Jean-Pol Piron has a secret, but can’t help dropping tantalizing clues: he has commissioned a well-known sculptress – he won’t say who – to design a bathtub for his company’s 35th anniversary next year.
“It’s a genuine challenge,” says the founder and Managing Director of Aquamass, a leading manufacturer of designer baths. Piron says the sculptured tub will be an oeuvre d’art available in a limited edition of eight numbered pieces. Needless to say, owning one of them will cost a small fortune, but Piron is confident that there is a market among the world’s art collectors for such an object, and anyway it is something he says he has wanted to do for years.
Piron is the man reputed for taking the bath out of the bathroom, introducing the first free-standing bath in europe as well as introducing the concept of ‘wellness’ to Belgium.
Justifiably proud of being a self-made man, a graduate of the ‘university of life’, Piron left school and home at 15 and did “a bit of everything”, by turn disc-jockey, photographic assistant, scrap iron dealer, restaurant owner. A bad car accident in 1975 led to a spell of treatment at a thalassotherapy centre in Brittany; this, combined with a subsequent trip to California where Piron was introduced to the Jacuzzi, gave him the idea of combining water therapy with the joys of a having a relaxing bath, leading to the creation of Aquamass in 1978.
As do many businessmen, Piron complains that the past four years have been bad for business, but nevertheless has a turnover of €4 million with 20 people on the books and exports counting for 40 percent of the business. Just over half the business is based on design, the rest on wellness and hydro-massage. Aquamass enjoys a reputation both in Belgium and beyond its borders much bigger than the size of the company might suggest. Piron says he plans to export more and is toying with the idea of expanding to Brazil: “It’s the big country of tomorrow.”
Off the top of his head Piron estimates five thousand Aquamass baths are sold every year, retailing from €450 to €11.000 per tub, and if customers have difficulty finding what they’re looking for among the myriad of shapes, sizes, materials and finishes available, they can opt for custom-built. This year’s innovation is a bath or spa and bed combination.
When Aquamass was started, few people would have countenanced the idea of having a bath in the middle of the bedroom; these days people aspire to exactly that. Piron is a trend-setter, has the knack of anticipating a trend and says he acts on intuition, a kind of sixth sense that guides much of what he does – a by-product, he claims, of being selftaught which makes him greedy for information. “I travel a lot, I read a lot, I look, I listen, I keep in touch with people – it’s a blend of all that. And I work hard.”
With a love of quality reflected in his products, Piron has a strong creative streak, and although he says he’s not a designer himself, he did design the first free-standing tub, an idea he came up with ten years ago when he felt his life and business were becoming a bit bland.
“I try to make products that people will use on a daily basis, and independently of that I work with designers.” But in his desire to make beautiful things, finding the right designers isn’t always easy. “Design is often too pure and hard. I always try to find one who hasn’t made a bath before; I give them the ideas in terms of the material to use and the dimensions.” The likes of Olivier Lapidus and Xavier Lust are among those who have put their names to Aquamass baths.
Piron’s passion for quality led to his involvement with Brussels Exclusive Labels, the rejuvenated Chamber of High Commerce founded in 1937, of which he has been president for the past four years, using his business acumen to give the organization structure and link its members. With such luminaries as Delvaux, Marcolini and Carine Gilson entitled to display the coveted symbol that denotes quality, Piron says its members include the best craftsmen in Brussels, although he bemoans “not many artisans are left”.
Energetic and young at heart, 60-year-old Piron says he has no plans to retire “I love working, I’m lucky enough to enjoy good health.” A believer in being in the right place at the right time which he says contributed in some measure to his own success, he says he has no regrets and wishes everyone could have had the rich life that he has enjoyed – a richness, he hastens to add, that has nothing to do with money. “Money helps you advance,” he says. “But I never worked for money. My real wealth is my freedom, and the freedom to work.”