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WWD Coterie issue 09/11/2012

The high-end contemporary jewelry market is experiencing some growing pains.

This story first appeared in the September 11, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Considered by many as the “it” category, the segment, which is known for its accessible price and edgy designs, has slowly broadened its price spectrum in order to cater to recession-weary consumers.

With an influx of contemporary brands and fine jewelers offering diffusion lines, designers have lowered prices to remain simultaneously competitive and attractive to shoppers, who are looking for new ways to update their closets.

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“The impulse buy has changed,” said Paige Novick, who will showcase her namesake brand’s costume collection next week at the Coterie show, where the category will have its own new designated section called Accessories@Coterie. “When the economy dropped in 2008, costume jewelry priced around $600 to $700 really thrived. Now, that impulse purchase falls into the $300-to-$400 range.”

The move signals a slight shift from the dog days of the recession, when more shoppers were willing to splurge on highbrow costume collections rather than buy high-bling fine jewelry, Novick said.

“Anything over $400, and retailers have to think about it a little more,” she said, adding that she launched a mid-price collection at Accessories Circuit last August to meet that demand. “We’ve built our business on a good-better-best model and that has given us a leg up.”

Taking that segmentation a step further, Novick has also introduced a collection of lighter-weight pieces that cost less than $225. At Coterie, the designer will show a beaded tassel group that incorporates pastel colors, Swarovski Elements and matte gold that when combined, create an ombré effect. Although Novick said there still is a consumer for her higher-priced $700 baubles, “people are still cautious.”

“Accessories are still booming but people are thinking about their purchases more,” she noted. “I think high-end costume has slowed down a little bit, but the jewelry still has to grab the consumer. It’s caused me to think out of the box and be out of my comfort zone.”

That sentiment certainly rang true for Kara Ross, who will unpack her Boutique collection at the trade show.

“We wouldn’t even think of bringing the fine line, and we only bring a few pieces of our silver line,” the designer said, noting that the Boutique collection costs between $100 and $300 and the silver collection is less than $3,000.

Inspired by her high-end line, which starts at $5,000, the Boutique collection incorporates hand-painted resin and gold-plated brass instead of 18-karat gold and precious stones, which are found in the luxe collection.

For example, Ross will introduce a turquoise resin necklace for “a few hundred dollars” that is a reinterpretation of the $15,000 raw aquamarine and diamond necklace from her fine jewelry collection.

“We’ve doubled our sales since we launched Boutique four years ago,” she said. “There’s always newness. The cost to develop sample lines for Boutique is far less expensive.”

Case in point: Ross spent $60,000 recently, developing a small fine jewelry collection. That cost tends to fluctuate as diamond, gold and silver prices remain volatile.

“With the fashion line, it frankly doesn’t matter,” she said. “The prices are such that I can make large sample lines.”

Even though the Boutique collection is inexpensive, Ross underscored the importance of quality and innovative design.

“Whether you are spending $100 or $200, to give customers a piece of junk is not respectful,” she offered.

“We never cut corners. We make things by hand, literally,” said Karen Erickson, Erickson Beamon cofounder. “When the rest of the world was compromising and trying to make cheap things, we were making things in New York.”

That attention to detail and emphasis on quality has kept the jewelry brand at the forefront of creativity.

“Today, people are trying to cut corners,” agreed Alexis Bittar, who said his vintage-inspired jewelry relies on the intricacy of its design.

“A lot of brands are doing cheaper costume collections. Right now everyone is so conscious about getting the price down to under $100 retail,” the designer said. “That’s a huge movement in the business. I think that’s scary. Ultimately, the message that drives home to the consumer is that this piece is completely disposable. I want to design something that’s collectible.”

Inspired by Art Deco, fashion and vintage design, Bittar has emerged as a force in the contemporary space. At Coterie, the designer will display Lucite-based collections that mix pink tourmaline, aquamarine, turquoise and brass with 18-karat gold plating. Bittar highlighted a Seventies safari collection that infuses a military feel, as well as a “psychedelic” floral collection with neon colors. Both collections retail between $90 and $600.

“Costume and fashion jewelry went wild,” he said, noting that he will stretch his namesake label’s reach with the introduction of fine and bridge collections next year. “I think what we are seeing now is that it’s a real chase to hit a low price point. But, I refuse to budge on quality.”

Ben-Amun designer and founder Isaac Manevitz echoed Bittar and Erickson, adding that the brand has retained its quality and speed-to-market by keeping its manufacturing in the U.S.

Known for its bold, artistic jewelry, Ben-Amun is bringing a splash of color to its spring line — which is said to be inspired by Paul Gauguin’s Tahiti-era art — that takes the form of bright orange and gold earrings, as well as a gold filigree flamenco collar, among other things. Manevitz will also be weaving in chord for color with metal motifs and stones, such as pearl, onyx and rhinestones.

“Jewelry is getting bolder, not smaller, and right now gold is the color that sells best because it’s bright and goes with everything,” he said. To deal with high gold prices, he has had to increase his prices slightly.

Still, that isn’t a reason to abandon the yellow metal or minimize the size of the jewelry.

“You have to continue to give value to the customer and you cannot change [course] if the economy gets worse,” Manevitz said. “You have to give them more. You can’t give them less.”