archive and illuminate more of the Swarovski story. The fashion industry is highly aware of how much interest LVMH has generated with its journées particulières, which attracted 180,000 people last weekend; burnished the image of its tony brands and enhanced the pride that staff have for their individual marques.
Compared to major couture brands, the Swarovski archive, while growing, is relatively modest, though it does boast some remarkable designs: including a Worth 1890s original pink silk robe; a stunning column by Marios Schwab and some remarkable aristocratic tiaras made for La Scala opera house.
Founder Daniel Swarovski´s dream of creating crystals so that any woman would enjoy the thrill of wearing a diamond has led to a major corporation and huge global employer. Swarovski's many divisions – which include large optical and grinding divisions – collectively boast 35,000 employees worldwide; with 5,000 in Austria making the crystals; some 7,000 in Vietnam and 6,000 in Thailand actually making the jewelry; along with similar numbers in India working with simulated Swarovski pearls.
The group has a further 3,000 staff in its own Swarovski jewelry boutiques, while the brand’s various jewelry lines retail in over 10,000 points of sale, with offices in 170 countries.
“Are we Austrian? Perhaps not, we are really more international,” concludes Nadja of the group, which scored consolidated annual turnover of €3.4 billion last year.
“Opening up like this is a generational thing – a reflection of the zeitgeist. We live in an era of transparency. It´s true we have huge new competition, notably in China, but the quality is not great and their manufacturing standards are not sustainable. You use a great deal of water to make crystals, and our advanced filtration systems mean 60% is reused. Another reason we welcomed so many people this week was to show we are not located in an industrial estate but in the beautiful Tyrolean Alps. And it´s not just Manufaktur but all our halls that are clean and immaculate - typically Austrian. Here in Wattenbach, we care about our employees and want them to be well and happy,” she concludes.
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