As creative director of Danish fine jewellery and homewares brand Georg Jensen, Ragnar Hjartarson has overseen the rejuvenation of many of the 120-year-old company’s most iconic designs. Here, he breaks down his “scientific” approach to creativity and innovation, and shares the one that successful luxury brands have in common. Inside Retail: Can you tell me about your career journey? Ragnar Hjartarson: I was born and raised in Iceland, but moved to France as a young man to study economics
economics and political science. That education opened a lot of doors for me. I started working at Cartier in Paris in the fine jewellery department, which is a very exclusive team. And then I moved from one luxury company to another.
I went to Boucheron after Cartier. We were relaunching the brand, which was a very exciting journey because we had to change not only the product, but the whole image of the company. And then, a headhunter called me and said, “I have the perfect job for you. It’s in Denmark, and it’s in visual merchandising.” I almost dropped my phone because I had never done visual merchandising before, but the headhunter said, “You’re so creative, you will be perfect for it.”
Of course, as an Icelander, I speak Danish, and Copenhagen was my dream place to move to, so it was a dream come true. I packed up and left to work for Georg Jensen in Copenhagen. I had three different types of jobs: first, visual merchandising, then I took over merchandising, which is more about creating and defining assortments for the whole world – you have to understand the markets very well. And then, I took over the creative team and the marketing team.
After five years at Georg Jensen, I moved back to Paris, and I started as Hermes’ commercial director. I travelled around the world with the first high jewellery collection. We had customer events in all the main markets over a year, and I met with all the VIP customers. It was a fantastic experience. It’s not like selling over the counter. You present the pieces, and they show their interest, and then [you talk] afterwards.
After Hermes, I got a fabulous opportunity at Swarovski. I was hesitant in the beginning because I had only worked in luxury, the ultimate luxury, but Swarovski offered me an opportunity to take over their design studios in Austria. I spent five years building up the design studios in Austria for home crystalware, and then I moved to Paris to take over the creative studios for jewellery.
I stayed there almost 10 years, and I got deeply into the creative process, so I was very much prepared to take my next step, which was to become the creative director of Georg Jensen. With all that experience, especially at Swarovski, I reshaped the way we think and work creatively at Georg Jensen. But what’s very interesting is that I could compare how Georg Jensen was when I left, and how it had evolved when I came back.
IR: How would you describe your creative strategy since rejoining Georg Jensen a few years ago?
RH: I’ve always been very interested in heritage brands. All the brands I’ve worked for are over 100 years old. So for me, the roots, the heritage, are extremely important. I often say the heritage is the flame which guides the creative process. For me, it’s important to ensure there is continuity over the past 120 years. My creative strategy is to have a balance between new innovations and the rejuvenation of our icons.
These new innovations mostly come from bringing in external designers who understand the DNA of Georg Jensen and at the same time, have something new to bring. That’s how the company has always evolved, because Georg Jensen himself collaborated from the very beginning.
When it comes to rejuvenating our icons, this has really been a core part of our work for the last two or three years. The first step is to identify their potential. I call it the “multiplication formula”, or “the art of infinity”. You take an iconic shape, and you multiply it by using different colours, materials, or sizes.
For example, the first icon rejuvenation I did was with a very iconic pitcher made by Henning Koppel, and all I did was bring in colour. This had never been done in the past. Georg Jensen’s home collection is 90 per cent stainless steel. I went into the archives and Henning Koppel was a painter and a sculptor, and he had a very clear colour palette, so we adapted that colour palette to these new icons.
We have a plan to revisit our icons year after year. It’s not about overshadowing them. The original icon will always be the hero, but it’s simply giving us an opportunity to talk about them again.
IR: You studied economics and political science, and yet you’ve always worked in very creative roles. Would you say that you take a scientific approach to creativity?
RH: There has to be a methodology. When you’re thinking about a product, you need to think about the next three, five or 50 years, because our products are timeless, and the ultimate goal is that they become iconic. You have to be able to think about how that product, or family of products, could evolve.
For example, we launched tableware for the first time in 2021, just before I arrived. It was launched in a very modest way in that it was the everyday table, but it became very successful. You need to be able to see, “What if we went into more event tableware or evening tableware?”
You have to see the opportunity to evolve, and this is often what creative people or marketing people do not take into consideration. So, when a product starts becoming successful, they’re stuck. That can be for technical reasons. For example, decorated porcelain can be hand-painted, or there are all kinds of techniques like decals. But the form of the porcelain has to fit that technique.
If you don’t think that through at the very beginning, then three years later, when you say, “Wow, this is becoming successful, now I’d like to have a limited-edition with decoration,” you might not be able to do it.
This is how I think. Very long term.
IR: Looking at all of the luxury brands you’ve worked for over the course of your career, can you identify anything that sets them apart from other brands that haven’t had their longevity and success?
RH: I would say do not compromise. That’s a learning I’ve taken from many of these brands, especially Hermes. That, for me, is what has created Hermes’ success: be true to yourself.