There is probably no one more aware of Cartier’s love affair with India and its maharajas than Bernard Fornas, the 160-year old jewellery maison’s international president and CEO. But what he is possibly unaware of is how much he makes the house of Cartier itself sound like an old, long-established Indian family—one that is proud of its heritage, roots, tradition, image and, of course, its jewellery. When he makes statements such as, “We’re always very careful that our reputation be respected," he could almost be a matriarch instructing a new daughter-in-law.

Fornas was in Mumbai for Cartier’s Concours d’Elegance, a display of vintage cars, many acquired by wealthy families in the days of the maharajas. The brand makes it a point to have a major public relations exercise in India annually, targeting a small elite group (they organized a much-publicized elephant polo match in Jaipur in 2007). This year’s invitees-only event on 2 November was timed to coincide with the opening of Cartier’s first boutique in India, at New Delhi’s Emporio mall. We met on the eve of the event at Fornas’ suite in the old wing of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower.

Full speed ahead: Fornas says Cartier’s Trinity ring is one of the brand’s best-sellers. Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

The silver-haired, tanned and energetic 61-year-old is in a white shirt and cream trousers; the matching jacket is slung over the back of a armchair. The French doors leading to a small balcony are open, and the sounds and smells of the busy Colaba waterfront have made their way into his otherwisesterile suite. Fornas, no stranger to India (he cannot remember how long he’s been visiting: “about 10-20 years"), doesn’t seem to mind.

Fornas is happy that after many years of closely watching the market, Cartier finally has a store here. “We want to set up a network here to be able to sell Cartier as we do in many other countries." He is aware that India is no longer the country of maharajas and their 963 carat diamond necklaces. But he’s betting that our love of jewellery will make his brand a success. “More and more people want to get a brand name in their jewellery, reflecting a certain style, quality and savoir faire, and Cartier is there for that. We’re very eager to show Indians that we know what jewellery is."

He dismisses suggestions that other luxury brands, which opened local stores years ago, might have had a first-mover advantage. “Most have a few stores, which are small and don’t sell. Some brands wanted to have one or two boutiques because they had to create their name. I don’t have to do that," he says.

He does have a point. The connect between the brand and India has served Fornas well because, he explains, “everyone knows Cartier because of all these stories that we’ve had with the maharajas". It wasn’t the same when the house decided to launch in another Asian powerhouse: “In China, we had to start from scratch. We had to tell them who we were and had to spend a lot of time and money to do it," he says. Though the country is ripe in every other way, the taxes for foreign brands are quite high. He seems a bit bewildered by the fact that the government isn’t welcoming foreign luxury labels with open arms. “In other areas in the world, we don’t have this situation, and I hope it is solved one day. A brand like us will invest millions and millions of euros and will create new jobs, as we have done in China, where we have about 500 people working for us," he says. Cartier has 28 boutiques in China, and within three years, the country will will rank No.1 in terms of brand sales.

Fornas rattles off information and figures about his job with remarkable clarity: “We have 27 designers at Cartier: men and women, young and seniors, from 12 nationalities—French, English, German, Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, Filipino, Italians"; “We are the No. 1 luxury brand in Russia and the CIS countries, except Uzbekistan"; “Ten years ago, I had 150 people (craftspeople) doing high jewellery. I have now 370 people". He doesn’t need to ask an assistant, doesn’t consult notes or a laptop, and doesn’t say he’ll send us the details later. He gives out information in a quick, brisk manner and repeats phrases for emphasis: “We have invested in China tens and tens and tens and tens and more, millions of euros."

So we’re not really surprised when he knows exactly how the house has changed in the six years that he has been chairman (he joined Cartier in 1994 as international marketing director). Being the gearhead that he is, everything is explained using automobiles and planes as analogies. Besides “accelerating" on creativity, he explains how he’s set up the business so it could weather a financial crisis.

“I think we have now a five-engine plane. It means in the past we had Japan, Europe and a small (part of the) Far East and a small (part of the) Middle East. Now we have five big engines, which took me seven-eight years (to set up), by investments we did in the Middle East, China and Asia. So if the American engine fails, which is possibly what will happen if this crisis continues, then we have another four to go. And if the European engine fails at the same time as a consequence from the US, then we have another three to go. At least, with five engines, you go home safer than with two," he says. Since our conversation, Europe and Japan have slipped into recession.

Fornas is confident he’s done his best for the company, despite other luxury jewellers, such as Italian brand Bulgari being pessimistic and predicting a slowdown in holiday shopping. “What we have tried to do is always prepare Cartier for the worst," says Fornas. He believes that if a company wants to thrive in tough times, you have to prepare for it when the going’s good. And he’s done that by setting up a supply chain that runs like clockwork. “We deliver weekly replenishments to our 300 boutiques around the world. And that is big business to organize."

He is hopeful that Cartier will resist the slowdown better than other luxury brands and, as a consequence, pick up market share at a lower cost. And even if there are consequences and Cartier suffers in the event of a continued slowdown, his catch phrase is “always less than the others".

The Cartier man that he is, Fornas isn’t too forthcoming about his favourites among other luxury brands. “Aston Martin," he laughs, trying to evade the question. But he does disclose later that he likes Italian shoemaker Santoni and that Dolce and Gabbana are “nice".

After our interview, Fornas, who lives in Geneva, Switzerland, but is “based in planes", wishes he had thought earlier about setting up a game of golf for the evening. The muggy Mumbai heat notwithstanding, he’s eager to unwind with his favourite pastime.

Name: Bernard Fornas

Born: 2 March 1947

Education: Graduated from the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce de Lyon, France; MBA from Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, US

Current Designation: President and CEO, Cartier International

Work Profile: Fornas began his career with Procter and Gamble as assistant product manager. He worked with Camay, the International Gold Corporation and Guerlain, before joining Cartier International as international marketing director. He moved up to corporate marketing manager and then became chairman and MD of Baume et Mercier before taking over as the Cartier CEO in 2002

Favourite Indian Maharaja and Cartier Story: Fornas stops to stare everytime he sees a picture of the Maharaja of Patiala wearing the 963 carat diamond necklace. “It is supposed to be the most important piece of jewellery ever made. And it was made by Cartier."

Favourite Indian Destinations: Fornas loved Agra. He’s also visited Ranthambore, Jaipur and Udaipur and thought the palaces were pieces of art. “I hope people find the means to restore or maintain them. They are part of India’s treasures."