By  on February 7, 2007

CHAMONIX, France — With a glitzy party at this French ski resort, Mont Blanc showcased its desire to become a player in the highly competitive diamond jewelry market.

The launch event last Friday, in a "palace" built of 180 slabs of ice at the foot of Mont Blanc, was a lavish affair attended by celebrities, including Naomi Watts, Lucy Liu, Juliette Binoche and Dita Von Teese.

Welsh opera crossover star Katherine Jenkins (who is the line's spokeswoman) performed during the four-course meal — replete with an outdoor fireworks display and a fashion show headlined by Naomi Campbell, while rocker Bryan Ferry took the stage later as expensive Havana cigars were passed around.

Mont Blanc, the second-largest company in Riche­mont's stable of luxury brands after Cartier, has been diversifying its product range over recent years as its core writing instruments market matures.

Most of those extensions — from leather goods to watches — have been skewed to the male market, the brand's traditional customer. Watches have been particularly successful, with its production facility in Switzerland, purchased in 1995, producing 100,000 watches annually.

But in fall 2005, Mont Blanc introduced its first collection of small silver jewelry for women, which has been a success so far, and it has since beefed up its offering of female watches.

"The silver jewelry collection immediately made 15 to 16 percent of sales in our stores during the first Christmas season," offered Lutz Betghes, Mont Blanc's executive vice president, in an interview before the diamond jewelry launch here.

"The share of female customers in the shops is growing," he added. "Now 40 to 50 percent of our clients in the stores are ladies, though they are not only shopping for themselves or buying women's products."

And it wants to appeal to those customers, while growing the percentage, via the new diamond jewelry collection.

The new line also is a potentially lucrative dive into the fast-growing branded jewelry market, which currently represents only 6 percent of overall jewelry sales worldwide. Though overall branded jewelry sales are growing by more than 10 percent a year, growth in branded high-jewelry is even larger. (Houses from Cartier to Boucheron all reported banner years in 2006 thanks to increased wealth around the world.)Mont Blanc's diamond jewelry collection will be priced moderately, retailing from around $500 for a simple yellow or white gold ring to $20,000 for more complex creations. The line is made up of four groups that reference different aspects of Mont Blanc's brand heritage.

One collection, for instance, is called 4810, after the height in meters of Mont Blanc, while another is labeled the Dame Blanche, after an affectionate French soubriquet for the Mont Blanc summit.

The remaining two are dubbed Black and White Magic, and Secret Star, which features pieces with compartments that can be engraved with secret messages. For the launch event, Mont Blanc created a $3 million necklace with a 37-carat diamond. Betghes said a woman in Hong Kong expressed interest in buying it, underscoring potential for an even more upscale line of jewelry.

The jewelry's particularity is a special six-faceted diamond the company calls the Mont Blanc cut, since it has the shape of the brand's insignia. Each piece in the collection will have at least one Mont Blanc-cut diamond, which has been patented.

The cut first appeared last year, when Mont Blanc used it to decorate pens for its centenary anniversary.

"The pens were a great success," said Betghes. "The cut is very different from other diamonds. It is unique, but still understated –— if you can speak of understatement where diamonds are concerned.

"It is easy for us to make a leap into diamond jewelry, because we are already like jewelers with some of our more elaborate special edition pens," said Betghes when questioned about the brand's legitimacy in jewelry.

Though diamonds underpin the collection, other precious stones are used, from black jade to black and white pearls.

Initially about 80 Mont Blanc stores are carrying the line, though it will be rolled out to another 20 units in the near future, according to Betghes. The jewelry will not be offered in duty free units, and it will be sold only in Mont Blanc stores until next holiday season, when it will be available at other select retailers.

Betghes said the diamond collection predicated a massive revamping of Mont Blanc's stores."High jewelry needs space to breathe," he said. "Many of our current stores are too small to handle the jewelry properly. About 300 to 400 square feet of shopping space is needed in a store for the jewelry and other women's products. We are going through a huge renovation project of the stores right now.

"Each of our new stores will be at least 1,000 square feet. We just opened a shop in Ginza that is 3,000 square feet."

Though Betghes declined to provide first-year sales projections for the line, he said the ambition was for it to make up 25 percent of the company's total turnover in the next few years. "It will be an important part of Mont Blanc's business."

To wit: he said Mont Blanc has taken over a jewelry atelier just outside Milan where all the high jewelry will be produced.

"We will control all of the production," he said. "We want to have the highest quality."

A print and billboard campaign, photographed by Bryan Adams and featuring singer Jenkins, is being rolled out to correspond with the launch. Other publicity events include a fashion show Feb. 19 during Milan Fashion Week.

Betghes said Mont Blanc would plan a similar show in October in Paris.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, in New York, the company has a joint event planned with fellow Richemont brand Van Cleef & Arpels to introduce a special collaboration.

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