Nadja Swarovski has taken the Swarovski crystal family business from kitsch to cool. Now, says Clare Coulson, she is making superyachts sparkle too.
“It’s so scary; it still seems like the first year. Oh my gosh – groundhog day!” Nadja Swarovski, the glossy, globe-trotting scion of the Austrian crystal empire, is excitedly musing on her 20th anniversary with the family business. Two decades in which she has taken the company from being known as the manufacturer of a kitsch, sparkling menagerie to a cool, globally recognised brand that collaborates with a startling roll-call of renowned contemporary designers across fashion, film, architecture and interiors.
It was never her plan to work for the family business. She studied art history at university in Texas (rather than the engineering degree that her father and Swarovski president, Helmut, would have preferred) before moving to New York where she worked first for the Gagosian Gallery and then – perhaps most pivotally – for fashion PR Eleanor Lambert. It was here that she learnt about the fashion business and realised she could make a big difference back at the family HQ.
Today the Tyrol-based group, which turns over £2 billion annually, is broad and encompasses everything from fashion and accessories (60 per cent of turnover comes from jewellery alone), to product design and interiors, precision drilling and sawing machinery, and binoculars.
Nadja Swarovski has given the brand kudos and transformed crystal into a thoroughly modern material. “It’s amazing to see how crystal has interacted with design, how new materials are interplaying so we can now combine crystal with silicone, metal, wood. So much of what we do is about research and development.”
The fourth generation Swarovski has zoned in on the possibilities of the yachting world too. “The boating area is so interesting and I have to say it’s something (superyachts) that has absolutely exploded. These are floating palaces,” she purrs. “I am fascinated by it.”
Swarovski’s boat portfolio is varied, including Rossinavi’s 49 metre Polaris and Melot + Trillo’s stunning interior for Andrea Vallicelli’s 43 metre Philmi. Its latest collaboration is with naval architect and designer Martin Francis, who has created a collection of new super-luxe surface treatments, combining crystal with leather, lacquer, suede and glass.
One of the reasons for Swarovski’s success under Nadja has been its focus on working with innovative designers. “It’s just so important,” she enthuses. “That’s our way of staying young and relevant. It’s their vibe that we want to catch and understand.”
It was after a stint working in the Hong Kong office in 1995 that she came up with the idea. When Nadja moved back to London, she launched her Creative Service Centre – a hub that would connect creatives with Swarovski (there are now four of these centres, in New York, London, Paris and Singapore). The plan was simple: enlist cool young designers to use the crystals and, as a result, elevate the material in the wider consciousness. Nadja couldn’t have predicted quite how successful she would be.
She worked with Alexander McQueen (the company is a key sponsor of Savage Beauty, the V&A’s current McQueen retrospective), Hussein Chalayan, Christopher Kane, plus up-and-coming names including Mary Katrantzou and Peter Pilotto. And Swarovski crystals have now been used by almost every major fashion brand, from Christian Dior to Chanel.
Nadja has also set about reinventing crystal in other areas. She launched Crystal Palace, whereby product designers and architects such as Tom Dixon and Zaha Hadid could channel the Austrian crystal into fantastical light installations and chandeliers. In 2010, she set up Swarovski Entertainment – to build on the company’s relationship with Hollywood. “I tend to identify more with the architects and product designers,” she admits.
“I love fashion, I totally appreciate what it stands for and what they come up with, but I find it fascinating to work with other designers because of the intricacy and innovation and you can use so many more different materials.” In many ways, Nadja has unwittingly taken the brand back to what it was first famous for, when her great-great-grandfather, Daniel Swarovski, the son of a Bohemia-born glass-cutter and jeweller, worked with designers such as Coco Chanel and Christian Dior. The only thing that could slow her down is the boundless energy of her three children with British hedge-funder Rupert Adams. “That lack of sleep, those wrinkles around the eyes. Darn it, those rings, the bags!” she says of the children’s early years.
It hasn’t always been easy to change the habits of a vast family business in which there are myriad voices and opinions. “I had to fight for my position,” she admits, when talking about her elevation to the Swarovski board in 2010.
“Now at least I have reached the position where I can have the most amount of influence. The most important thing is that the family shares this common vision and it will be a lot easier now going forward.”
There may still be a crystal swan gliding atop the family logo, but Swarovski is now known for a lot more besides.