By  on June 30, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — De Beers has joined a formidable lineup of high-end jewelers here.

The diamond purveyor opened its seventh U.S. store last month in Union Square. It is a hub of the Bay Area, which chief executive officer Guy Leymarie described as the nation's third-hottest high-end jewelry market behind New York and California's Orange County.

"San Francisco competes with Chicago and Florida" resort enclaves for the number-three spot, he said, after arriving from home base in London for a party to welcome the latest addition to De Beers' global roster of stores, which will double to 50 this year.

In San Francisco, De Beers' 2,659-square-foot unit joins a cluster of competitors along a three-block stretch of Post Street. The store's neighbors include Boucheron, Cartier, Bulgari, Tiffany & Co. and local favorite Shreve & Co.

Leymarie said De Beers will distinguish itself by the company's long-standing reputation as a diamond authority.

He isn't worried about joining a crowded field in the midst of a national economic downturn because of strength in the Bay Area.

"There's Silicon Valley nearby, with all the high-tech industries, and the wine industry in Napa," he said. "San Francisco is also a gateway to Asia, and there is a lot of tourism" and Northern California is an "international market for high-end jewelry" for pieces priced $50,000 and higher.

Although Leymarie said the troubled U.S. economy hasn't affected sales at De Beers' seven domestic locations — the first opened in June 2005 in New York — another economic cycle is having an impact. Diamond prices are escalating because of a surge in global demand and low supplies. Leymarie said De Beers stores worldwide are seeing an increase in diamond jewelry as investments — pieces of 5 to 10 carats. He said a 10-carat diamond now costs about $2 million.

"People are looking for alternative investments and the price of diamonds is going higher," he said.

For its San Francisco debut, De Beers' picked a corner street-level space to lease in a six-story, newly renovated 1908 brick building with a modern look. San Francisco-based Brand + Allen Architects Inc. sheathed the exterior with translucent glass panels that allow the original facade to peak through. The panels are interrupted by clear, tall windows. The building is ethereal and aglow day or night, and stands in contrast to the traditional early 20th century mercantile architecture in the neighborhood.The store's interior follows the companywide modern design plan, with cream walls, dark trim and opaque etched vertical glass panels as window treatments. High display cases for its diamond jewelry are easily viewed from both sides and with collections marked with price ranges, from $500 to several hundred thousand dollars. Higher-end collections are kept in an adjacent room and carry no price tags.

The next De Beers store openings are set this year at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., and Waterside Shops in Naples, Fla. The company is scouting locations throughout the world in major markets, including the U.S.

"The economy always is in a cycle," Leymarie said. "We are confident in the American economy."

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