The Draw of Bespoke and Subtle Sophistication – Benoit Ams, Smith & Norbu

In this inaugural episode we talk to BenoiBenoit AMs Smith & Norbut Ams, founder, owner, designer …. Renaissance Man extraordinaire at Smith & Norbu, a brand that offers tailor-made, subtly branded eye-wear for sophisticated clients. The Smith & Norbu optical frames are made from yak horn, which Benoit sources in Tibet and hand crafts into bespoke models for his customers. We will learn about the joyYak s and challenges of being a small artisanal start-up in Hong-Kong and China, what attracts people to such an offering, and what the dreams of Benoit and his team are for the future.

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PDF download imagePODCAST TRANSCRIPT with [MIN:SEC] stamps:

JP:        Now, I want to turn to our guest tonight, or today, depending on when you listen, his name is Benoit Ams (BA), and he is the founder, owner, designer,…, in short Renaissance Man extraordinaire on a brand called Smith & Norbu, which tailor makes bespoke eye-wear out of yak horn for its customers. Welcome to the show Benoit.

BA [01:22]:      Hello JP very pleased to meet you.

JP:        And I say day or night because, it is night right now as we are recording it for me, and it’s morning for you, because you are in Hong Kong, is that correct?

BA[01:31]:       Exactly.

JP:        So Benoit, tell me a little bit of how come you are in Hong Kong, and in China, and how come we are talking about Smith & Norbu? What is that even; how does it relate to you?

BA[01:45]:       Well, JP, my Chinese adventure started a while ago when I was a student studying Mandarin in Beijing. I worked for the promotion of Belgium beer there for couple of years, and after that, I decided to travel a little bit in China, and travel all the way to Tibet, where I found this fantastic material that is yak horn, and decided to turn into a quality, luxurious article optical frame for sunglasses.

JP:        From beer to yak horn – what made you abandon beer, and what was so special about yak horn?

BA[02:31]:       It was a time for me to go and do something new, and to go into a new adventure. I was seduced by this material by the fact that is highly sustainable; by the fact that it’s completely eco friendly, and sustainably source material in the sense that yak is breaded animal for the meet and for the milk, and the fact of turning this byproduct into a high quality finished product that would help the local population. That would be a way to help a local population in western China and Tibet.

JP:        These yak are imposing animals. I’ve seen some of them on your website. Beautiful animals, and you make them into, kind of, very fragile little things, which are optical frames. What’s the process that transforms the horn of the yak into an optical frame?

BA[03:40]:       Well, we get actually the horn as such. That is the phase of transformation that we’ll have to slice the horn, we’ll have to make it into plates, and these plates are actually the ones that we have in the workshop in the concept store. I’m going to be talking a little bit later about it. These plates are properly cut to make them into glasses and sunglasses so there is no adjunction of any glue any epoxy, any chemical product. It’s the pure material turned into optical frame after a phase of cutting and bending. It is very strong, not a fragile item at all.

JP:        We talked before, and what fascinated me was that you said that every frame is absolutely unique in look, because the horn is like a fingerprint of that yak, but then also because they are handmade each piece by itself. I think you said it takes 15 or 20 hours, and obviously you would find a mark of the craftsman. Can you talk about that a little bit?

BA[05:03]:       That’s right so the pattern and color of every single horn is different. In that way, every single finished product will have different color and variation of color, which makes them truly unique. Now, as you said, all the frames are completely made by hand, by our workshop, and that makes the final product very unique. What we offer today is a really bespoke experience, where the customer can choose his plate of material and decide that he wants that plate of material to be turned into as a finished product. The customer is really about the experiential process of choosing the plate, choosing the shape, getting all the measurements done in order to get the frame that is 100% unique.

JP:        So it’s tailoring, except that it’s eyeglasses versus a suit? Is that kind of a way to think about it?    

BA[06:10]:       That’s a very good way to put it. That’s really eyeglass tailoring.

JP:        Now you also told me about your customers, and some of them seem quite special. On the one hand, I think you said, there are a lot of Americans, whether they are expats in Hong Kong, or travelers, but you also have Japanese. What unites them in wanting this kind of bespoke eyewear?

BA[06:41]:       I think common point between the different customers is the fact that you are looking for products that are a quality item, that are understated, that are not heavily branded on the outside. Our frames do not wear any brand name on the outside, only a signature that only people who are familiar with the brand can recognize. You mention the Japanese customers. Interesting thing is that, the gentlemen had his frame tainted in black so that he would know that his frame is completely in horn, but he would be the only one to know that, and the rest of the world really didn’t have to be aware of that. I think that’s an interesting common point between these different customers. They are looking for a product that are more understated and not as visible as the major players in the optical market would be.

JP:        That’s indeed fascinating. In our book we were talking about the next frontier of luxury being products that only the insider can recognize as. It would be the boutique of handmade bags that has no logo, but the weave would be recognized by the connoisseurs or the Louboutin shoes with the red sole, the Berluti shoe that is actually tied in a special way with a special knot that you learned in the store. I guess your Japanese customers at the extreme of that.  He has a beautiful, very individual object and then he has it painted over – so, the joy is only his.

BA[08:47]:       Very well.

JP:        What are your designs like? Where do you get your inspiration for the designs? Are the customers saying –“I want round ones or triangular”, or do you give a direction?

BA[09:09]:       No, I think that customer usually comes with an expectation that we are going to help them to pick the shape that works for them. What we offer is really a help or a service to help them recognize what will work best for them. That’s actually where the experience comes into play, we offer much more than just selling frame. We offer service where we help people to choose what will work for them.

JP:        That’s fascinating. I noticed that some of your frames at least, are kind of modern mid century in style?  I seem to recognize the glasses that Yves Saint Laurent himself would have worn, or also glasses that are between East and West.  Something like IM Pei would wear. Is that conscious or something that just happens as you create, or is there a particular style that is Smith & Norbu?

BA[10:18]:       Well, I think the inspiration comes from vintage classic, a very timeless type of style, and we also create frames based on the customer we are in front of. We know their personal style, so that is also a thing we do.  But for our existing collection, the search has been based on vintage, classic, timeless. That’s where my inspiration is.

JP:        Interesting, you almost sound like brand creator Frederic Fekkai. He would always say that he lets himself be inspired by every single customer. The most fascinating one is always the last customer. What is the drive behind this? You didn’t mentioned it – or you didn’t want to mention it – but I know that you abandoned beer [distribution], and had this complete turnaround … wanted to work this yak horn project in Tibet… There must be some driver, some vision, some mission that drives it? It’s not a natural thing to do for a young man from Belgium, is it?

BA[11:30]:       Look,…, I was really inspired by creating beautiful objects that would be a t the same time timeless, that would be sustainable, eco friendly, that would at the same time contribute to the local communities in western part of China and Tibet. That was a little bit of the drive – to feel that I could create something unique, and at the same time to do good for this population. That’s where it comes from, that’s where it started.

JP:        I guess, as with all good stories, almost mythical stories, I know that you also have your struggles there. I remember going with you to a party Tyler Brule the founder and chief editor of the Monocle magazine, and him saying – “Yak – Isn’t that endangered species?  Don’t they need to be protected?” …  so you have quite a bit of education to do, to tell them that these are domesticated animals  – the leather is being used, the meat, yogurt is made of the milk and so on. Just like cows … How do you deal with that? Is that a discovery process that you have to beat every time you tell somebody about your product?

BA[12:58]:       That’s right. That’s where the fact of running our own retail location comes into the picture. When you run and operate your own retail location, you can tell the story, you can explain to the people that sustainability is the approach. It’s one of the main concepts of our approach, and that’s the reason why we do what we do. As a matter of fact, yak, as you mentioned is breaded animal for meet and for milk, and so it’s not hunted, endangered. I think this message needs to rely in our own retail dimension.

JP:        And the quite the store it is, you are located in colonial building there are in Hong Kong island, which I think, used to be a police barracks. Is that correct?  

BA[13:51]:       That used to be police marital quarters, it used to be the department of police, and Hong Kong government rehabilitated that to a creative design center.

JP:        So, do you have some police marital spirits going through the building occasionally?

BA[14:13]:       (laughter) There is a little bit of this old colonial Hong Kong feel to it. Yes.

JP:        To turn into the customers that you [talked about] earlier – the American customers, Japanese customers; do you also have Hong Kong ones and mainland customers? Where do they come from? How do they know about you?

BA[14:36]:       That’s a very good question. People, interestingly, do read and know about it via social media, via the press, and we have more and more customers for whom we are a destination, as opposed to just passing by. So, yes, you are right to mention, that we have American customers that have been expatriate or visiting Hong Kong. They have prepared their trip to come to visit us. The same thing goes for mainland Chinese, and same goes for local Hong Kong people. The drive is more and more that people are looking for us, and they drive to visit us.

JP:        Another brand that we talked about in our book is Shang Xia, which is owned by Hermes, but is very much based around reviving Chinese craftsmanship and porcelain and bamboo weaving, and so on and so on. They have done beautiful pop up store in Shanghai as well where they show the craftsmanship. I’ve seen that you’ve done something very similar. I think in Beijing, in a store called ‘WuHao’ (see link in this post), where you brought  in some of your people from the atelier, showed what Smith & Norby is all about. Can you talk a little bit about that? How did it come about, and what is Wuhao, and why are those things you invest in? I’m sure doing something like this doesn’t come for free, and cost a lot of time?

BA[16:06]:       That’s right. Wuhao is this concept store established by Isabel Pascal in Beijing, and the idea was really to communicate on these Chinese craftsmanship, so we had the chance to be invited in Wuhao to have this pop up store, and to recreate all production process of optical framing, into the beautiful environment of the courtyard of Wuhao. I think it’s about the education process – to explain to show so people get to understand how difficult it is or how skilled the craftsmanship is in turning buffalo horn and yak horn into an optical trimming sunglass – it’s complex.

JP:        So, do you think that the Chinese customers develop a sense of pride to see this revival of craftsmanship whether it’s through a Shang Xia or through you? Since it’s a modern process and maybe it’s owned by foreigners, they reject it? Do you have any such insights about how your brand and efforts are being received by Chinese audience?

BA[17:19]:       See, that is a very difficult question, because in China there is not one Chinese customer – there are so many different types of Chinese customers in a country of 1.3 billion people. I do think that more sophisticated customers will wear the big brand or big labels for some years, and will let the time educate themselves and then look for more understated brands, probably like the boutique ones you mentioned over time, probably like Smith & Norbu. We do have more and more Chinese customers, but as a matter of fact, it’s still relatively narrow niche in the market in the sense that country of that size, that is changing and evolving so quickly, you still have the vast majority of people walk into the major brand stores.

JP:        Interesting. Authenticity is a subject that we often come across, that’s very important to a lot of customers that are willing to pay a premium. It often involves not only a quality production process, but to ‘live your dream’ in the sense of starting from the mission and starting from the very roots.  Sometimes literally the plants you are growing for your soaps. I am thinking about Yuan Soap, which is another brand close by you, in Taiwan. You also seem to go quite deep, literally speaking in the process, right? You are going all the way to the farms, and I think you have an ongoing relationship with these Tibetan farmers, is that correct? Can you tell us a little bit about them?

BA[19:13]:       Indeed, we do have integrated relationship with the farmers in Tibet. We don’t bread the yak yet.

JP:        (laughter) Yet! Have you might consider that?

BA[19:28]:       (laughter) That might be the next step, but that’s a long term prospective. No, at this point in time, we just keep relationship with them, because the quality of the raw material is what is going to make the quality of the finished product. So, for us it’s important to know where the product comes from. If the yak have been sustainably breaded, sustainably domesticated,…, when an animal is not comfortable – it will not give a good quality horn. Like in wood, you will have bubble; you will have a certain number of defects in the material. That’s the reason why it’s important to us to integrate this relationship with the grower.

JP:        You said something very interesting also about atelier which resonated with me as somebody who lives in New York, and buys a lot of “stuff”. You said – “Working in that atelier on a pair of glasses, and it takes 15-20 hours, is so much more fulfilling and nicer work than sitting just a couple of miles across the border in Shenzen and stamping out thousands of plastic objects”, which is usually what you associate with a manufacturing in China with.

BA[21:03]:       That’s exactly true. I think the people will work with us, the people we hire and we recruit in the atelier are trained to become craftsman, and they do appreciate the fact that it’s much more fulfilling adventure to manufacture the pair of frames to work slowly, to work with concern on quality, as opposed to work in a production driven type of factory.

JP:        So, here you are, you have a little atelier… How many people work there?

BA[21:40]:       We have seven people.

JP:        Seven people, and can you tell us how many frames you make in a month or so?

BA[21:51]:       We make a couple of hundreds bare frame every year.

JP:        Wow, a couple of hundred of frames only in a year and you have a store! I wonder what’s next? I would guess that growth is obviously one of the agenda items? Is that correct? How do you approach growth?

BA[22:18]:       For us, the priority is to remain consistent with what we do. Priority is to remain in control, to be able to guarantee this consistency with what we do – for us, for a client, for the people we work with, for the grower in Tibet, for the community we are involving. Consistency is definitely a matter of focus for us. It is obvious that at this point in time we are talking to a certain number of people, people involved in crowd funding, to look at different alternative in term of financing the next step, in terms of financing the growth of the company. But, as I said – the priority is to be able to manage growth and at the same time to remain consistent with what we built during the past couple of years.

JP:        It’s interesting because talking to a brand owners like you. It seems that there is this struggle and this challenge from the owners side to grow and to grow consistently, to do it right and not to lose the control of the brand, and I guess from a consumer side, from an equity of the brand side – it seems to be actually a good thing that you only make a couple of hundred frames, and hopefully not much more than couple of thousands frames in the near future. I guess it’s a part of the specialness that your customers must be looking for? Do you think this will translate to New York, Tokyo, London?

BA[24:06]:       That is always the matter I think of basic rules – how quickly can you grow, while maintaining at the same time consistency of your brand? I do obviously see that as a long term objective – to be able to have retail shop in all those locations. I am not willing to compromise what we developed, what we build during the last couple of years in term of skilled craftsmanship. Growing too quickly could mean to compromise on that, which I don’t want to. As a matter of fact, the goal is to be consistent with the size of atelier, with the size of the resource we have in front of us. Growth is an objective, but not at any price.

JP:        Well said. So we talked about Smith & Norbu, we talked about you. If listeners are interested to know more, what is the best way to experience Smith & Norbu?

BA[25:11]:       We do have an online presence through the website, which is  www.smith-norbu.com. We do have a Facebook page where you can get the latest news. As a matter of fact, for the one that is based in Hong Kong, while passing by Hong Kong, the best is to visit us at the concept store. That’s probably the best way to get the taste of what we are doing.

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About JP Kuehlwein

JP Kuehlwein is Co-Founder and Partner at ‘Ueber-Brands’ a New York consulting firm that helps elevate brands in the minds of people and above competition to warrant premium pricing and profits. He previously was Executive Vice President at Frédéric Fekkai & Co, a prestige salon operator and hair care brand and worked at multinational Procter & Gamble as Brand Director and Director of Strategy. JP is a recognized global business leader and brand builder with a 25+ year track record of translating consumer and brand insights into transformational propositions that win in market. His experience spans from developing a global communication strategy for the world’s leading detergent to introducing a new-to-the-world food wrap, disposable diapers as a category in India and a premium skin care brand in China to turning around a luxury lifestyle brand in the US. JP’s latest book is the bestselling “Rethinking Prestige Branding – Secrets of the Ueber-Brands” which he co-authored with Wolfgang Schaefer.
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