The director of GemGenève Mathieu Dekeukelaire sheds light on the backstage of organising this “niche fair”, which now shines well beyond the Swiss borders.

Carine Claude
1st November 2023
Geneva
352

It’s a tour de force. At the steady pace of two editions per year in May and November, this young fair has managed to make a name in the big leagues in just five years. An achievement for the small team of five employees led by Mathieu Dekeukelaire alongside Nadège Totah, co-organiser of the event. Flexibility, agility, and dynamism are their creed. With each edition, the fair gains its patina. Its rich cultural program attracts more and more major houses. Its loyal exhibitors come or come back depending on the seasons. And young designers, who will shape the jewellery of tomorrow, find their springboard for the future here. A “hub” that is commercial, educational, and cultural at once, unique in the highly competitive world of jewellery.

You are one of the few fairs to offer two editions per year. How do you manage to keep up the pace?

We manage because we are very well surrounded! We have been working with the same teams and individuals for several editions now, the design agency, the surveillance teams, the management of safes and stands, etc. Everyone gains in experience and efficiency, which saves considerable time. Above all, we learn from our mistakes from one edition to another. We are constantly listening to our exhibitors, which allows us to make the necessary corrections.

Which ones?

In November 2022, we wanted to arrange large aisles, as we were in Hall 6 of Palexpo which is very spacious. However, exhibitors noticed that visitors only walked along one side! In short, it was a misguided idea. So we adapted the layout in May 2023 by reducing their width. Another example: some exhibitors could find themselves facing the lounge or the restaurant, some attractive places where there is a lot of traffic. Except that some had the impression that the fair was happening behind them. For November 2023, we integrated this feedback into the hall layout to ensure that all exhibitors are facing the center of the fair.

“We are fortunate to be a small, flexible, agile team with low operating costs, which allows us to be very responsive to the requests of our buyers and merchants. This is the DNA of GemGenève: a human-sized fair created by exhibitors, for exhibitors.”

Is young creation present at every edition?

We always put a particular emphasis on Emerging Talents and New Designers with the Designers Village. Nadège Totah is in charge of this selection. On the other hand, the Designer Vivarium by Viviane Becker is only held in May. She prefers to focus on one edition per year, as her curation requires a lot of research upfront.

How do major houses make their presence felt?

They interact in several ways within GemGenève. They are not exhibitors, as our fair was conceived by merchants, for merchants, with a buying-selling perspective, while major houses generally participate in this type of event to present their new collections. For them, it’s a matter of communication. Strategy-wise, we thus do not have the same objective. However, they manifest at GemGenève in three different ways. First, as buyers, either of stones or pieces that could later enrich their heritage collections. Then, they integrate our cultural program through conferences. I am in regular contact with the heritage teams of these houses and it is interesting to note that for this 7th edition of GemGenève, the houses Piaget, Chaumet, and Van Cleef & Arpels will come with strong proposals. Finally, the third possibility is the loan of pieces for the exhibitions we organise, like Chaumet this year who agreed to present about ten exceptional pieces of jewellery from their collection for our “Pearls Odyssey” exhibition [see p.XX]. It’s a beautiful acknowledgment.

This year’s themes will delve into various facets…

Piaget is set to present the art of feather craftsmanship in high jewellery with Nelly Saunier, one of the few feather artists in this highly specialised realm, who has created absolutely incredible jewellery pieces for them using feathers and precious stones. Complementing the exhibition, Violaine Bigot, Heritage Manager at Chaumet, will participate in the discussion “Pearls of Truth”, which will explore natural pearls from various historical, technical, and scientific perspectives. Additionally, Gislain Aucremanne, Heritage Director at Bulgari, will deliver a lecture on the motif of the serpent, a theme found in jewellery across all civilisations and eras.

From one edition to the next, your exhibitions seem to gain momentum.

We learn from our experience, especially from a logistical standpoint and on the organisation of exhibitions. And this experience allows us to push our proposals a bit further. This year, for example, we envisioned a circular room with a 360° projection to immerse visitors in the world of pearls. A central space will exhibit beautiful jewellery lent by major houses and the Al Fardan collection, one of the most significant in the world. In partnership with the SSEF laboratory, a third room will be dedicated to the scientific and historical analysis of natural pearls, to understand the distinction between fine pearls and cultured pearls with photographs from Chaumet. This is possible thanks to a trustful relationship built over time.

So, this is a source of pride for you…

These initiatives came from relationships we have been developing with the heritage teams of houses over several editions. Their presence proves that GemGenève’s cultural program is gaining credibility thanks to the quality of interventions and exhibitions. Moreover, other exciting projects are already under discussion for 2024 with another major house and a museum in Geneva.

Your positioning is unique in the world of jewellery…

Indeed, as we function both as a commercial and cultural platform. That’s what sets GemGenève apart. Initially, we didn’t necessarily realise the impact of our conferences, but over the editions, the cultural program has built our DNA. We value exchanges and the human dimension above all. The fair is modest, elegant, all stands are the same size. The ambiance is very different from that of large commercial fairs, with ads, lights, and screens everywhere overwhelming the public and exhibitors.

What roles do innovation and high tech play at GemGenève?

These are topics also covered in conferences. We don’t have a space dedicated per se to high-tech projects, but, for instance, this year we will discuss the use of artificial intelligence for stone analysis in gemology laboratories during two roundtables [see box p.XX]. Another discussion will address the uses of social media in the jewellery universe. Which ones will persist? Which ones will fade away? Things evolve fast in this environment. Some influencers, who gained notable recognition through social media and their blogs, now wish to revert to print. It’s somewhat like art or fashion: we operate in a very visual universe. The valorisation of beautiful stones and beautiful jewellery also goes through publishing. Bernard Letu Bookstore and the Gem Collectors Shop sell these magnificent books, which are valuable items in themselves.

A jewellery ecosystem around GemGenève seems to be taking shape…

It has been building upon an already existing small ecosystem of auction sales, with entities like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Hôtel des Ventes Piguet having their sales in May and November. It was logical to organise the fair during these periods, as the exhibitors at GemGenève are also auction buyers, and their presence at the fair facilitated viewing auction houses’ offerings before the auction sessions. Phillips is set to organise its first jewellery auction in Geneva this November, indicating a growing momentum. Informal contacts are maintained with all these actors to anticipate and coordinate in terms of scheduling and offerings, even though formal partnerships are yet to be established. The idea of a Geneva Luxury Week in May and November is gaining traction. This emerging concept might evolve towards something akin to a Fashion Week, although it hasn’t reached that point yet.