By  on February 16, 2009

Independent jewelry designers are discovering new modes of survival.

Unlike moneyed luxury houses or mass costume brands, smaller fashion jewelry firms that bridge the gap between fine and costume are striving to hold their own in a time of crisis. With guidance from retailers, they are focused on keeping prices modest and designs spectacular.

“We should all be more price conscious from the very beginning of putting things together, it’s all about making pieces more affordable,” said Janis Savitt, designer of the fledgling line Janis by Janis Savitt, which wholesales for $100 to $700. “If there’s any way I can get the same quality and same look across but be more affordable, I’m going to try to do that, more so now than ever. I am my own customer. I understand people want to take the subway now instead of taxis.”

Savitt said she hasn’t seen any resistance from her accounts, which include Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus Direct, but has been working with them to deliver price-friendly alternatives to her signature pieces.

“I’m showing my buyers what I have and if it works, it works, but people are price conscious and instead of using a stone that’s $100, it will be $10, but that same look can be had with a $10 stone,” Savitt said. “I’m a little company and I have to do these things.”

For its lower-priced line Giles & Brother, jewelry firm Philip Crangi created a brass collection instead of silver, attributing the shift in part to the economy. Chief executive officer Courtney Crangi said after bringing her sales team in-house last year, she has grown increasingly sensitive to her buyers.

“Ironically, we started to shift to brass within the last year and a half,” Crangi said. “Philip has been focused on brass, he loves it as a material, which is significantly less expensive than silver, so those price points are lower. It feels very good from a design standpoint. It’s not a sacrifice or a trade-off. It was a very deliberate decision.”

Anna Sheffield, designer of Bing Bang Jewelry and her high-end signature collection, has also begun dipping into mixed metals. She said her retail accounts, specifically Barneys New York, have been increasingly helpful in offering direction during the recession.

“It’s a partnership and you’re in it together,” Sheffield said. “The more feedback and support you have as a brand, the more apt you are to be successful with new materials and styles. Our buyers are our information centers, they bridge the gap between us and our consumer.”

Janet Goldman, founder and chairman of Fragments showroom, has been advising her designers to work in lower-priced metals. She cited Miguel Ases as one of her top sellers, whose gold-filled earrings retail at around $250.

“It’s refreshing for the buyer. I think we have to look at what our opportunities are and our liabilities,” said Goldman, who also operates two Fragments stores in New York. “We’re looking at our designers and seeing if they can be innovative and offer something different and fresh at a great price. Price is just so important.”

Other retailers are finding the new “sweet spot” price to be about $100 less than it used to be, hovering in the $200 to $300 range, and are grateful to those designers who are willing to lower their wholesale prices.

“We’re focused on restocking our middle range at under $400. We saw at Christmas that was where people were looking, not terribly higher than that,” said Tara Silberberg, owner of The Clay Pot in Brooklyn, which houses jewelry by Alexis Bittar, Me & Ro and Temple St. Clair. “It’s a very important place for us to be right now, it’s cheap and cheerful and recession-proof.”

Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director at Henri Bendel, said the store is working closely with designers and is looking for pieces that are timeless and not necessarily “of the moment.”

“I think the days of the smoke and mirrors are gone, people aren’t driven to buy because a designer has received amazing editorial press,” Watson said. “They want value now, pieces that are timeless and modern but not ‘must haves.’”

Designers are also working hard to expand into different geographic markets, as well as atypical doors, such as design stores or museum gift shops. Alexis Bittar has seen his pieces fare well at the Conran Shop, a store known more for innovative furniture than accessories. Bittar and designer Kara Ross have also entered a number of new accounts that were once exclusively fine jewelry driven.

“We’ve opened a few accounts with our less-expensive line in traditional jewelry stores,” said Ross. “I guess they’re realizing that even if they can get product from their diamond suppliers — big large diamond houses that can afford to give goods on memo — they’re still not selling those pieces and it doesn’t help anyone. So they’re keeping stock smaller and tighter and branching into less expensive goods where they can sell more volume.”

Independent jewelry designers are also using fashion week collaborations as a way to get their pieces in the public eye, at little or no cost. Sheffield is putting Bing Bang pieces on the Vena Cava runway, while Ross is partnering with Christian Cota. Bittar is doing shows in Paris and London, as well as Barbie’s 50th anniversary event in New York. Savitt, a veteran of such show collaborations, is supplying Ralph Lauren with colorful stones for his Collection, and Crangi is working with designer Jason Wu.

“It’s an unverified market right now, the smart thing to do is consolidate expenditures and focus on marketing, marketing, marketing,” said Justin Giunta, designer at Subversive Jewelry, which will accessorize looks at J.Mendel, Rachel Roy and Trovata. “It’s all about finding new stores, new locations and new ways to get out there.”


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