In the world of luxury, there aren’t many Asian CEOs at the top of legacy brands. Charles Leung, the CEO of French jewellery brand Fred, is one of them. Hailing from Hong Kong, Leung is the first Asian CEO in the LVMH Group and took the reins of Fred in 2018, making him one of the most powerful Asian executives in the luxury industry. [NB: Leung has just been named the CEO of Chaumet, another significant move within the LVMH Group]
Inspired by the brand’s founder Fred Samuel, whom he quotes as one of his biggest idols, he has since set about making a splash in the jewellery industry, only recently unveiling a magnificent 11.88 carat lab-grown blue diamond, dubbed the Audacious Blue. It was among of the many beautiful pieces that I saw on a recent trip to Seoul, South Korea to celebrate the opening of the brand’s retrospective exhibition, Fred, Jeweller Creator since 1936—its first in Asia.
Following the gala dinner, I had the chance to sit down with Leung the morning after and speak to him in depth about showcasing the human side of the jewellery industry, pushing boundaries in a traditional industry, and building a legacy for the house.
Pakkee Tan (PK): I want to ask you, first of all, what is the aim of this exhibition in Seoul? And what is the message that you hope this exhibition will impart to its visitors?
Charles Leung (CL): The aim of this exhibition is really to tell the story of Fred, especially because the brand is gaining momentum and popularity, but knowledge about the brand [is not quite there] yet. I think it’s a good time because we have a lot of fans here [in South Korea]. And I think the story of Mr Fred is going to touch them, especially since we have a lot of young customers here. For me, Mr Fred has always been a very brave young man—he lived to his 90s and he was still very young at heart. I think there’s a very positive message here to tell the young people of today that even though we could be facing challenges and crises throughout our life, as long as we don’t give up and we follow our dreams and we stay good—because we can always choose to evolve, but we have to always think about positives about sharing about joy or family, about being a good person and being fair—that might be a solution that might bring us hope. I hope this message can be spread to the younger people in South Korea and Asia in general, and of course, to show to everybody that all the wonderful pieces that he has made are because of his personality and his vision. That’s the two things I wanted to show.
PK: One of the things that I felt when I walked through the exhibition was that instead of focusing on your house icons—like a lot of houses; they push their icons all the time—it focused more on the values of the house and the values of the founder; the human side of the jewellery industry, which sets Fred apart.
I’ve been in this business for quite a while, for 27 years now. I’ve worked in some very legendary houses. But what sets Fred apart is the human side of the brand, and this is so strong because everything we do is based on the values of the founder. And the reason that he’s so respected and loved is because of that as well. If by collecting, owning, or wearing a piece of his jewellery can give us more strength to deal with a lot of challenges in life, I think it could be good [for everybody]. That is something we don’t see in jewellery very much. There’s the artistic value, there’s also sentimental value, especially about love, about courage, about audacity, about energy, about thinking positive. There is mot much in this domain actually, and Fred is all about that—and it is a unisex house catering for both men and women as you saw in the model show, which I find very interesting. I also say this is something that this house should push more: to be more inclusive. So gentlemen can also wear their own jewellery, not wearing their wife’s jewellery, but their own jewellery.
PK: There are so many different facets to the brand—which of those that are presented in the exhibition is your favourite?
CL: I like the totality of the brand, because missing any one piece of it and the house will not be complete. But maybe one thing that means more to me would be the Force 10, because it is so rare to see sport and jewellery mixed together, and it goes so well. It has a very interesting story because Mr Fred and his sons were really good sailors. The two sons of Mr Fred, Henri and Jean, were the European championship of Flying Dutchman [a sailing competition] so they were really national level at the sport. They got inspired by sailing as well—the creativity of mixing steel and gold, mixing bold elements into jewellery that could fit men and women. Force 10 is when the wind speed exceeds 96 kilometres per hour—in this situation, you actually don’t go out to sea, but that’s something you won’t know unless you’re on a boat. Unless you’re a sailor, you won’t know about all these things, and you won’t know about all the danger and the courage you need to succeed.
I think the product is super beautiful, super clever for the interchangeability and the meaning behind it is to tell us that unexpected events could really happen in anything we do—for example, in your career, exams, studies, relationships, work, a lot of things—the important thing is to just stay on track, keep your faith, fight for it, be a good team member, and maybe with a bit of luck and a lot of conviction, we will make it. In life, sometimes what we’re missing is just that little bit of encouragement and then we will be able to make it.
So that room makes it feel like we’re going right on board a sailing yacht. It’s quite funny. And you see the story of this iconic line from 1966, all the old advertisements and all the other products that were created that time, even shaving kits and the sunglasses. It’s not an easy product to create, but it has been a very beloved product from the house. I guess there’s a good reason. Everywhere we open a store or where we have business, this line is normally the first piece that customers will be putting their eyes on because it’s so distinctive and the story is moving. I think everybody has their personal challenges to face at home or work or relationships and [the meaning behind the line] speaks to a lot of people.
PK: Were there any interesting facts about Fred that you discovered for the first time in this exhibition?
CL: Interesting fact… I would say moving fact. You will see a flower brooch in the second room where we retraced the family story of Mr Fred. Long story short, he was keeping some diamonds under his sleeves when he was running around and doing resistance against the German army [in the Second World War]. He’s a jeweller, so he put all his stock [in his sleeves] in case of problems—diamonds are a man’s best friend! After the war, he luckily survived and he found his wife again. So he did not use these diamonds, and he could put it back in stock or sell, but he decided to make a piece of jewellery for his wife to show his gratitude for her, being such a brave lady taking care of two young kids in the middle of the war. So he made her a flower brooch. It was super beautiful, but not a crazy, exaggerated or big piece. He said in his autobiography many years later, that he made that brooch because this flower symbolises the strength, the beauty, but also the fragility of life. I think sometimes jewellery is like that. It’s not about having the biggest diamond or the biggest sapphire. It is also the message that you put on it to pass to the person who receives it and that makes jewellery interesting. That why I’ve worked in this industry for so long, because it’s so human—the human side of this house makes it really different and helps us recall why we buy jewellery in the first place.
PK: Another thing that I saw at the exhibition is that one of your core values is to be audacious. In that spirit, you released the first-ever lab-grown diamond, which we saw in the exhibition. Why did you choose to venture into lab-grown diamonds when most heritage brands would shy away from it?
CL: First of all, it really is the inspiration coming from Mr Fred as well. In this exhibition, you will see Mr Fred was the first person who introduced cultured pearls to Europe. He was the first person to mix gold and steel in an iconic bracelet. He was the first person to start airport retail in 1972. So we have done a lot of really new things.
For the Soleil d’Or yellow diamond, he was the first one to say, let’s do an open-to-public viewing for two days before selling it, and there were hundreds of people queuing to go to his jewellery shop in the ’70s to see it, which is unheard of. He also made a top model reveal the Soleil d’Or diamond during dinner at the trendiest restaurant in Paris and that playful girl put it in her mouth and pretended that it disappeared! This is all very crazy, but very playful—Mr Fred was always looking for something different, he didn’t like life to be boring. I think he found jewellery could be very playful as well.
Now when I arrived at this brand, I thought, okay, if he were here today, what would he do? Maybe he would want to try something that nobody else dares, especially in the Place Vendôme. I knew that he liked the sea very much—the Mediterranean Sea; the French Riviera—and he’s very much into light and colour. So I thought, well if we can capture that sense of Mediterranean blue into a stone, that would be great. Of course, the best is to have blue diamonds, but we know how rare those are. I’ve worked in the business for so long and I can’t even recall when I have touched a real natural blue diamond—maybe once or twice. I thought maybe technology could help us. I asked my development team if technology good enough right now to go for a lab-grown blue diamond, but they said no, not yet. But I thought that this could be interesting to try, so we had this side project and it was not successful for the longest time. Then despite Covid and everything happening, somehow we managed to talk to a few laboratories and they found our idea interesting. So we tried and succeeded first with the smaller versions that you have seen in the Force 10 Duality set, and just before the exhibition, we succeeded in making the big one that you have seen in the exhibition—the 11.88 carat Audacious Blue.
The idea really is to pay tribute to Mr Fred, and his innovative spirit and to do something that nature cannot do. Now, that is not to say that we are going to replace our natural diamonds with lab-grown, just the blue ones, because we cannot find suitable natural ones, so we replace those with lab-grown ones. We believe that this will make a lot of jewellery collectors very happy, because one of the biggest trends is collecting coloured diamonds.
PK: You often cite the spirit of the brand’s founder as your inspiration. What qualities of his continue to resonate with you and inspire you?
CL: I think audacity and courage.
PK: And why is that so?
CL: Maybe I need that. I think to be a CEO, and the first Asian one in the luxury world, I don’t have many role models to look upon unfortunately, so I have to be my own role model. And I know so many colleagues, clients, and friends, they’re all looking up to me, and I at times will think, “Okay, what do I do? What do I do to make sure that I don’t make my Asian brothers and sisters lose face?” I want to do a good job and sometimes it is difficult. I think I constantly need the audacity and encouragement from Mr Fred to carry his house, because at the end of the day, it’s his name and I’m just working for it with my colleagues to make sound decisions for the brand. I think maybe as a CEO, for my job, I need that.
PK: Last question: The brand has 87 years of history, but what is the legacy that you hope to build with Fred in the future?
CL: I just know that this brand is going to be for another 100 or 200 years. I just want to do a good job while I’m here before I pass the torch to the next person. At this time, I would like to make sure that my time here is spent on the expansion of the brand, especially in Asia. We started a few years ago in China, South Korea and Japan, and now we’re focusing on Southeast Asia. I hope that this is also one of my legacies in the long history of the brand—that network opening and business development of the brand and introduce the brand to more young people in this region. That’s what I want to do and hopefully, this brand and Mr Fred will still be inspiring the young people in the region to keep on fighting and keep on following their dreams and braving all the storms and waves in their lives.
PK: Thank you so much for talking to me today.
Fred, Jeweller Creator Since 1936 is on display at ALT.1, 6F of The Hyundai Seoul till 25 December 2023.