By Robert Nason and Stephen A. Ross
There’s a purpose behind Alain Crevet’s often-told story about his father’s gift to him as a teenager. “On my 18th birthday, my father gave me a Dupont lighter,” says the chairman of S.T. Dupont. “I remember looking at it until I could remember every tiny detail. I still have it, and I will pass it on to my children, even if the gesture has become somewhat provocative—or perhaps precisely because of that.”
For Crevet, this small anecdote about a lighter handed down through generations is also a story about a company that for 145 years has placed innovation, craftsmanship and tradition over all else and, in the process, has helped redefine elegance in the marketplace. It’s evident in every product their expert craftsmen make at their Faverges, France, atelier, in the foothills of the Alps.
“We are expensive because each lighter we make is entirely handmade,” explains Crevet. “They start with the metal and cut the bar of brass and then apply the gold and silver. The entire mechanics are put in by us. The finishings are made with six layers of Chinese lacquer, and every layer is cooked in the oven and polished before the next layer—there are only three people that know the formula for the lacquer that Dupont uses. So our lighters, like our Ligne 2, are a piece of art that are made over several days. All of this is the magic of Dupont. The secret is the craftsmanship.”
The vision of this nearly century-and-a-half-old company began in the court of France’s Emperor Napoleon III with an ambitious, 25-year-old photographer named Simon Tissot Dupont. Dupont was born in the Savoy region of France in 1847 and traveled to Paris in 1865 to work in his uncle’s photography studio.
“He immediately started making connections in the court and became a well-known photographer. But in 1870 there was a war in France, and the photo studio was destroyed,” explains Crevet. The conflict was the Franco-Prussian War, in which Paris would fall to the Germans in January 1871.
Simon Tissot Dupont
Dupont and his uncle fled back to their hometown of Faverges, but Dupont always had one eye toward returning to Paris, which he did soon after the war ended. In 1872, he opened two businesses, a luxury horse-drawn carriage business—but the factory burned down soon after opening—and a luxury leather works business, which found success in providing the French aristocratic class with handmade attache cases and wallets. Dupont had found the perfect outlet for his perfectionist drive.
By the 1880s, it became fashionable for the European elite to go on extended trips around the world, thus creating an increased demand for luxury travel cases and trunks. Seeing an opportunity, Dupont began creating personalized travel accessories, and with Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie de Montijo being among his first customers, S.T. Dupont’s travel line soon became a must-have for royalty, the wealthy and celebrities throughout Europe. In 1884, S.T. Dupont became the supplier to one of the world’s leading retailers of the time, Les Grands Magasins du Louvre, and the business continued to grow, eventually partnering with Louis Cartier in the 1920s to bring Dupont travel cases to the United States. S.T. Dupont’s reputation as the leading luxury luggage maker was firmly established on the world stage.
Dupont passed the business on to his sons, Andre and Lucien, in 1919 and died soon after in 1922. Both sons continued the innovative spirit of their father, their efforts culminating in Andre’s invention of the first pocket petrol lighter in 1941 and the development of the first luxury pen in 1973 after Jackie Kennedy Onassis mentioned she would love a pen to match her personalized lighter (S.T. Dupont artisans based the luxury ballpoint on her lighter’s drive wheel).
Indeed, Lucien often said, “Make it more beautiful. Make it expensive. Make it innovative,” as the Dupont brothers worked to define the luxury lighter and luxury pen as they had defined luxury luggage. From celebrities like Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn to the Duchess of Windsor and the Maharajah of Patiala—who ordered 100 minaudiere evening bags in lacquer for his harem, with each containing a solid gold cigarette lighter—S.T. Dupont strived to provide the personalized touch to each of its customers.
“The biggest concern that people have about buying an expensive lighter is losing it. We will have a lighter with a chip inside that you can link to your phone that will let you know where your lighter is located.”
And still today, Crevet sees innovation as the foundation of the company’s business philosophy. “Simon Dupont started with trunk making. But after World War II, the demand for trunks declined and we had to find a new product to offer, and that was lighters,” he explains. “After that, we again recognized the need for pens when Jackie Kennedy asked us to build one. We are always looking to add new technology. We always try to bring the talent and innovation of our young artisans and engineers to work on new lighting systems and new technologies. Our reputation is only as good as our ability to adapt and evolve with the market. Respect the past, but always adapt to where the market is going. A good balance between the two is what we provide.”
He offers several examples from just the past few years: the Slim 7 lighter, with its blue flame torch and mere 7 mm width; the Le Grand Dupont that offers both a soft flame and torch flame in one, which will be available in the U.S. in early 2018; and new pen collections and other accessories. They’re also working on an electronic lighter that runs on a battery with a heated filament that can be charged with an electrical outlet.
And, Crevet says, they’re addressing a common worry of many S.T. Dupont customers: “The biggest concern that people have about buying an expensive lighter is losing it. We will have a lighter with a chip inside that you can link to your phone that will let you know where your lighter is located.”
Like any company with such a long history, S.T. Dupont has experienced dips in its market share, most notably in the early 2000s. In fact, when Crevet joined the company in 2006, S.T. Dupont was almost bankrupt, losing money for nearly a decade. Crevet felt at the time the problem was that S.T. Dupont strayed too far from its roots, too far from what made it a premier luxury brand (they had stopped making leather goods). And his efforts in the early years of his reign to steer the company back home, to the artisans and craftsmen that define S.T. Dupont, have proved him right.
In an interview with Luxury Society last year, Crevet offered a story that is a microcosm of his philosophy: “So [former French President Nicolas] Sarkozy had just got elected, and as part of the promotion there was a very nice, big photo going around of him in his office, writing with—believe it or not—a Montblanc pen.
“And when I saw that, I was really, very upset, you know, because Montblanc is actually a German brand—it belongs to a South Africa group conglomerate … and it’s entirely plastic. I mean, it’s not handmade. It’s a pen which is made online, you know, and it’s a plastic-molded pen. Totally uninteresting.
“So, as I had some connections at the Elysee, I asked to meet him, Sarkozy. And then, once there, I basically retold the history of Dupont and that the French government had given an S.T. Dupont accessory as a gift also for the wedding of Queen Elizabeth in 1947, to represent the best of France, and explained that he, as president, needed to write with something which was the “Best of France,” you know—a truly French pen. Then I gave him a Dupont pen, and he loved it so much that he then went on to equip the whole government with Dupont pens.
“To this day, S.T. Dupont is still the preferred supplier of the French Republic.”
While Crevet continues to define S.T. Dupont as a boutique business—“I always say small is beautiful”—he also recognizes the potential of the U.S. market, which is what prompted his exclusive U.S. distributor agreement in 2016 with Davidoff of Geneva USA.
“Our biggest market is in Europe,” he says. “We are also extremely popular in Asia, but the potential for the U.S. is even bigger. And we are very happy to have Davidoff as our partners in the U.S.”
Crevet has one last thought: “The experience of using our lighter is rewarding, so why not spend more money on a lighter that will last? Show it off to your friends and have the peace of mind that it is always going to work for you. I have my father’s lighter, and I know that I will be able to pass it on to one of my children. It’s expensive, but it’s worth it.”