stephen webster harrods

LONDON — In today’s influencer-driven, digitized world, fine jewelers are starting to re-examine the idea of exclusivity: Facades of stores are opening up; pricing is more transparent in-store and online and, in Paris, jewelers are moving away from their historic homes on Place Vendôme and onto the more fashionable rue Saint Honoré. Brands across the board are opening up to new opportunities in fashion and lifestyle in particular.

Cartier is a prime example of the shift in industry dynamics. It had one of the most successful online pop-ups on Net-a-porter, selling a Panthere watch via WhatsApp two minutes after it was made available online and extending its partnership with Yoox Net-a-porter with a permanent collection last summer.

Its stores are also being revamped. The most recent reopening was on Bond Street here, with a new focus on customer events and a growing assortment of more accessibly priced fashion accessories, including eyewear and a new tote bag, Guirlande, in the brand’s signature burgundy shade. The bag was launched during Paris Fashion Week last September, with a buzzy Instagram campaign that saw influencers from Susie Lau to Bryanboy and Aimee Song introduce it to the world through short, tongue-in-cheek videos.

The idea is to flex the brand’s accessories muscle and to experiment with new ways of engaging customers, yet keep it niche with a small distribution.

“We want to engage our clients in different ways. We create young, vibrant environments that relate to our collections, but we’re also happy to maintain brand traditions such as the Racing Awards and the Polo. You need to play on all fronts,” said Cartier’s U.K. managing director Laurent Feniou.

The tote bag launch strategy was a case in point: Feniou said the brand wants to create momentum around bags in an elegant, sophisticated way. Despite using a mass channel such as Instagram to communicate, the bags are still “extremely exclusive,” with limited inventory. They can only be purchased at the brand’s three main flagships or “temples” — as he likes to call them — in London, New York and Paris.

Bulgari has also transitioned into the modern-day world, complementing its high-ticket jewelry with a colorful selection of Serpenti shoulder bags and leather accessories that have achieved ‘It’ status of their own and are worn by influencers galore.

“Today’s most desirable brands are no longer untouchable gods or goddesses, but rather aspirational role models that you can approach and interact with. Social media and influencers are facilitating this proximity and activating a more personalized contact. Influencers are embodying the brand in a broader and more engaging context and we clearly see a younger clientele opting for our bags,” said Bulgari chief executive officer Jean-Christophe Babin.

“These categories complement each other in terms of accessibility ladders into the brand, while our hotels work together with our flagships to let customers immerse themselves in contemporary luxury, which speaks both to Millennials and Gen X,” he added.

Bulgari has also been making a point to start communicating about its fine jewelry offer in a more open way: “Oddly, fine jewelry is far more accessible than some of our large leather goods. A plain gold B.zero1 ring starts from $1,200, which is less than an iPhone X, for instance. This is why we communicate through younger models or stars who resonate with younger clients, such as our new B.zero1 campaign with Bella Hadid and Kris Wu which was shot in Rome in a Renzo Piano contemporary auditorium,” added Babin.

A Bulgari Serpenti Forever design for spring 2018.  Courtesy

Japanese jeweler Tasaki, which has just opened a store on Bond Street here next to Givenchy, is keeping the focus on the jewelry, and adding a stronger fashion component to its collections, tapping Prabal Gurung as its artistic director. Even though he has no jewelry background, the brand is letting the designer experiment with less-conventional shapes and structures.

The brand has also collaborated with other young jewelers, including Thakoon and Melanie Georgacopoulous, who has spliced the Tasaki pearls in half to create a more edgy, fashion-forward element to the jeweler, which has a heritage in pearl farming since the Sixties.

“Tasaki’s philosophy is that jewelry looks best when it’s worn by women, not only in formal occasions but also incorporated with fashion. That’s why we searched for designers who can bring this philosophy to life, and it happened to be fashion designers. They have been enhancing the potential of pearl and diamond design,” said Tasaki ceo Tajima San.

Digital players such as Net-a-porter have been great facilitators of the shift by partnering with big heritage names such as Chopard, Buccellati and De Grisogono and presenting them on their sites through a more casual fashion lens.

Detail of Prabal Gurung RTW Fall 2019

Prabal Gurung fall 2019 featuring Tasaki earrings.  Aitor Rosas/WWD

Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net’s global buying director, said apart from the shift from desktop to mobile and the growing trend of self-purchasing, one of the biggest game-changers in the jewelry world is that jewels are seen as fashion accessories more than collectors’ items.

“We’ve seen that jewelry has now become an everyday purchase. The Net-a-porter woman is thinking of jewelry in a totally different way, buying it in the same way she would shoes or a handbag to fit with her existing wardrobe,” said von der Goltz, pointing to a new way of purchasing jewelry, with digitally-savvy customers often buying a 16,000-pound watch with a 12-pound nail polish at the same time. This has allowed high-end brands to become more approachable, and address a new, younger audience that wouldn’t necessarily have felt comfortable in the “typical jewelry salon setting” and have a closer interaction with fashion and beauty.

Net-a-Porter x Chopard

Net-a-porter x Chopard  Courtesy of Net-a-Porter

“The way we present all of our fine-jewelry brands is through our own fashion lens and point of view. When we launched Chopard, we created a ‘Denim and Diamonds’ campaign, styling all of their fine pieces with everyday denim, which proved hugely popular with our customers. Women are now seeing something their mother or grandmother might have worn, in a totally new, fashion-forward way,” added von der Goltz.

At Browns, which has been taking a more niche approach with a focus on lesser-known, independent jewelry brands, customers have been reacting in a similar way.

Online sales have increased by about 85 percent, while customers visiting the retailer’s South Molton Street boutique will often pick up a piece of fine jewelry alongside seasonal accessories.

“It’s much like investing in a designer shoe or bag. Customers are wearing their jewelry every day as an accessory and the pieces are no longer kept as family heirlooms that are only worn on special occasions,” said Tanika Wisdom, junior buyer at Browns, pointing to the success of Suzanne Kalan’s scattered baguette diamonds, which are often worn by clients with simple jeans and T-shirts.

Some of the less traditional jewelers, who have had close ties with the fashion world from the get-go, might not have had to change their attitude or business methods in such fundamental ways, yet they are still looking at new ways to operate.

“When I designed my first ring, a woman at Bergdorf’s bought it because it fit in with the clothes in her wardrobe, it was much more of a question of style. I know it’s hard to believe, but that didn’t make much sense at the time,” said Stephen Webster, who has now been looking farther than fashion, adding homeware to his offer, experimenting with cultured diamonds alongside Atelier Swarovski and telling the stories behind his collections through video content, produced by his daughter Amy.

Stephen Webster

Stephen Webster  Courtesy Photo

“We were never traditional, but we were established and in this new world we had to re-think a lot of things. I now feel much more comfortable than, say, three or four years ago and being close to celebrating 25 years of the brand, we are now ready to start thinking about new chapters,” said Webster. “I agree that jewelry is opening up to new opportunity, and we also want to look for other opportunity. But for me, I had to think, ‘I’m a jeweler, so what can I make that requires the same set of skills and technique?'”

Webster answered his own question by making “jewels for the home,” such as sculpted bronze “Beast” knives, hand-blown aquatic-themed glassware, a sterling silver tequila bar set presented in a bespoke Tanner Krolle leather case, cheese knives and Champagne flutes adorned with Tahitian pearls, all of which have drawn from Webster’s background as a silversmith. The collection, alongside the brand’s jewelry range, was presented in a new pop-up which opened at Bergdorf Goodman last week.

“Since opening, we’ve sold several sets of cheese knives and a tequila bar set and it’s all been customers who are new to the brand. It will be interesting to see what kind of traction the space gets, but it’s always interesting to reach new people and [with the homeware] you can appeal to a couple in a completely different way — someone who buys a pair of earrings from us can now have their knives looking ‘Stephen Webster,'” added the designer.

Shaun Leane, the jeweler who created jewelry for the late Lee Alexander McQueen’s runway shows and is part of The Leopards jewelry collective along with Webster, has had a similar experience.

Shaun Leane

Shaun Leane outside the building exterior he designed in London.  Courtesy Photo

Apart from broadening his jewelry offer with an online collection, and starting to talk to his customers directly, Leane has been extending his design skills to art installations and architectural commissions, including the design of the exterior metalwork of a residential building in London. These moves allow his customers not only to wear his jewelry, but “to live surrounded by the brand’s designs,” he said.

“Four years ago, I recognized that the industry was changing. I was a traditional goldsmith working with the Old Bond Street jewelers, and it was a closed world. Now, we can share our pieces from their initial design, through to the end piece, with our customers on social media. New mediums mean new rules to break,” said Leane.