The stakes are ever higher for wooing celebrities to wear jewelry’s top names.

It was star wattage versus sheer karat weight late Wednesday afternoon at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and probably one of the few moments when a roomful of actresses were upstaged. As more than $20 million worth of diamonds from 13 jewelry companies made its way around the room draped on models, visions of red-carpet glory invariably danced in the eyes of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Rachel Griffiths and Marg Helgenberger.

No doubt there were also dollar signs flickering in the eyes of the jewelry executives seated around them.

Hollywood’s love affair with jewels is a long and storied one. But now more than ever — as with the designer houses and cosmetic firms before them — awards season is becoming a jewelry brand’s best friend.

"I think we live in an incredibly celebrity-conscious age and there has been more and more pressure on jewelry companies to brand themselves," conceded Sally Morrison, president of the Diamond Information Center, which co-hosted the luncheon and fashion show with In Style. "One important way to achieve that is to do what fashion designers do — align with public personas who embody a brand’s style and design vision. The point being, that if someone familiar wears something, other people are going to want it."

After Catherine Zeta-Jones wore H. Stern’s aquamarine and diamond pendant to the 2001 Academy Awards, the company sold three — at $160,000 a pop. Ditto the $120,000 Van Cleef & Arpels diamond cuff that Julia Roberts wore the same year. Singer Luis Miguel bought it for then-girlfriend Mariah Carey after seeing Roberts wear it in People magazine.

"Publicity can translate into editorial, which leverages into awareness, which down the road leads to sales," continued Morrison, stressing that it’s become serious business for the industry.

Taking it seriously usually includes one or more of the following: Opening up a retail door, preferably on Rodeo Drive; hiring a full-time Los Angeles-based publicist to build relationships throughout the year; renting a hotel suite to show off product in the days preceding an awards show; and hosting parties alongside designers or fashion magazines.Needless to say, the expense adds up. Having a public relations company on retainer typically costs around $5,000 per month; a hotel suite with round-the-clock security can run another few thousand, and throwing a party averages anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000, according to industry sources. It can cost up to $2,500 to ship a piece of jewelry to Los Angeles overnight, said one jewelry representative. The upside, of course, is that the item, if sold, can bring in several times that amount.

Although most companies raise the stakes considerably during awards season, they can’t put a price on relationships nurtured throughout the year. "Money cannot buy everything. If that were the case, everyone would do it," said François Bennihmas, North American president of Audemars Piguet. The luxury watchmaker had little success during last year’s Oscars showing its timepieces on the rooftop at L’Ermitage, the Beverly Hills hotel that hosts so many vendors in the week leading up the show. But it scored greater exposure this month co-sponsoring a benefit with Evelyn Lauder and six actresses, including Debra Messing and Thora Birch. "We formed relationships with people committed to our brand," Bennihmas said.

Fred Paris has taken a slow and steady outreach approach in the last year, hosting a stylists luncheon in July and a dinner party in November. Representatives also spent two weeks at the Cannes Film Festival in May bejeweling celebrities. Cannes’ top hotels run about $600 per night, plus insurance and security for the jewels, so expenses can climb.

"Financially, a lot of companies have a difficult time of it," said Ted Byrnes of MHA Media, a Los Angeles-based — and Hollywood-connected — publicity agency whose clients include Fred Paris. "It takes time to lay the groundwork. You can’t just show up with a suitcase of jewelry and expect people to wear it."

Veterans of the game agree that even before the current rash of new players, the stakes have been high. "It’s a tough game," admitted Carol Brodie of Harry Winston, the granddaddy of Hollywood jewelers. "Coming out here to get diamonds on people twice a year is my least favorite part of the job. It has nothing to do with how hard you work. It’s what you have and how you play it."Yet, even Brodie conceded it’s all worth it — red carpet hit or not. "At the end of the day, it’s not about how many stars we’ve loaned to, it’s the relationships forged. We have had a number of loans turn into sales, whether or not it’s the person who borrowed it."

Although Brodie couldn’t quantify the percentage of sales that result from Hollywood exposure, she did note that every piece of jewelry except for one pair of earrings in her 25-piece 2002 Oscar collection has sold. There is another bonus to the buzz: "We stop advertising [excluding newspapers] after April, because all the buzz from the Oscars takes us through to our new fiscal year in September. It’s the biggest bang you can get for your buck in one night."

Even relative newcomers to the scene quickly learn the value of taking their show to the Oscars. Jeffrey Rackover, vice president of sales and marketing at New York-based jeweler Graff said that although marketing to Hollywood is not in his ad budget, "if the DIC says ‘Fly out here and be part of a fashion show,’ I do it. It’s all part of the game."

A glittering Rodeo Drive storefront certainly gives a company a leg up. Cartier, Harry Winston, Fred Paris and Tiffany are not the only gems on the famed shopping stretch. Last October, Chopard and Van Cleef & Arpels bowed there with parties full of bold-faced names.

Already a major presence in Europe thanks to partnerships in high-profile events such as the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix, Chopard opened its 1,800-square-foot store with guests such as Sir Elton John and Julianne Moore in attendance. But, noted Chopard’s Caroline Gruosi-Scheufele, co-president along with her brother Karl Friedrich, "No company would be able to survive just putting jewels on celebrities. For us, it’s the wealthy and affluent Californians and tourists. We are selling dreams, and if we sell better dreams than the next door neighbor we’ll be doing fine."

Likewise at Van Cleef & Arpels. Its Rodeo door reopened a week later. "This is Hollywood, and customers and tourists are all expecting luxury and glamour," said Nathalie Guedj, president and chief executive officer, estimating the renovation will tack on an extra 25 percent to the bottom line."The idea is to truly grow as you grow your business," observed Peri Berne, head of the Beverly Hills Retailers Association, citing Bulgari as "a perfect example." The Italian jeweler’s flagship on Rodeo Drive, opening Feb. 3, will be the largest of its 155 stores, with a total of 9,300 square feet. With an espresso bar, a VIP lounge, art from the Matthew Flowers Gallery in London and vitrines encased in Italian marble, the door is intended to relay a message of luxury and exclusivity to clients.

"This flagship is important for us to consolidate our business and image in the U.S. market," said Bulgari ceo Francesco Trapani. "Los Angeles is the epicenter of the luxury-lifestyle and glamour that the brand represents." He declined to reveal financial plans for the store, but local analysts said Rodeo tenants pay yearly rents ranging from $216 to $264 per square foot, and have the potential for annual sales of between $1,500 and $2,000 per square foot.

With returns like that, no wonder baublemakers head for the in Beverly, that is.

Jeweler Martin Katz had a client in his salon off Rodeo Drive requesting a pair of 5-karat, cushion-cut diamond earrings. "I had to tell him the earrings were not available until tomorrow — because today they were going Hollywood."

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