By  on July 28, 2014

In the domain of diamonds, Neiman Marcus has a new best friend — designer Maria Canale.

For decades, Canale designed behind closed doors for Tiffany & Co., Harry Winston and other jewelry houses. Now she’s hosting “luxe” dinners at Neiman Marcus stores and breaking bread with top customers, after launching her namesake collection two years ago.

“Neiman’s has made a big commitment to my brand,” said Canale, during a showing of her 11-piece fall grouping called Pastiche, which ranges from $7,500 earrings to $150,000 necklaces with large center stones. Pastiche utilizes one, two or three-carat diamonds and princess cuts, and puts a fashion spin on classic styles, like rose-gold floral rings.

Canale’s full collection also includes the Hexagon, Aster and Flapper groupings for fall; “essentials” that start at $5,000 for classic hoops and sell season after season, and bespoke designs with one-of-a-kind center-stone jewels, from $125,000 to more than $2 million. About 20 percent of the collection is one-of-a-kind pieces. Cushion, emerald, asscher, brilliant and rose-cut diamonds are core components, and versatility is important, so for example, necklaces can be worn with one or two strands and can be lengthened or shortened with detachable elements. Canale’s light, handmade diamond pieces have an aesthetic rooted in classicism, Art Deco and nature.

The brand is owned by Uni-Creation, a Diarough Group company.

When Neiman’s favors a designer, regardless of the category, it goes to great lengths to showcase the product and capture an air of exclusivity. Canale is no exception. Her collection is sold only at Neiman’s, in 10 doors, and on the retailer’s Web site. Neiman’s supports the business with ads, and by getting Canale to make store appearances and host the luxe dinners, sometimes as the solo act or in tandem with one or two other designers.

Neiman’s also provides guests, as many as 60 on occasion, with cocktails, live music, modeling and a dinner, and an opportunity to connect one-on-one with Canale.

“If it’s known that a particular customer is coming to the store, Neiman’s would change the display to suit what they feel that customer would be most interested in,” Canale noted.

“In at least recent history, we haven’t really worked on exclusive product and branded a designer name in the diamond area,” said Ann Stordahl, Neiman’s senior vice president and general merchandise manager over precious jewelry, designer jewelry and beauty. “We felt it was important to have a designer name, a live approachable person. Maria is great at the events. Customers love meeting her and relate to her very well. She speaks very authoritatively about the design. She is usually booked to do three or four things a season. Within the umbrella of Forevermark [the diamond supplier], she is our primary designer. This is a one-of-a kind program in precious jewelry.”

The three-way partnership creates “a point of difference and exclusivity for Neiman Marcus,” Stordahl added. “Our typical customer probably has a diamond, or a number of diamonds, so we are always looking for something a little more unique that they might add to their collection. Maria gives us classically oriented, top-quality styles. She is working in some different metals, like rose gold, on some more diamond-intensive bracelets and earrings, and some very unusual designs. We continue to feature her diamond hoop earrings. She also gives us some red-carpet looks.”

Neiman’s is encouraging Canale to design product at opening price points as well, to meet growing online demand.

At age 13, Canale began working at the bench as an apprentice for an Armenian master jeweler before studying metal smithing at The School for American Craftsmen at the Rochester Institute of Technology and at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“I knew right away, it would always be fine jewelry,” she said. A passion for drawing, sketching and painting, and extensive travel to Europe and Asia, where she learned about ancient traditions and techniques of local craftsmen, has informed her creative ideas.

For many years, she designed at Tiffany & Co., under the tutelage of design director John Loring, and later at Harry Winston and De Beers.

“I have always been behind the scenes,” Canale said. “I have worked on a lot of different collections. I was allowed to do a lot of different things. Being in the limelight is not really what I have been looking for. For me, it’s about making things I feel strongly about.”

Yet she’s clearly comfortable no longer under the cover of a journeyman. “It’s the right time of my life for this,” explained Canale, who lives in New York. “My kids are in college now. The challenge is [that] there are lots of different markets, even within Neiman Marcus. We might sell more fashion items on the coasts — elaborate, flappier necklaces in major cities. However, St. Louis is where I made my first big bespoke ring last year — it was $400,000 with a four-carat center.”

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