By  on December 6, 2004

LONDON — Clothing designer Roland Mouret, who every day wears a dice-sized diamond suspended from a razor blade on a white gold chain, has grown accustomed to strangers asking him about the stone.

“It looks like a big crystal with a lot of light in it,’’ Mouret said of the rough stone, which is part of his small diamond jewelry collection, launched three years ago. “People are very attracted to it — even though they don’t know what it is.”

Mouret, who plans to unveil a second, more formal diamond collection in the summer, loves that people respond to his stone before learning it’s a diamond. “After the whole bling trend, it’s time to push boundaries with diamonds, to disturb the values of luxury,’’ he said. “I want people to react to the stone itself, to love it without the drivers of media and advertising telling them it’s a diamond.”

The French-born, London-based Mouret isn’t the only man taking on what was once the reserve of brides-to-be, elegant heiresses — and most recently Donatella Versace, David Beckham and Elton John. Fashion designers, including Vera Wang and Vivienne Westwood, and traditional jewelers are creating trendy — and traditional — diamond collections to satisfy a growing demand for the rocks, appeal to an expanding customer base and grab their share of what is essentially an unbranded category. Some 80 to 90 percent of the diamond market is still unbranded, said Stephen Lussier, worldwide marketing director of the Diamond Trading Co., the marketing arm of De Beers. The diamond jewelry category generates $60 billion at retail worldwide, and the DTC estimates that figure will grow 5 to 6 percent annually, on a compounded basis. “It is a massive category, and there is still significant room for brands to expand,” said Lussier.

For five years, the DTC has been working behind the scenes to help match fashion and jewelry houses with the appropriate diamond producers — one reason the market is seeing such a boom in fine jewelry.

“We went out and sold the jewelry industry to new players, including Gucci, Escada and Georg Jensen, and we put people together,’’ Lussier said. “Now the business has taken on a momentum of its own — they’re doing it without us,” Lussier said.To wit, Mouret’s second diamond line will be produced in partnership with one of the DTC’s sightholders, the people who cut, polish and distribute diamonds to jewelry makers worldwide. Westwood is working with another DTC sightholder to develop a diamond range due out in the spring. Official announcements regarding both lines are expected soon.

Earlier this year, Georg Jensen introduced a series of diamond jewelry collections, ranging in price from about $2,350 to $122,000, to mark its centenary.

“The vast majority of our customers are executive women who buy for themselves,’’ Hans-Kristian Hojsgaard, president and chief executive of the Danish jeweler, said during an interview in London. “With the rise in popularity of the right-hand ring, pendants and diamond starter items, we know we have a seat at the branded diamond table.”

Hojsgaard said 20 months ago, Georg Jensen’s diamond business was virtually nonexistent. Today, diamond jewelry makes up 25 percent of the jeweler’s $146 million business (110 million euros at the current exchange rate), and during the past six months, sales of the diamond jewels have grown 87 percent. Before the diamond collections were introduced, the average Jensen customer was 40-plus years old, Hojsgaard said. Now she’s 35-plus.

“We’re getting a much younger customer franchise thanks to the diamonds,’’ he said. “Younger people are more brand aware today, and brands are important like never before. The growth of designer accessories brands has snowballed right into the jewelry category.”

Shaun Leane, a London-based jeweler and the man behind the jarring jewelry designs on Alexander McQueen’s runway, has always worked with diamonds and other precious stones. Now, however, he’s shifting into high gear with help from the DTC sightholder Star Diamonds. Next year, with help from Star, Leane will unveil a 90-piece diamond collection that will include a poison ring that pops open, scapulars with a pierced heart in the front and a rising sun in diamonds in the back, and Art Nouveau-inspired pieces in yellow and white diamonds.

“Years ago, there was fashion jewelry — and then a big break — and then high-class, classic diamond jewelry,” said Leane, a professional goldsmith who spent more than a decade apprenticing in London’s Hatton Garden, a district packed with diamond merchants and jewelry workshops. “The public saw diamond jewelry as out of their price range. Today, fashionable jewelry in precious materials is becoming more common, and people are seeing diamonds as stylish — and affordable.”Fashion and accessories houses, which have been fanning the flames of brand worship for more than a decade, are also taking their seats at the sparking table. Last year, Vera Wang introduced her first collection of jewelry, which is produced under a partnership with Rosy Blue Fine, a subsidiary of the Antwerp-based diamond concern Rosy Blue Inc.

In addition, Ralph Lauren recently introduced a collection of fine jewelry, while other big luxury brands such as Gucci, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton are stepping up their jewelry assortment. In July, Vuitton unveiled a 110-piece collection awash in gold, diamonds and semiprecious stones. Yves Carcelle, Vuitton’s chief executive officer, said it was too early to comment on sales (the collection has been on store shelves for just a few weeks), but he is confident about the overall strategy.

“For years, fine jewelry was seen as something to mark a wedding, birth or anniversary,’’ Carcelle said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong. “Jewelry stores were a destination. Now, with fashion brands like Chanel or Vuitton, customers can view fine jewelry as an impulse buy — like clothing or accessories. It’s about making jewelry part of the shopping sensation.”

Carcelle said Vuitton would be opening a 377-square-foot jewelry annex to its store in Hong Kong’s Peninsula Hotel in January.

Lussier said there is no doubt the future is about branding. “Some designer names will click — and their distribution will broaden. And we’ll see the more design-oriented lines reach a broader market.”

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