By  on June 11, 2007

LAS VEGAS — Jewelry has gone from bling to boom.

Maybe Ellen Barkin should get the credit. After selling the impressive collection of jewelry given to her by her then-husband, billionaire Ronald Perelman, at Christie's last year for a whopping $20.4 million, the "Ocean's Thirteen" actress appears to have sparked a trend of patrician women across the country eagerly building personal collections with one-of-a-kind pieces and rare finds.

At several fine jewelry shows here last week, retailers such as Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman were on the hunt for elusive and expensive pieces that would cater to those super-rich women looking to build a collection. Many pieces on display at the shows cost more than $30,000 and went for as much as $10 million because of their rare stones and intricate handwork. Turkish enamel and micro mosaic and Indian jewelry from Sevan, Likya, Bochic and Maya Jewels was prevalent, as was blackened gold set with diamonds at Nina Runsdorf and Arunashi, and men's jewelry was a hot ticket at Shamballa, David Yurman and John Hardy.

At the high end, jewelers have been struggling with how to redefine the term "luxury," given the continual blending of mass and class in sectors ranging from fashion to food. As a result, jewelry firms and designers are one-upping themselves, creating one-of-a-kind pieces and limited edition styles seen at various jewelry trade shows here, including JCK, Couture, Luxury by JCK and Premiere.

Judith Ripka has developed a custom area in its boutiques for its most discerning clients.

"More and more, the high-end customer is differentiating itself. The word ‘luxury' itself has become mass," said Ripka president Janice Winter. "The top tier is looking for something different. It's a challenge for us in the luxury sector. Those of us who were in luxury before need to have something new and the most luxurious thing there is, is time."

Even David Yurman, a company that pioneered accessibly priced jewelry geared for self-purchasing, is offering some limited edition beaded pieces in addition to a new diamond collection featuring the Quatrefoil flower signature with larger diamonds than the firm usually uses.

"It's becoming a big business for us," said Yurman chief executive officer Paul Blum. "It's a big change for us."John Hardy concurred: "We moved away from the world of luxury to the world of authenticity. Luxury is dead anyway. You can get it at Kmart and Wal-Mart."

Hardy showed a variety of handmade sterling silver and diamond cuffs and launched his first complete 18-karat gold line.

Firms with distinct and rarefied jewelry, such as Siegelson, which specializes in rare estate jewelry, and Shaun Leane, the British designer who often collaborates with Alexander McQueen on jewelry for the runway, are experiencing significant growth.

"People want something bespoke," said Leane, who thrives on creating one-of-a-kinds. "There's so much mass out there."

Lee Siegelson, owner of Siegelson, which showed privately here, likened the jewelry world to ready-to-wear and couture.

"A lot of the issues of jewelry today are that rtw has become more available. It's the same with jewelry," said Siegelson, adding that consumers want to be different and it's not necessarily about offering the biggest bling.

"The $10 million piece is sometimes thought to be on the same scale as much as a $100,000 piece," he said. "The jewel is pedestrian in nature. It's about the manufacturing and the conception."

Retailers, especially, have been trying to offer customers the inside track on haute items. Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York carry jewelry by artists who offer fine craft and originality to cater to the super-affluent consumer.

"The idea of one-off pieces is very important to them," said Stephanie Lee, buyer for fine jewelry and watches at Barneys New York. "[Our customers] are interested in following jewelers as artists. They do not want to see themselves coming and going. We do work with our jewelers to create more one-off pieces. We encourage this from them. We have seen very interesting diamond shapes."

Barneys picked up things at the shows such as diamond slices and colored diamonds.

Bergdorf's also was scouring the shows for more rarefied pieces as well as more rtw jewelry. "This customer is confident and has impeccable taste," said Sydney Price, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for jewelry and watches at Bergdorf Goodman. "She wants to wear something that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. One-of-a-kind and limited edition pieces are key to the success of our business. In fact, there is such a demand, we have added 10 new exclusive designers for fall."The retailer will launch the designers in its new luxury room, which opens on Sept. 4.

Marie Helene Morrow, owner of Reinhold Jewelers in Puerto Rico, said, "I feel very encouraged this year. There's a real sense of luxury, and luxury doesn't mean worth, but that it's rare and different."

The Tiny Jewel Box in Washington was interested in pearls, rose gold and oxidized silver.

Notable designers doing such styles include Nina Runsdorf, who showed a 42-carat black diamond ring; Lucifer Vir Honestus, who showed a large cabochon green cat's-eye tourmaline ring set in black gold with diamonds; Rafaelle Manelli, whose specialty is hand-carved bangles and earrings from the roots of Madagascar ebony trees, and McTeigue & McClelland, a Great Barrington, Mass., firm that specializes in whimsical handmade jewelry.

"It's about a visceral connection, not about a chart," said Walter McTeigue. "There's a backlash [against jewelry as a commodity]. People want something where there's artistry and individuality."

Many small upscale retailers bought high-ticket items with a specific customer in mind. Mayfair's buyer and vice president, Lauren Kulchinsky, purchased Coomi's oversize diamond flat ring in that vein. Kulchinsky added, however, that while the upscale business is way up, there still needs to be a focus on the mid-range.

"Even though you're picking out a $100,000 item for a special client, you still have to find those pieces that are going to sell every day when your big clients aren't walking in the door," she said, citing Anthony Nak, Rodney Rayner, McTeigue and McClelland, Todd Reed, Irene Neuwirth and Julie Baker as favorites.

Fragments owner Janet Goldman agreed, and has a mix of fashion and fine jewelry in her showroom with a melange of brands like Annie Fensterstock, Emily & Ashley, Bylu, BoJ.C. and Arman.

Overall, many said the shows were positive and that they expected a strong holiday sell-through with double-digit increases. Couture had 225 exhibitors, JCK had 3,400 exhibitors and Luxury by JCK and Premier had 205 exhibitors.

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