VICENZA, Italy — High-end Italian jewelry makers presenting their new collections at the weeklong Vicenzaoro fair said they are resisting the lure of low-cost production in places like China.
They said that, regardless of higher costs and a dearth of young artisans, an all-Italian production still allows top-flight brands to stand out from the pack in terms of quality, workmanship and design. Such qualities ultimately rekindle consumers' passion for the brand.
"People want to buy Italian jewelry," said Franco Pianegonda, owner of Pianegonda. "A Chinese consumer wants a Made in Italy jewel. It's very important and people are willing to pay for quality."
Davide Staurino, president and co-owner of Staurino Fratelli, said jewelers need to stimulate consumer spending with original products that don't bypass the brand's identity.
"Especially during tough times, the message a brand should divulge is, 'I have values, I believe in them and I will carry them forth,'" noted Staurino.
Some 1,600 exhibitors showed their new wares at Vicenzaoro, which ended here on Jan. 20 and attracted 22,000 visitors from 117 countries. U.S. buyers accounted for 18.5 percent of attendance.
In a bid to cut costs and weather a trilogy of adverse factors — the weak dollar, the steeper price of gold and a possible slowdown in luxury goods — many brands responded by downsizing carat counts and size, and employing alternative stones, such as brown and even gray diamonds.
The recession and weak dollar aside, the U.S. continues to be the largest export market for Italian jewelry with a 14.6 percent slice of the export pie that equaled $710 million at current exchange rates in the first nine months of last year.
"The U.S. is saturated and competitive, but it also has very specific fashion tastes that are different from the European ones and that give us huge satisfaction," said Massimo Zerbini, the exclusive U.S. distributor for Valente.
"U.S. customers are loyal, and when they're affectionate to a brand, they keep coming back, which is why we're studying versatile, 24-hour pieces for this market," said Staurino.
Still, there are challenges. Elisa Vallotti, director of operations at Calgaro USA, said the weak dollar led the firm to tighten its markup."We want to stay competitive in the U.S.," Vallotti said. "We're very positive and expect small but steady growth."
Consolidated markets, such as Russia and smaller ex-Soviet bloc countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, also are driving sales. China continues to be seen as a huge potential market, but one that poses serious counterfeiting issues for many brands.
Thanks to its jewelry tradition, India is also a target for many top-flight brands, although they're often faced with well-rooted local competition.
Retail expansion continues to be a priority as flagships are viewed as a vehicle to showcase the study and workmanship of an Italian company.
Leo Pizzo will open two flagships, one in Rome in March and one in Milan in the fall. Last year, Roberto Coin opened stores in Macau, Atlanta, Rome and Dubai, and this year will focus on Russia and the Ukraine, with openings in Moscow, Kiev, Saint Petersburg and Odessa. Calgaro is also on tap to open a flagship in Milan this spring.
Trend-wise, white and rose gold are still top choices, with yellow gold, especially in matte versions, gaining momentum. For the more daring, there's burnished gold, blue gold and gray diamonds.
"Customers are happy to spend for pieces that have a strong identity, that reflect the brand's DNA and that ultimately bring happiness," said Pianegonda.
Shapes are sinuous, roundish and organic, with an emphasis on floral motifs as companies thrived to strike a fair price-quality ratio.
Roberto Coin weathered cost increases and market slumps by crafting lighter pieces and using less-expensive stones.
"We reduced the weight of a 100 gram bracelet to 80 grams, or we alternated brown diamonds with white ones without compromising the workmanship or design," said Pilar Coin, marketing manager at Roberto Coin.
Highlights of the new collection were earrings, bracelets and pendants made with tiny discs, encrusted with brilliant-cut black sapphires and yellow and white diamonds.
The spotlight at Leo Pizzo shone on floral brooches or snake-shaped rings aglitter with pavé diamonds. Each piece takes six weeks to produce by skilled artisans.
Pianegonda took the romantic route with white, regular and irregular pearls, mounted on silver or rose gold. The best interpretations were the three-strand chains interspersed with small irregular pearls that rotate in their settings, and multiwire rigid rings with different-sized pearls. Pianegonda expects 2007 sales of $37 million to advance 10 to 15 percent this year.Calgaro, which, like Valente, was acquired by Mariella Burani Fashion Group and is now part of the group's Gioielli d'Italia operation, continued to show variations on its staple silver- and gold-spun chains.
Buyers praised the Belle Epoque collection with its stylized laurel leaves, multifaceted quartz crystals and etched animal motifs, along with Boheme, a lighthearted lineup of boho-chic pieces that include garland-shaped necklaces and bracelets, and cocktail rings in silver with mother-of-pearl and quartz crystal cabochons.
Valente introduced crosses with medieval references, such as tiny nails hammered into matte yellow gold and jazzed up with pink quartz and amethyst. Also new were jet pendants with yellow gold patches filled with rubies, diamonds and colored sapphires. Valente posted sales of $10.2 million in 2007 and expects U.S. revenues to advance 20 percent this year.
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