By  on November 5, 2007

PARIS — Costume jewelry appears to be coming into its own.

Along with strong sales of diamonds and high jewelry, costume jewelry has been impressive, with growing demand for designer lines.

The stigma of the category as inferior either in price or design has been largely wiped away, with more prevalence in high-end collections and stores.

Some 17 percent of luxury jewelry consumers in the U.S. had purchased costume jewelry by the third quarter of this year, ahead of pearls, semiprecious gems and precious gems other than diamonds, according to a study by Unity Marketing.

"Costume jewelry is [fashion's] next horizon," said Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director of Henri Bendel.

Retailers estimated that costume jewelry business has grown 20 percent compared with last year, and lauded a varied offering for spring 2008.

"[The sector] an all-time high," said Tania Wicklow, jewelry buyer for Harvey Nichols. "I don't think it's reached its peak."

Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of women's at Macy's, said, "It's going to be even stronger with the new spring season as it was a major element of the collections. There was a focus on pieces for the wrist and the neck, and even brooches."

Fischelis said the sector works as a complement — rather than competitor — for other accessories categories, such as bags, with considerably lower price points.

Stores are carving out more floor space for costume jewelry. Harvey Nichols plans to expand and Henri Bendel added independent designers to its designer space on the third floor, including Tom Binns, Diana Broussard, Legge & Braine and Puerta Del Sol.

The costume jewelry sector began to rise about three seasons ago with the arrival of softer and more bohemian silhouettes on the catwalk, retailers said. In the spirit of its pioneer, Coco Chanel, costume jewelry indulges fashion's enduring high-low craze: women blending fine jewelry with fake pieces and mirroring the trend for mixing luxury apparel with high street pieces.

Retailers said the costume jewelry category often flirts with fine jewelry. Louis Vuitton, for example, used setting techniques of its fine jewelry line to fit fake stones in its costume jewelry collection designed by Camille Miceli."The particular association of materials that we have used also means that certain pieces can go for up to $10,000," said Pietro Beccari, senior vice president of product and advertising for Louis Vuitton, referring to the house's limited edition owl necklace, made from crystal, mother-of-pearl, horn, wood, resin, gold-plated metal and woven silk.

"Since Louis Vuitton's introduction of costume jewelry [in 2005], the category has exploded quite significantly," Beccari said. "It represents access to our (brand) and is particularly important for encouraging traffic."

Karen Erickson, co-founder of Erickson Beamon, said she is seeing a spurt with her fashion jewelry, while her Diamonds by Erickson Beamon collection is getting attention from retailers.

Many buyers cited the inclusion of real gems as a key new direction for the costume category.

"In the desire to continue to raise the bar for costume jewelry, we saw less resin and more semiprecious stones," said Bendel's Watson, adding that turquoise is particularly prevalent for spring.

Other spring trends include color, mixed media, tribal influences and a focus on statement pieces, especially styles for the neck, retailers noted.

"The chain link continues to be the common denominator in the costume jewelry category," Watson said.

It's a category that stimulates emotional purchases, viewed by consumers as an expression of personal style rather than status, experts said.

While luxury brands, notably Lanvin, YSL and Chanel, are seen as the instigators of costume jewelry's current wave, emerging designers are adding panache, retailers said.

"Three-quarters of our assortments are primarily exclusive or have very restricted distribution resources," said Ed Burstell, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of beauty, jewelry and accessories for Bergdorf Goodman.

Several young jewelry designers, including Ted Rossi, Dinosaur, Subversive and Susanna Galanis, were selected for Bergdorf's in-store accessories shop that opened on the contemporary department on the fifth floor in September.

"It has a large presentation of costume jewelry that is performing extremely well," said Burstell, adding that ones to watch for spring include Jessica Kagan Cushman from the U.S., Antonio Bernardo from Brazil and Matthew Laurenza from Thailand."The pieces are more groundbreaking than ever, with very clever mixes of unusual materials, such as resins and acrylics," said Harvey Nichols' Wicklow, citing Mawi's tribal-chic pieces in lightweight acrylic. "It's a tough market out there, as beautiful pieces are being produced at amazingly competitive prices."

Ligia Dias, who launched her signature brand in 2005, said, "Retailers are perpetually on the hunt for the new. They also expect luxurious pieces at affordable prices."

Known for her juxtaposition of "poor" materials, such as cord, ribbon and industrial bolts, with sophisticated constructions, Dias has earned a showcase in stores such as Barneys New York, Dover Street Market in London and Paris' Colette, and has collaborated with Comme des Garçons and Phillip Lim.

Some costume jewelry indies are edging into the limelight.

"Names such as Karry'O and Les Bijoux de Sophie have become legitimate names on the circuit," said Dauphine de Jerphanion, merchandise coordinator for the accessories and perfume departments at Le Bon Marché in Paris. "They can even be seen as collector brands."

Quality and durability have become one of costume jewelry's most appealing attributes, executives said.

"There's a real quality of fabrication that reminds me of old-style costume jewelry from the States," de Jerphanion said.

"Costume jewelry has become less disposable; these pieces are truly design-driven," said Burstell, adding that many independent costume jewelry designers are also artists or furniture designers.

Placing average spending at around $300 to $400, buyers agreed customers are willing to pay for that extra special costume jewelry piece.

"Price is no issue," Burstell said. "It's all about the item."

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