LONDON — They were supposed to be sipping Moët & Chandon rose and cooing over the new designs, but instead, guests at the opening of the first De Beers LV store on Thursday just couldn’t keep their hands off the rocks.

Solitaire rings from the bridal collection — which start at $1,500 — were scooped up virtually as fast as the scallop hors d’oeuvres, and waiting lists were drawn up for items including a three-prong diamond pendant and a diamond-studded leather choker.

Other guests, like Nadja Swarovski, simply admired from afar. "I’m eyeing that 8.5 carat, square-cut diamond, but I was told I’d have to have a few children before I can get the upgrade," said newlywed Swarovski with a laugh.

Nicky Oppenheimer, chairman of De Beers, said he never thought he’d see the day that De Beers sold jewelry. "It was never in our mind-set. But for 60 years we’ve essentially been buying advertising for jewelry that we never even sold. We weren’t getting value from the brand," he said. "Will this venture be a success? Come and see me in a year’s time."

Oppenheimer might not have to wait that long. Alain Lorenzo, chief executive of De Beers LV, the joint venture between the diamond company and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, declined to reveal any sales figures or projections. However, he said that two nights of parties — on Wednesday De Beers LV hosted a smaller, soft opening — rang up the same sales as the average Bond Street jeweler would do in a day. Industry sources said that figure can range anywhere from $80,000 to $160,000.

The 7,500-square-foot store, on the corner of Piccadilly and Bond Street, will open to the public on Dec. 3 — just before the first big Christmas shopping weekend. Designed by the Italian architectural firm Antonio Citterio and Partners, it has clean, minimal lines and ebony and glass fixtures. The overall feel is cool, airy and bright.

"Usually, jewelry stores are very formal with tiny windows, one-sided counters and dark partitioning," Lorenzo said. "We wanted to develop the first friendly jewelry store and give our customers a pleasurable — rather than intimidating — experience."At De Beers LV, there are couches and chairs for guests to rest on in the center of the store, while most of the display counters have 360-degree access. That way, customers can examine the jewels from every angle and not be forced to face salespeople all the time. The jewels are displayed simply in brightly lit cases lined with cream-colored leather.

Reema Pachachi, design director of De Beers LV, had a lot of say in the store’s design and mood. "In the beginning, I went to the architects with a mood board, and told them I didn’t want anything sparkly or shiny because I didn’t want anything to compete with the diamonds. I didn’t want the store to be precious and formal. I wanted customers to be able to come close to the jewels and make their own choices."

She also chose colorful, exotic plants and flowers to offset the cream-and-ebony decor. "I told the florist that I wanted this store to look different from all the other jewelers on Bond Street — and that meant no white lillies."

With her new collection, Pachachi wanted to strip diamond jewelry of its stuffy, precious image and make it more youthful and easy to wear. The collection is divided into four sections: signature, bridal, classics and watches, with starting prices ranging from about $780 to $4,750.

The signature collection features the Bubble Collar — a flexible necklace made from 2,400 diamonds — and the Wild Flower necklace, which is made from 1,600 diamonds and features flowers that twist and shift. And in a sparkling example of cobranding, many of the signature pieces are draped over mannequins decked in dresses from Christian Dior, a star of the LVMH stable.

Meanwhile, the classic collection boasts a gold heart and diamond pendant that costs $780 and a leather wristlet with a diamond stud for about the same price. For big spenders, there are diamond rings that cost upward of $1.5 million, and unique, colored-diamond stones — in vivid blues, yellows and pinks — that cost several million dollars and will be set according to a customer’s preference.

To mark the store opening, De Beers LV also plans to unveil an exclusive De Beers-cut diamond called Ilanga, a South African name for the sun. It’s an octagonal, 57-facet rock that reflects as much light as a round brilliant stone.Lorenzo said he wasn’t bothered by the timing of Thursday’s store opening, and is not daunted by the slowdown in luxury goods sales, the threat of war in Iraq or layoffs in the financial sector. "When is a good time to open a store? We believe that in times of crisis, the top brands suffer very little. Just look at Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior."

He added that De Beers LV was in no hurry to grab market share from its competitors or become one of the world’s leading jewelers overnight. "No one has ever done a diamond-focused store before, which means that our biggest challenge is gauging how customers will react to our offer. In that sense, we are starting from scratch, and our shareholders realize that. We are all looking at this project as very long term."

Lorenzo added that, as a result, the store rollout would proceed slowly. The next De Beers LV store, he said, is set to open in Tokyo in the second half of 2003 while the third will open in New York, but not before 2004. "The U.S. represents 40 percent of the world’s diamond sales," he said, "so clearly, it’s a very important market for us."

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