Byline: Marc KarimzadehAlthough yellow gold has experienced a resurgence in recent seasons, the bridge classifica-tion -- a sterling silver and semiprecious stone stronghold -- has continued to grow. That growth is reflected in the number of designers stores are offering, as well as in the depth buyers are willing to commit to in each designer's collection.Major players like David Yurman, John Hardy and Lagos continue to dominate the category as a whole, helped along by prolific amounts of product, generous display space and ever-strengthening marketing and advertising plans. But there is increasing momentum among the next tier of firms as they gain a following among the buying public. And though they are loath to admit it, most leading stores would like to spread the wealth a bit in order to avoid overdependence on one or two big names, and also keep their departments looking fresh."We are always looking for something hot in the market," said Barbara Lipton, divisional merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue. While Yurman, Hardy and Lagos account for the lion's share of Saks' bridge business, Lipton said "our next tier is Lisa Jenks, Michael Dawkins, Robert Lee Morris and Barry Kieselstein-Cord. We also do nice business with Jordan Schlanger. Dawkins is one of our key vendors; we think he'll be the next emerging resource."Dawkins has registered double-digit increases in each of the last five years, and that pace is expected to continue, according to Stephanie Varone, vice president of sales.Varone attributed the firm's success primarily to the quality and level of service Dawkins offers his customers. "It's up to us to grab the customer," said Varone. "They should remember not just the product, but also the service, whether it's special orders or attention to sizing."Depending on each store's volume, Dawkins provides dedicated sales staff to retailers or training seminars to help sales staff understand the nature of the products. And while the firm has been bolstering its production, sales and marketing staffs to accommodate the growth, there is no plan to tighten distribution to offset the demands of servicing larger accounts. "The question has come up, but we are really dedicated to all our clients and customers, whether they are large or small," Varone said. "We are not looking to exit [a store] because of a dollar amount. We will have enough manpower to accommodate all demands."Trying to grow in an environment of so many resources can be a challenge for both retailers and designers. "A lot of people have jumped into the pool," said Scott Cusson, president of Brinsmaids, an independent jeweler based in New Canaan, Conn., that carries Yurman and Hardy, as well as Robert Lee Morris and Lisa Jenks. "There is a lot of redundancy, and many are not paying attention to what they do best, which is design."Cusson said he sees growth potential with a variety of resources, as long as the designer continues to evolve. Jenks, he said, is an example of such a resource. "She has gone from her traditional look to interesting variations in home and fine jewelry, keeping true to her designs without duplicating [them]."Managing growth while keeping a pulse on a carefully cultivated loyal following is a balancing act for many vendors."The benefit [of being a smaller vendor] is that we can provide individual customer attention and service," said Molly Jenks, president of Lisa Jenks and the designer's sister. "We manage our growth, we always ship on time and we monitor every single piece. It's about the quality and consistency of production and profitability."Lisa Jenks's business has been expanding steadily every year, and while she declined to be specific, she said that necklaces, have increased 20 percent each year.Jenks, whose firm was one of the first to extend its reach into the home arena, has a full line of handbags and small leather goods, and a licensed business for tabletop accessories through Lunt Silversmiths. After dabbling with the occasional accent in gold, the firm recently added its first all-18-karat gold-and-diamond jewelry line. In addition, two new patterns will be added this year to the company's range of flatware, and its efforts will be re-doubled on picture frames, another hot item.There are currently no plans to tackle any other product segments, Jenks said."If the consumer decided they wanted us to grow three times of what we are now, then it would be a challenge for all of us," Jenks said. "Customers need to know what to expect, and yet they have to be surprised with newness."Newness, along with an individualistic look, in fact, are both a growing necessity in a market that some said is reaching the saturation point."There is a lot of congestion in bridge," said Edward Deutsch, president at Robert Lee Morris. In order to stand out, Deutsch said Morris felt the need to reinvent himself each season yet maintain his signature organic look."We try to stay pure to Robert's basic philosophy and move forward," he said.Deutsch said that Morris's connection to the fashion industry distinguishes the line from others. For spring, Robert Lee Morris collaborated with eveningwear designer Douglas Hannant on a runway collection of tribal-inspired silver jewelry. Deutsch said they are currently working out the details for distributing the line.Last month, Morris launched Candy Couture, a collection featuring precious and semiprecious beads with 18-karat yellow gold. Candy Couture is currently exclusive to the Robert Lee Morris store in SoHo and Bergdorf Goodman, with plans to add selected stores gradually."Our market of concentration right now is the finest jewelry stores, which includes higher-end department stores like Neiman Marcus and Saks, and selected department stores in areas where there are no primary jewelers," Deutsch explained. "A lot of people aspire to have the success of a Yurman, but our philosophy is a little different. We want to have a little more exclusivity."Though Deutsch said much more growth would be difficult given its production capabilities, the firm is revisiting the home area. Morris, who previously had a license for china and decorative pieces under Swid Powell, is venturing into tabletop accessories with a line that will be launched in the fall. Deutsch declined to provide specifics except to say that the line would be produced in-house, with distribution similar to that of the jewelry.
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