NEW YORK--The branded jewelry business is due for a big turnaround, and targeted merchandise appears to be the way to achieve it. Now that the worst of the financial woes and other problems that have dogged the big names in branded fashion jewelry business appears to be over, the companies and the retailers who sell their products feel business will recover fully in the next 18 to 24 months--perhaps even sooner--provided they steer their products toward specific consumer demands. In addition, vendors are turning to such strategies as: Cutting back on price promotions, which many feel undermined the business. Launching brand extensions. Exploring new channels of distribution apart from the traditional reliance on department stores. Like the rest of the fashion jewelry industry, this segment--which includes The Monet Group, Victoria Creations, Napier and Liz Claiborne--was hit hard over the last two years by a variety of factors, including the minimalist trend and the recession. But some of these firms were also plagued by financial burdens that made the state of the branded jewelry industry as a whole appear even more dire. Several firms went through stretches in the red, but perhaps the biggest blow came when The Monet Group was pulled down into Chapter 11, along with the rest of its former parent company, Crystal Brands Inc. The Monet Group, which produces the Monet, Trifari and Marvella brands, is probably the biggest brand name fashion jewelry firm in the country, with an annual wholesale volume of $180 million, according to industry estimates. Now, however, financial health is returning in most cases, and spirits are lifting along with them. As reported, The Monet Group was lifted from its bankrupt state when Chemical Bank and two private investors purchased it last November for $77.7 million. Others have also begun getting back into the black. "Brands are still the backbone of the fashion jewelry business for us, and we're positioning them for growth," said Kim White, merchandise manager for jewelry and watches at Federated Merchandising, the merchandising arm of Federated Department Stores. Although White noted that some of the heavy hitters in the branded category have had their ups and downs, she added that "every one of them is moving in the right direction now. These companies have learned a lot, and they don't operate the same way they did 10 years ago. They have become much more flexible and responsive than they used to be." At this point, White said, "we're seeing a resurgence in demand for pieces that look like fine jewelry, which is something the brand companies do extremely well." She added that branded designer lines, including Anne Klein II by Swank and Liz Claiborne, have also been hot of late. Clint Scofield, fashion jewelry buyer for J.C. Penney, said he sees a place for branded lines in the future, although he added that the nature of the business needs to change in order to thrive. Among the major brands Penney's carries are Trifari, Napier, Richelieu and 1928. "In the Eighties, when the branded lines were so big, there was a real herd mentality in which people wanted the same things everyone else had," Scofield said. "Now, there's a more individualistic approach, in which people are wearing jewelry as a form of self-expression, and targeting these needs is something that can be accomplished very well with private label jewelry. "If the branded companies work to develop their own niches, there will be a place for them," he added. "Overall, fashion jewelry business has been tough lately, not just because of the minimalism trend, but also because there hasn't been any strong direction." For their part, the branded firms have been spending the last year or so studying their positions and adjusting them to fit with the times. "We've been aggressive in modifying and sculpting each of our brands," said Patricia Stensrud, president and chief executive officer of Victoria Creations, which produces the licensed Karl Lagerfeld and Bijoux Givenchy lines as well as Richelieu, its own pearl jewelry brand, and Worthington, J.C. Penney's private label line. Though it went through an unprofitable period that stretched into several years, the company has been posting financial improvements in its last several quarters. In the fiscal year ended June 30, 1994, the firm posted an operating profit of $183,000 against an operating loss of $981,000 a year earlier. The net loss was cut in half to $2.1 million from $4.2 million. In the most recently reported quarter ended Sept. 30, the firm's sales grew 32.7 percent to $14.7 million, while net profit jumped to $1 million from $165,000. "The jewelry business has been difficult, because fashion in a much broader sense has been difficult," Stensrud pointed out. "Therefore, fashion products, including jewelry, need to be clearly focused on a specific target customer or end use to have relevance." Judy Harrison, president and ceo of The Monet Group, said her company spent the first six months of last year making major adjustments to its lines. "We asked ourselves, 'Why would a consumer want to buy a specific brand of jewelry when everything looks the same?' and then went from there," Harrison said. "Our Monet and Trifari businesses, for instance, are really geared to two very different types of consumers, and once we made that distinction in the lines themselves, we started to see positive results in." Graham Brewster, executive vice president of sales, marketing and product development for Napier, said his firm has been able to weather the tough times by staying focused on its product. "And one of the main reasons we've been able to do this is because we haven't had the distractions of being a public company," he noted. "We know right now, for instance, that our target consumer wants merchandise that looks like real jewelry--fairly tailored gold and pearl pieces--and that's one of the things we're known for. We know what we can do well, and we don't try to jump too far out of the mold." The firm, which is based in Meriden, Conn., does an annual wholesale volume of $50 million, according to industry estimates. "We're very targeted, and we always have been," said Tom Keller, president of Swarovski Jewelry U.S., which makes the Swarovksi Jewelers Collection and Savvy brands. "We make crystal jewelry, albeit in two very different lines, and it's what we're known for." Keller, who said the second half of last year was "extremely strong" for his company, noted that the trends toward glamour and femininity that have recently come onto the fashion scene have only spurred more business. However, at last month's accessories market, Swarovski did launch an extension of its Savvy line, called Conversations by Savvy, which features novelty pins and necklaces. "This is an area we can fall back on," he said. "If the glamour trend, for instance, goes away for a long time, we have this product to help supplement." Though there was moderate growth last year for Liz Claiborne Jewelry, the firm's plan is to keep building up business by courting the same consumers who buy Liz Claiborne apparel, according to Neil Katz, president of Liz Claiborne's jewelry, watch and fragrance divisions. According to Claiborne's most recent annual report, jewelry racked up sales of $25 million in 1993. "We're going to be broadening our assortment of basic, classic merchandise and fitting it to the demands of the various regional markets, the way we do with our apparel," Katz said, adding that the company hopes to accomplish this by fall. With fashion's return to the tailored look, he noted, this move to emphasize classics and downplay trend jewelry makes the most sense, Katz said. "But we're not going to stop there," he added. "The main thing we want to do is meet every jewelry need the Liz Claiborne customer has, so we'll also be looking at how to produce jewelry that goes with her casual, weekend apparel." Retail consolidation and markdowns are yet other issues that brand jewelry makers acknowledge they will have to deal with on their road to recovery. "In fact, the consolidation situation can present a lot of opportunities, and it's great when you're in with all the big guys," said Swarovski's Keller. "On the other hand, it's also tremendously painful when you lose even one of them." Some are also looking to develop new distribution channels as a safeguard measure. The Monet Group, for one, just created a new post, executive vice president of business development, and brought in Russ Giattino, formerly executive vice president of jewelry manufacturer Weingeroff Enterprises, to fill it. "From our viewpoint, there are so many untapped opportunities out there, and this is our first step toward getting to them," said Harrison. The markdown and promotion-pricing issue, which has been plaguing fashion jewelry as well as many other segments of the fashion business, is one both merchants and manufacturers are starting to tackle. "We want to create an environment that's conducive to people buying regular-priced merchandise," said Federated's White. "One of the main ways we plan to do it is by cutting back on promotionally priced merchandise, the $9.99 necklaces and so on, and replace it with goods that have a lot of intrinsic value, such as a pin that retails full-price for $20, but looks as though it costs twice as much." "Promotion is a fact of life, but it's got to be kept in the right balance and cannot be used as the main reason for selling, particularly in the fashion business," said The Monet Group's Harrison. "Of course, we will all need to keep doing some promotion programs until things improve even more, but they are going to be done with some style and excitement," she added. "The industry just cannot afford to bear any more 'two for $20' deals. There has been too much of it already and it obviously didn't work too well."
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