By NATHALIE ATKINSON
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, July 14, 2018
Nadja Swarovski is the first woman on the executive board of Swarovski, the world's leading crystal manufacturer.
The London-based head of corporate communications and design services for the company has a reach that extends well beyond her title. In recognition of her many groundbreaking initiatives, this spring she received the CAFA Global Fashion Business Leader Award in Toronto.
Swarovski, 48, has helped transform the family-owned firm into much more than a purveyor of glass animals for curio cabinets - what began in 1895 as a small crystal manufacturing business tucked away in the Austrian Alps has become a cultural institution in its own right.
From the 45 million crystals in the curtains on the Academy Awards stage in Los Angeles to the Fairtrade gold Swarovski fine jewellery designed and worn by actress Penelope Cruz at Cannes, Swarovski's numerous design, social and charitable projects may seem disparate but all reflect certain aspects of the founding business and heritage.
Swarovski Group is a member of the United Nations Global Compact principles on human rights and anti-corruption, for example, and while its crystals are often featured on fashion runways and in Hollywood costume design, the Austrian-headquartered company also recently produced the documentary Waterschool to highlight challenges affecting the world's fresh-water supply and the ongoing community grants begun nearly two decades ago to educate young people about water preservation - an issue relevant to a business that relies on hydroelectric power to cut and polish its crystals.
I caught up with the globe-trotting executive to talk about sustainability, design and how a new empowerment and consciousness is being reflected in the industry.
I've heard your great-great-grandfather carried crystals in his walking stick, and of your father always having some in his pockets to show people. Do you carry any loose crystals?
Oh my gosh no, I don't - I wear them! I'm wearing the beautifully created diamonds with synthetic stones and fair-trade gold as we speak, and that's why I'm in the business: I am the customer. I identify with the customer and have a vision of what she should feel when she wears the product.
It was two women at UCLA who spearheaded the Waterschool documentary, which is about young women in different communities. And in white papers on the jewellery business, many of the makers in the supply chain are women, who are also your core consumers.
This is the jewellery industry; it's about adorning women and I believe in the positive message. It is kind of like the law of attraction. You find yourself with likeminded people who have the same mission, with a set of values and now they're actually representative of what the UN is talking about, and can talk about it more openly and more confidently, and actually make an issue out of it. And most recently the #MeToo movement - yes, we're dealing with female issues, but at the end of the day all those issues have to do with reality, and with the truth.
And to have several very different industries talking about the same thing - pointedly, it's not just mining, or jewellery, or Hollywood.
They're all completely related. In terms of the jewellery industry, we're really trying to take a stand and actually teaming up with our competitors - I like to call them our colleagues in the field, like the Louis Vuitton LVMHs or Kerings of the world.
Those are very powerful companies that really depend on supply chains and can fully influence how the supply chain is handled, how sustainable - or not - it is.
There are many prongs in the company's design, tech and philanthropic efforts but between the red carpet and the Waterschool documentary, why did Swarovski's presence at Cannes in May feel like a culmination of them?
For me it really feels like we are connecting our dots, because sustainability is so high on our agenda. But then we felt: How can we express that sustainability agenda through our product? So that's the finejewellery line [worn on the Cannes red carpet by Cruz], but also vice versa. We ask how our jewellery can really reflect our values, and that's sourcing sustainably, whether that is from sustainable mining or whether it is buying from manufacturers who produce sustainably, such as those created diamonds that we're working with.
And then of course, celebrating all the great efforts people and companies are making to really consider people and the planet when they're manufacturing.
Do you think you have more freedom than some other brand companies because you are a family company like Hermès, where generations can strategize, taking a longer view?
First of all, there's accountability. You're part of it, but also you can never leave or separate those two because it is you. It's more personal, and that increases the sense of responsibility and accountability to act responsibly. And the advantage of a family business is that you can make decisions and can implement changes very quickly. Because we are a private company I think there's probably less bureaucracy.
The company's fashion associations go way back, most famously to working with Christian Dior and creating the iridescent "aurora borealis" coating in the 1940s, but it was your work with the late Alexander McQueen that really formalized the contemporary fashion collaborations. Do you have a personal favourite of his?
Certainly, the first two collections in 1998 and 1999 - the first time, really, he used crystal mesh - which looks like fabric but has crystal on it. We'd had that sitting in the factory for five years but it wasn't until he used it that it just exploded! That crystal-mesh top juxtaposed to a beautiful, flowy, sheer silk dress, the contradiction was so powerful.
In addition to fashion collaborations, Swarovski has also funded a new Learning Centre at London's Design Museum. Why is that important?
I think it's something incredibly empowering because your living environment is basically all design. And, in particular, we feel it's important to educate young children in terms of design because that leads to creative problem-solving. Not necessarily in design but in other areas - it could be in tech or elsewhere.
Tell me about the next major design project for the company - Swarovski's new topper on the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in November, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.
He's such a lovely man and so spiritual, and it's so much about faith and not about religion. I love the fact that he's Jewish and designing the Christmas Tree star. It's about faith and the star stands for hope.
We want to work with people like that because I totally believe in the transcendentalism of the energy of a designer that goes into the design and permeates out to the viewer. You can just feel the passion by looking at the object. He's a new friend for me, and why I love my job - I get to meet such amazing people and have such philosophical conversations.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Atelier Swarovski's pieces include the nostalgia bangle bracelet by Mary Katrantzou, top; the brillo collection by Patricia Urquiola; the rainbow tray; and the margiela ring by Maison Martin.
Nadja Swarovski, who runs corporate communications and design services for Swarovski, recently received the CAFA Global Fashion Business Leader Award.