By  on December 20, 2006

LONDON — Bec Astley Clarke was no expert in precious gems — and had never worked in fashion or design — when she launched her namesake fine jewelry Web site in July.

Her experience had been mostly in Internet-related deals: She worked at tesco.com, the online business of the British supermarket giant, and subsequently for the London-based venture capital firm Venrex, focusing on Internet and new media investments.

The nascent site has been drawing about 75,000 unique visitors each month, including Nicole Kidman, who ordered Carolina Bucci sparkle gold bangles a few weeks ago when she was in London shooting the film "The Golden Compass."

While working in venture capital 18 months ago, Astley Clarke spotted what appeared to be a niche in the market. "I was looking at what part of the luxury space was not being attended to," said the Web site founder over a coffee at the Wolseley on Piccadilly. "A lot of the jewelry sites I saw were oriented to the big-name brands, and they weren't really e-commerce sites."

Astley Clarke said she felt fine jewelry designers with small businesses were underserved and had limited choices when it came to selling their collections. So she launched the online store at Astleyclarke.com to give fine jewelry's smaller names another outlet, one with a broad customer base.

The site carries works of 30 designers, its maximum, from Europe and the U.S., including Pippa Small, Catherine Prevost, Coleman Douglas, Flora Astor, Yossi Harari, Carolina Bucci, Vinnie Day, Phillipa Holland and More from New York.

About 80 percent of the collections are exclusive to Astley Clarke in the U.K., including all of the U.S. brands. Prices range from $120 to $20,000. "I wanted as broad a customer base as possible — something for everybody. I want people to buy from the site, no matter how much money they happen to have," Astley Clarke related.

Same-day delivery service in central London, even on Christmas Eve, reflects the venture's emphasis on customer service. "It's so that no one, especially men, gets caught without a gift," Astley Clarke said. U.K. customers receive items via the Royal Mail and take their returns, which are free, to the nearest post office. In most of the U.K., outside central London, deliveries are next-day.So far, 90 percent of online orders have come from the U.K., and 25 percent of customers have been men buying for women. Sales on Cyber Monday doubled compared with the average Monday, Astley Clarke said.

The jewelry is ultrafeminine, a mix of fashion-forward, classic and bohemian. There are yellow and white gold woven cuff bracelets from Carolina Bucci, delicate rings with candy-colored gemstones from Pippa Small and classy diamond studs from Flora Astor.

Astley Clarke said exclusivity makes her site different from the myriad jewelry sites in cyberspace. "We specifically set out to buy pieces from our designers that you cannot easily find anywhere else. Many pieces are limited edition."

She added that her buyers consider quality of workmanship and materials used, together with trends, rather than simply the newest, hottest name. "We have new products arriving from all over the world every week, and we keep our customers updated [via e-mail] on a regular basis," said Astley Clarke, adding the site also employs a fine-jewelry expert who's available to advise customers.

Mark Esiri, the largest non-management shareholder in the online jewelry venture, said he put his money behind the project because he knew Astley Clarke was a fantastic business person who had a press and business network "to die for." Esiri is head of the venture capital firm Venrex, which is also the majority shareholder of British high-end stationers Smythson, an entity he sees as a sister company to Astley Clarke. As such, he said, the companies could potentially share back-office synergies, such as search-engine optimization on the Internet.

The site's biggest challenge going forward, in Esiri's view, will be its inherent balancing act: How to remain loyal to certain suppliers and continue to bring new, up-and-coming designers on board.

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