When the going gets tough, the tough head to Las Vegas. That may seem counterintuitive, but it would explain the 3,000-plus jewelry exhibitors and tens of thousands of buyers who descended on The Strip for the Couture and JCK trade fairs, which wrapped earlier this month. Macroeconomic factors may still be causing a luxury slowdown and retail doldrums, but the fine-jewelry and watch industry’s response is to create product that’s an easy — read: accessibly-priced — sell, or a one-of-a-kind pieces worth six figures or more.
“We have been seeing strong purchasing of jewelry since the  recession as it fits within the ‘memory and experiential’ category of spending,” said Sarah Quinlan, senior vice president of market insights for MasterCard Advisors. “High-end has not been doing well, especially as luxury spending has slowed around the world. The price point that is doing well is $500 to $2400, which has seen consistent growth since the recession.” Hence, brands have devised ways to deliver shine, while using less pricy sparkle. Entry-level pieces abounded, featuring both polished and matte precious metals, and the addition of gemstones ranging from a sprinkling to a full coat meant a range of prices — from small earring studs for $900 at Mimi So to a heavy diamond collar necklace pushing $1 million at Coomi.
“When everyone else is down, our business always takes off. For our customer we’ve become more of an art buy, not a basic buy. They’re going to buy what they’ll never get anywhere else, that they’ll never see again,” said designer Coomi Bhasin. To that end, she created art-piece stands from raw minerals on which customers could display her one-off antiquity jewelry when they’re not wearing it. Yet she still was testing a more accessibly priced yellow gold line that retails for between $1,500 and $3,600.
“The high-end markets never suffer, really,” said Daniele Bruni, who, with his sister Eugenia, took over the stage in one of the Wynn resort’s ballrooms to showcase colorful garden-inspired jewels at their father’s namesake company Pasquale Bruni.
The majority of the offering at the couture show at the Wynn and Encore resorts falls into the designer category, with average opening price points of $2,500 retail and most pieces ranging from $25,000 to $40,000. That might explain the seemingly fewer number of buyers at the show — teams from majors such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue were smaller this year and Barneys New York skipped altogether, to the chagrin of newcomers hoping to get some facetime. Several designers estimated that 90 percent of the boutique business is now consignment.
“It’s the c-word in jewelry that you never want to hear,” said Anita Ko. “But it’s a reality in this business. It’s up to the designers whether or not they want to do it.” Lebanese designer Selim Mouzannar was one who didn’t. “I want our brand to give a strong message that we’re not on a level for a store to ‘try.’ I’d rather have four or five committed points of sale to make a strong impact in the U.S. market.”
While some established brands were in a position to take pricy villas off the show floor in order to showcase retrospectives of their wares for longtime customers — David Yurman, and sister companies Amedeo and Faraone Mennella, for example, were celebrating 35 and 15 years in the business, respectively — others wanted to be in the mix to pick up more accounts. One such brand was Ivanka Trump, which launched at wholesale with fanfare seven years ago and has typically shown in a large private ballroom. This year, it downsized to a standard-size booth on the main show floor, where 15 of the 30 pieces retailed for less than $1,500.
“Many prospective retailers who have never seen our jewelry before were intimidated to walk into a big ballroom, so our strategy this year was to move to the main show floor where we would see more foot traffic and be closer to the action. Our plan worked out well, as we saw more new accounts walk through our door this year than in years past,” said chief operating officer Jamie Kaufman. Of the streamlined collections, she added, “As a brand it’s important to not overload the market with 100 new styles a year. We wanted to hone in on the trends in the industry and provide our retailers with better price points.”
“People forget that it wasn’t so long ago that there wasn’t such a thing as the self-purchaser,” noted Ippolita Rostagno, another designer who showed in a villa. “Once fashion accessories reached a certain price point, women had the choice to buy a really expensive handbag or fine jewelry, and they realized they could buy jewelry for themselves.” While many of her pieces go above the $2,500 range, she has built her business on repeat customers who collect her sculptural, “everyday” gold bangles and chains. The couture show also launched a Couture Time section this year that focused on accessible luxury timepieces that men and women wear every day.
Yossi Harari, another 35-year veteran, also created some pieces for the younger customer, such as the double-bar ID bracelet, crisscross bangle and convertible y-necklace. “I finally have a new generation of daughters who want a piece of Yossi like mommy has. It’s opened me up to a bit of a new direction,” he said of such pieces, which start at just under $3,000.
It’s all relative. For statement jewelry like Sutra, a new “wearable” collection means pieces that sell for less than $20,000. For steel cable lifestyle brand Alor, which starts at $295, a new yellow gold jewelry line called Aloro averaging $1500 was an upsell. For those seeking the new, design trends ranged this season from long, linear earrings to bolo necklaces and a resurgence of aquamarine.
There seemed to be two camps: those who produce jewelry to chase trends and consumers, and others who design according to their point of view, no matter the price point. The latter still need to adapt to the markets, however. Amrapali, the Jaipur-based brand specializing in one-off traditional Indian jewelry, modernized its offering with a lower-priced collection that retailers can stock, and Faraone Mennella, the society lady-favored brand, debuted the Gocce collection of stacking rings and small earrings starting at $1,100 (the idea being to buy a few).
“We can’t continue to confuse fine jewelry with fashion,” said Amedeo Scognamiglio, cofounder of Faraone Mennella. “They are two completely different industries with different approaches. Clothes you have to buy, jewelry you don’t. It would serve us better if we embraced it as an investment that costs more but lasts longer.”
There are always disruptors poised to shake things up in a traditional market. Lab-created diamonds are one such example. Containing the same chemical elements as a mined or naturally found diamond, they cost 30 percent less to produce and have zero “carbon footprint.” It’s a potential threat to the traditional diamond industry, whose value stems from gems that are rare by nature. Diamond Foundry, backed by environmentalist and activist actor Leonardo di Caprio, exhibited at JCK while Swarovski quietly unveiled its Diama collection in a villa at couture. “We think people will respond to the transparency and trust in our name,” said Swarovski’s Nancy Leach. “We’re not trying to confuse the consumer or mixing created diamonds with mined ones. We’re giving consumers the option to own diamonds where they otherwise wouldn’t.” The Diama collection comprises 45 styles ranging from $850 to $4900 retail, with two-thirds of the line priced under $1,500. The focus is on the fashion market, with the round-cut stones set in white 18-karat gold with a “power of two” motif as opposed to bridal solitaires.
In other news, Tudor Watch was the first company to live-demo Instagram’s suite of products designed for small businesses. Facebook’s Matt Jacobson and Instagram’s Kati McGee were on hand Saturday night to show Tudor’s regional retailers how to use social media to broaden their reach. In terms of a premium perk, getting social media tips from Silicon Valley honchos was as good as gold.