Billionaire Cartier Owner Sees Wealth Gap Fueling Social Unrest

Johann Rupert executive chairman of luxury brand company Richemont SA.

Johann Rupert executive chairman of luxury brand company Richemont SA.

Photographer: Louise Gubb/Corbis

Johann Rupert, the South African who has made billions peddling Cartier jewelry and Chloe fashion, said tension between the rich and poor is set to escalate as robots and artificial intelligence fuel mass unemployment.

“We cannot have 0.1 percent of 0.1 percent taking all the spoils,” said Rupert, who has a fortune worth $7.5 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “It’s unfair and it is not sustainable.”

The founder and chairman of Richemont, whose 20 brands also include Vacheron Constantin and Montblanc, said he expects advances in technology to lead to job losses after having read books on the subject recently. Conflicts between social classes will make selling luxury goods more tricky as the rich will want to conceal their wealth, Rupert said in a speech Monday at the Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in Monaco.

“How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and the social warfare?” he said. “We are destroying the middle classes at this stage and it will affect us. It’s unfair. So that’s what keeps me awake at night.”

Rupert, a university dropout whose father made a fortune setting up Rembrandt Tobacco Corp. and selling it off, has in the past made other social critiques. Nicknamed ‘Rupert the Bear’ for his pessimistic views on the economy, the 65-year-old refers to himself as a “reformed prostitute,” having spent a decade as an investment banker. He said in 2008 that the collateral damage from the financial crisis was yet to come.

“We’re in for a huge change in society,” he said Monday. “Get used to it. And be prepared.”

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