By  on July 21, 2008

The intrinsic value and emotional appeal of estate and vintage fine jewelry are providing shelter in the stormy U.S. economy.

As some clients pull out of the turbulent stock market, dealers across the industry report that business, especially the top end, is healthy and growing because of customers from China and Russia and fresh interest from young American connoisseurs.

Consumers aren't simply buying for posterity or for safekeeping in a vault, they are wearing the jewelry, said Stephen Feuerman, co-founder of estate and contemporary jeweler Stephen Russell, which opened a 1,400-squarefoot store this spring at 970 Madison Avenue in Manhattan that is double the size of its former Madison Avenue boutique.

"When it's the right piece, money is no object," said Feuerman, adding that the new store has brought in more clients that are serious about spending millions of dollars on one or more pieces in the firm's rarefied collection.

Prices for items in Stephen Russell start at about $4,000, but there are many pieces in the $3 million to $4 million bracket.

"We would consider opening another store if we could find the merchandise," added Feuerman.

Lee Siegelson, owner of Siegelson, which specializes in rare vintage jewelry, said, "There are areas in the jewelry world that are suffering. But there's still a lower supply of good vintage jewelry out there for people to choose from. Those pieces are still what collectors are selecting. Great design doesn't go out of style or demand."

Ellen Israel, co-owner of Kentshire, with three locations in New York, including a Madison Avenue flagship and a leased department in Bergdorf Goodman, is surprised that business has been so "perky."

"Obviously, we deal with people that are more insulated from the general economy," she said. "But the good news is that the state of the estate jewelry business is extremely healthy. People realize the intrinsic value, the iconic styles, and they love to express their personality through these pieces. You don't see these things on everyone."

Even Van Cleef & Arpels' vintage business is burgeoning. Van Cleef has been actively acquiring its old designs through auctions and private sellers for a while in order to grow its Place Vendome-based Museum Collection and to also sell the goods.

"It's a several-million dollar business for us, and its growing by double digits," said Emmanuel Perrin, the brand's president and chief executive officer in North America. Auction houses including Christie's and Sotheby's have experienced record years of fine jewelry sales, as well.

In 2007, Bergdorf Goodman increased its vintage jewelry component by adding Leighton and Siegelson as vendors.

"It's another layer of the business, particularly right now," said Ed Burstell, the specialty store's senior vice president and general merchandise manager for nonapparel. "There aren't that many clearly defined trends in the market and that's part of the reason vintage jewelry is standing out right now. The [Leighton and Siegelson] customer wants an important piece that has stood the test of time."

Although the supply has shrunk, "the demand is ever larger," said Ralph Esmerian a fourth-generation family jeweler and art collector. Esmerian, in addition to running his own firm, R Esmerian, acquired famed estate jeweler Fred Leighton in 2006 in cooperation with lending partner Global Asset Based Finance Group, a division of Merrill Lynch.

Esmerian has been in litigation since March when he tried to halt the auction of fine jewelry and gems he used as collateral on a loan from Merrill Lynch that soured. In doing so, he filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for Fred Leighton Holdings in April. However, he said business is strong for both his namesake company and Leighton for signed pieces by the likes of the great jewelry artists such as Jean Fouquet, Rene Boivin and Suzanne Belperron.

"People that once held their noses up at this 'old stuff' are now taking an interest," Esmerian said. "Art, of course, is so big, and so important in terms of social recognition and climbing the ladder that there is a new and greater interest in estate jewelry in the past 10 years."

Esmerian said that clients from China and Russia, newly empowered by the fast-growing economies in those countries, are seeking signed vintage jewelry by wellknown jewelers. In addition, he is "overwhelmed by the amount of Americans that are buying" and that many of his newer clients have pulled out of the stock market and are looking to invest in art and fine antique jewelry.

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