Swarovski and Sustainable Crystals

Nadja Swarovski: “The funny thing is, every time we have technology embedded in what we do, the emotional element goes up.”

Hand-in-hand with cutting-edge designers, Swarovski is showing how crystals could help shape sustainable societies of the future.

Nadja Swarovski glides into the room in powder-blue Proenza Schouler with sparkling azure Swarovski stones around her throat. With not so much as a single creamy blonde hair out of place, she orders a cup of green tea, complaining of jetlag.

“It gets harder and harder the older you get,” she says warmly. “Life today has taken on a completely different speed but it’s so fascinating and interesting, I can’t complain.”

We’re sitting in the VIP lounge of Hong Kong’s Art Central, of which Swarovski is one of the main sponsors for the third year. Outside is an installation by sound artist Yuri Suzuki that Swarovski commissioned — it’s a ‘mechanical crystallophone’ that vibrates with a rich, pure sound, reminiscent of ancient Tibetan singing bowls. For decades, the crystal maker has partnered with creative stars, providing free crystals for Alexander McQueen, Arik Levy, Ron Arad, Lenny Kravitz, Tom Dixon, Yves Béhar and Zaha Hadid among others, to build show-stopping designs to show at fairs and exhibitions. “It’s crucial for Swarovski to work with artists and technology experts. We’re in an era of experimentation,” says Nadja.

To get their creative juices flowing, designers are invited to visit Swarovski’s historic headquarters in the bucolic Austrian Alps, to be granted access to the archives and inner workings. Once upon a time these would have been closely guarded. But these days Swarovski is more forthcoming, fashioning itself increasingly after a Silicon Valley start-up. Visit the remarkable building in Wattens and you may even see millennial progammers playing fuzball and sipping craft beer.

The waitress interrupts apologetically — there is no green tea, only coffee or Champagne. Nadja doesn’t bat an eyelid. “Not to worry, I have some with me.” No fuss, she unzips pouch-from-pouch from the depths of her handbag. This level of organisation and reserve is testament to the way she helps to run her 122-year-old family business, of which she is a fifth-generation executive board member. Not to mention her role as mother-of-three, based in London.

She has plenty to be proud of. Revenues in 2015 (its most recently published) were up 10 percent on the previous year to US$3.8 billion and have steadily climbed since the global financial crisis. Innovation and technology have been at the heart of this, bolstered by the hire of experts from McKinsey and Silicon Valley over the last five years. Nadja caveats that innovation has always been in Swarovski’s armoury, and it’s true. Founded in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski, Franz Weis and Armand Kosmann, the company was the “Google of its age”, a Victorian-era disrupter. “When he still lived in Bohemia [now part of the Czech Republic], my great-great-grandfather went to the first electricity fair ever. And he saw techniques developed by Edison and Siemens that inspired him to build a crystal-grinding machine that he registered a patent for. Everyone else was still manually grinding crystal. So it was a new era.” It was for this reason that Daniel Swarovski based the company in the isolated Alpine town of Wattens, to hide his technology from the eyes of prying rivals.

But in this decade the level of disruption has gone up a few notches in spectacular style. At last year’s Met Gala, themed Manus x Machina, actress Freida Pinto wore a Tory Burch gown glittering with 840 colour-changing Swarovski crystals. The strategy first implemented five years ago, which revolves around embracing new technology will play out in another chapter at Design Miami/Basel this year. The winners of the Swarovski Designers of the Future Award are showing something that could fundamentally change the way solar power works. “These innovations are now filtering down to the product lines,” says Nadja.

Within an architectural space created by Jimenez Lai, visitors will discover a spread of solar-powered objects created by Marjan van Aubel, as well as 3D-printed crystals by Takt Project in collaboration with Micron3DP Ltd – something that has never been done before. Like all the other Swarovski creations, it will no doubt be aesthetically stunning. But the implication of not only being able to 3D print crystals, but to then use them for solar power, is an important one.

The uses are myriad. One of Swarovski’s most exciting new products is a solar-powered wearable fitness-tracking device, created in partnership with Misfit, a wearable tech company. “My great-great grandfather started this company because when he looked around in 1895 the only people wearing diamonds were royalty. So he came up with the personal motto of ‘a diamond for everyone’. So we thought, what’s the next empowerment? To gain information about your body through a beautiful piece of crystal you’re wearing on your wrist.” She wiggles a futuristic-looking ring on her finger, also in powder blue. “With this ring, you could embed technology to measure your pulse. Ninety percent of our customers are women so it’s important to cater to female health-related issues.”

Another future for crystal, adds Nadja, would be in a solar-powered vehicle, such as the one designed by Ross Lovegrove a few years ago. Embedded with 1,000 Swarovski crystals hand-selected for their blue-violet nuance, the concept car was built by Coggiola in Turin. “Because the crystals are multi-faceted, they promote the maximum light onto the solar panels at the most potent angle. It was created as a prototype but we need these experiments to trigger the next thoughts and ideas,” Nadja says.

“The funny thing is, every time we have technology embedded in what we do, the emotional element goes up,” says Nadja. She recalls when Ron Arad created a spiral Swarovski chandelier for its Crystal Palace exhibitions which could receive and display anonymous text messages from the general public. “Of course people went crazy when they realised they could text to the chandelier. Soon the poor chandelier was getting so many texts that it broke.”

She adds: “Technology really speaks to people’s emotions and makes it more human, ironically.”

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