Fine Jewelry, Fine Business

NEW YORK -- Regardless of the tough economy, fine jewelry is one of the hottest things going right now for several major specialty retailers. Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue each recorded double-digit increases in fine jewelry...

NEW YORK — Regardless of the tough economy, fine jewelry is one of the hottest things going right now for several major specialty retailers. Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue each recorded double-digit increases in fine jewelry over the holidays.

These stores already attract an affluent audience, and they have found fine jewelry to be a natural area for expansion, especially since the category itself has become more designer-conscious.

To keep this momentum going through this year, these retailers are planning more of the same tactics they used to draw Christmas shoppers — in-store events and aggressive advertising.

Tim Braun, precious jewelry and watch buyer for Neiman’s, said catalog promotions and billboard advertising, as well as the addition of strong new resources, contributed to the store’s big gains at Christmas and are expected to keep fueling growth this spring.

While Neiman’s has traditionally had a strong fine jewelry business, it was only a year ago that the store went heavily into designer jewelry collections, giving the business an additional boost.

According to Braun, Neiman’s fine jewelry sales had already surpassed its planned figures for last fall, even before Christmas. Overall for the fourth quarter, precious jewelry scored double-digit increases, but watches in particular were a standout, with sales doubling over a year ago.

Part of the success with watches has come simply from offering shoppers plenty of options. Through the holidays, stores ran programs called “watch extravaganzas,” where all fine watch inventory was showcased together.

“These events really increased customer awareness of what we were carrying, particularly in terms of the newest watch lines we brought in,” Braun pointed out. Exclusive offerings, such as the Henry Dunay watch that was launched last October, also stirred interest.

During the extravaganzas, Braun said, “We saw increased sales in all gold watches, retailing from about $7,000 to as high as $100,000, with $15,000 to $25,000 being the best-selling range.”

To give in-store events an added push, Neiman’s also ran a billboard campaign featuring luxury watch brands such as Audemars Piguet, Piaget, Chopard and Cartier.

Having found a good formula, the merchant will continue promoting watches this spring. The next series of extravaganzas, in April, is set to coincide with the release of Neiman’s watch catalog, which will be mailed to 100,000 customers and distributed over the counter.

Similar efforts will continue to be focused on fine jewelry, according to Braun.

“To maintain some momentum, we’re showcasing key collections for spring with designer personal appearances and special jewelry shows,” he said.

Beginning in March, Neiman’s will start a traveling designer jewelry show with stops in 16 cities promoting a dozen or more designers, including Henry Dunay, David Yurman, Elizabeth Locke, Jean Mahie and Marlene Stowe.

Braun noted that the hot spots for spring fine jewelry sales so far this year have been resort and vacation areas including Las Vegas, Denver, Scottsdale and Florida.

For Bergdorf’s, the designer category of fine jewelry — backed up with in-store appearances by some of the designers — was one of the holiday season’s winning areas.

According to Simonetta Morrison, Bergdorf’s vice president and divisional merchandise manager for accessories and fine jewelry, December fine jewelry sales showed a 25 percent year-over-year increase.

She cited brisk turnover in designer collections from such names as Barry Kieselstein Cord, Angela Cummings, David Yurman and newcomer Darlene de Sedle.

Among the more popular holiday promotions, Morrison pointed out, were an appearance by Yurman, an event showcasing a dozen key designers where customers were given calendars featuring sketches by the designers, and Cummings’s “Key to the Heart” event, which introduced a pin, the sales of which benefits the Mount Sinai breast resource program. The Cummings pin sold throughout the holiday season.

For spring, the store will continue with strategies that worked so well for the holidays, Morrison said. For instance, the advertising of upcoming fine jewelry events in local publications — a tactic employed for holidays — will be increased.

Bridge jewelry, another hot holiday category, will be melded with fine jewelry, Morrison said. Bridge jewelry designers will recreate some of their pieces in fine materials, effectively bringing the two areas closer.

The store will also start spreading the introduction of new merchandise throughout the spring season, rather than bringing it all in early, Morrison said.

Fine jewelry posted one of the largest departmental increases for the holidays at Saks, according to Helen Welsh, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for accessories.

“Our estate and gold businesses were both very good, as were designer sales,” Welsh said. She pointed to Jeffrey Stephens, Steppenjay and David Yurman as leaders in the designer area.

Welsh said that while spring comprises a relatively small portion of Saks’ annual fine jewelry sales, several promotions are planned for the season to keep shoppers interested.

Prior to its annual gold sale in August, the store will feature a February sale on gold merchandise timed for Valentine’s Day, and a May precious stone event prior to Mother’s Day.

Welsh pointed out that fine jewelry has posted a slightly higher growth rate than fashion jewelry for the past several years. She noted, however, that bridge business has become increasingly important and is expected to keep growing. The designer sterling area, a key part of the bridge business, she pointed out, has recorded double-digit increases with vendors such as John Hardy, Lagos and Lisa Jenks leading the way.