It can take up to three months to hand sketch a design for a new piece of jewelry at Madrid-based Carrera y Carrera, and then hand making the wax model can take another month or more. And, of course, that’s before even making the mold for the actual jewelry, the elaborate setting of stones and the intricacy of combining matte and shine finishes. Loved in Spain, former Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels executive Nathalie Guedj is making the company once again soar with a down-home recipe of focus, hard work, personal relationships and great respect for her artisans. Recently Elite Traveler Editor-in-Chief Douglas Gollan visited Guedj to find out how she has remade the company since coming to its top post in 2006.
ET: Tell us about the history of Carrera y Carrera.
Nathalie Guedj: Manuel Carrera started as a jeweler on the bench designing pieces of jewelry that other people sold under their name. Eventually he said, ‘Why should I create jewelry under other people’s names?’ It started as jewelry and then sculpture but there has always been a mix. Manuel sold to Lladró group in 2000 and the sculpture decreased.
ET: When you came was there still a pretty extensive product range for a small company?
Nathalie Guedj: It was a confusing message. The jewelry was modern and the sculpture much older. In 2006 we were still making leather goods, scarves and sculptures. We are too small to do everything. We needed to focus on jewelry. When we have clients for sculpture we send them to Manuel Carrera. It is not competition. It is not my core business, but I had a line of production for sculpture and we were too small to dedicate those resources.
ET: What makes Carrera y Carrera special?
Nathalie Guedj: We always say our jewelry is ‘mini-sculpture,’ as you can see in our workshop. You see the snakes and the dragons. There is always volume in our jewelry. We do not subcontract. The jewelry is made here and the jewelry is heavy. Obviously the cost of gold and diamonds has increased, so I have to look at the numbers but when I suggest something the artisans fight back with me. And that is the beauty of a small company with a single investor behind it, that we can end the decision on quality and what’s right for the consumer instead of the stock price.
I would like to say I didn’t do that much. We just worked hard on where we are good. We try to service clients. We are good with gold. We are good at baroque. We didn’t try to be what we are not. I said, ‘Let’s not follow others style.’
ET: What was the situation when you arrived?
Nathalie Guedj: Carrera y Carrera was very strong in the nineties in the Americas; then the company focused on Eastern Europe. From my time at Cartier and Van Cleef in the US, I knew the market quite well. It is the number one luxury market in the world, full stop. The US is a big market and we have invested in communications and service to the retailers.
When I visited the retailers I did my presentation and at the end I asked them, ‘Are you onboard?’ The answer was, ‘How can you ask us if we are onboard? We have been waiting for years [for Carrera y Carrera to come back]. We have always been onboard. The brand is very special.’
ET: And how are things progressing?
Nathalie Guedj: Sales are very strong. We have about 30 doors—Neiman Marcus, Cellini, Tradition, Bachendorf and Shreve are examples. These are people who support and see the brand because they also love it and wear it. In six years of visiting hundreds of retailers nobody has said it is too expensive. It is good price for value.
We have some brand awareness. It is not easy in the US. It is a very expensive market for media. However, when there are surveys and affluent consumers are asked to name their favorite brands we are on the list. I think we may be the smallest company on the lists, which speaks to how special the jewelry is. We need to communicate so we can give confidence to the retailers because when you are a small brand there are always questions, so communication is key. We are a bit like Versace. Versace is different but the marketing gives buyers confidence.
We didn’t extend distribution. We don’t have more doors. We just visit them more to be on top of their minds. I didn’t reinvent the mind; I just focused on focus and execution.
ET: What’s next?
Nathalie Guedj: I have to go now for Asia. Asia still has big potential. But so does the rest of the world. I just need all my retailers to sell a bit more, nothing crazy. I can double sales in the US by just doing a bit better with our current retailers.
I need to open in China. I cannot pass. The plan is to open a store in Beijing. But I want to do it little by little. I have no plans to open 100 boutiques. I don’t have a budget to put millions of dollars into marketing each month so we need word of mouth. We need celebrities who wear the jewelry because they like it and buy it, and fortunately we have that. With Carrera y Carrera it is gratifying when we have celebrities that come to us because they love the brand.
ET: What are some of the challenges as a woman CEO?
Nathalie Guedj: Russia is not an issue. Russian people recognize and respect strength. In the Middle East, in business it is very international. At the end it is what you bring to the equation.
ET: What’s the difference between being a CEO of a large company and a small company?
Nathalie Guedj: You can only do it if you have no ego. If you have an ego it is much better to be Van Cleef & Arpels’ CEO. Here you have to accept you are a small fish in a big pond. It is only a job you can do if you are a doer. If you prefer to explain and delegate don’t come to a small company. Here there is no assistant to do your expenses. You have to enjoy doing it yourself. Of course, when you think about the overall job, the beauty is, what you achieved is your achievement.
At a big company it takes a bad CEO a lot of time to kill the brand. Here what you do, good or bad, is reflected right away. The power of a small company is that if you can motivate your team, you can make a difference and you can achieve things.
You cannot have politics in a small company. Skills are harder to replace so it is more important. You have to have patience and you need to make things work in a team.
ET: So this was a big transition for you?
Nathalie Guedj: My case is a bit different. I worked in big companies but in small departments. At Cartier I was the manager of tabletop. Nobody cared about tabletop. Then I was sales director for Cartier in Belgium. It is a nice country but a small market. When I started at Van Cleef & Arpels there wasn’t even an IT department. It was small and we grew it but I left before it was integrated into Richemont so it operated as its own small entity. My boss was an entrepreneur so coming to Carrera y Carrera was very comfortable.
ET: You seem very content.
Nathalie Guedj: I’m happy here. It is a small brand, and to see this small brand growing is amazing. On top of this we are doing these numbers without China. When you are small you need to be different. The big brands have a formula. I came in when the company was part of the Lladró group and then the crisis hit and they wanted to sell, so it was an interesting experience as my job became to find a buyer, and that was a good experience to go through. I’m a compulsive optimist. I don’t believe in catastrophic extremes. It is going to take time to get back but it is about having a goal and making it happen. [Hermes’] Patrick Thomas once told me, ‘Quality, quality, quality and then the money will come. You can’t reverse them.’ We make beautiful products. We have great partners. We have a team that is committed so the future is ours.