Visit the Swarovski headquarters in the picturesque Tyrolean town of Wattens in the Austrian Alps, and what might strike you at first glance is that the 122-year-old headquarters appear to owe more to Google or Apple than to traditional Austrian architecture. Most people probably don’t relate Swarovski to cutting-edge technology or collaborations with Silicon Valley. But in recent years, the company has been undergoing a quiet tech revolution, with 2018 marking the opening of a new addition to their base in Wattens, in the form of the crystal factory of the future and the Manufaktur, an innovative co-creation space designed by Norwegian architects Snøhetta.
Surprisingly, this tech focus is nothing new. Markus Langes-Swarovski, 43, Member of the Swarovski Executive Board and Chairman of the Board, Swarovski Group, explains that this is built into the company’s ethos. “When my great-great-grandfather founded the company in 1895, he knew how important it was to interpret and adapt to the times,” he says. Daniel Swarovski was “the epitome of the 19th-century businessman”. As such, he moved his crystal-cutting business from Bohemia to a small village in Austria to use the area’s abundant hydro-electric power to run his patented crystal-cutting machinery. “He embraced innovation and saw technology as key to expanding the company’s product ranges and reaching new markets,” says Langes-Swarovski. “This process continues today.”
Indeed it does. The company counts its sales in the billions of euros, and employs some 30,000 people worldwide, yet it is at Wattens where the core of its crystal manufacturing remains, where, of the 4,800 staff, 700 work in R&D. The initial impetus for the most recent set of changes was not only the changing market environment and lower priced products from competitors, Langes-Swarovski comments. It has always been more about client demand. “Most of all, it is our clients who inspire us to push our boundaries and to offer the best and most innovative crystal products and services.”
What has caused a number of industry observers to sit up and pay attention recently is that Swarovski has been sending executives on visits to Silicon Valley, hiring tech advisors, meeting with venture capitalists and talking about partnerships with tech firms. “Silicon Valley is not just a place, it is a mindset,” says Langes-Swarovski. “We’re aware that, as a legacy company, we have to continually push forward in the areas of mindset and company culture and how Swarovski is perceived from our clients and business partners.” The company, he adds, has always sought proximity to true innovators “whether they are in fashion, design or technology.”
Swarovski was the first European business to adopt 3D printing technology back in the early 1990s. Countless crystal innovations have followed. A recent high-profile innovation has been crystals with a touch-reactive coating, used in apparel, as well as art installations such as Anjali Srinivasan’s Unda (2016), a wave of touch-sensitive crystals and glass pieces whose casting, by incorporating minerals, was designed to emulate the earth’s surface.
In tandem with these innovations the company has been moving towards a more modern, open culture. As a private business, it does not even have to report whether it makes a profit or loss and Swarovski has long been known for a kind of tight-lipped guardedness typical of many European family companies, but this is changing.
“We have begun to gently open our company to the outside world,” says Langes-Swarovski. “This especially means integrating our clients much more into our creative and development processes than we have in the past.”
All this ties back to the belief that one must adapt to survive – and that the great companies of the 19th and 20th centuries (such as Kodak, whose fortunes Langes-Swarovski views as a cautionary tale) are not guaranteed a place in the 21st. However, this doesn’t mean throwing away heritage. Rather, it entails combining the old and new, and innovating as Swarovski has always done.
“At this very moment, we’re building the crystal factory of the future in Wattens,” says Langes-Swarovski. “This will be about creating and implementing top notch cyber-physical systems.” He adds that the “lighthouse project” (which is a kind of beacon for the business) within that factory will be a “conscious counter-trend” to the rush for all things digital. “Instead, the focus will be on the actual craft of creating crystal innovations from scratch together with our clients. It’s all very exciting and we are looking forward to starting this new chapter.”
“The challenge,” he adds, “is and always has been to keep moving with the times.”