ROBERT LEE MORRIS MAKES A MARRIAGE WITH M. FABRIKANT
Byline: Wendy Hessen
NEW YORK — “I feel like I’ve been freed of the shackles that kept me from doing the creative things I’ve always envisioned.”
That’s how Robert Lee Morris looks at his new partnership agreement with diamond and fine jewelry powerhouse M. Fabrikant & Sons. Company executives said they’ve begun to operate under the new arrangement, but some details still need to be worked out.
In a joint interview at Fabrikant’s Rockefeller Plaza headquarters here and in Morris’s SoHo workshop, the designer and his normally closely guarded new partners talked exclusively with WWD about their plans for the Robert Lee Morris name and his 27-year-old company.
The marriage between Fabrikant, one of the world’s largest loose diamond and finished jewelry operations with an annual volume of roughly $800 million, and Morris’s artisan firm, where sales have never surpassed $10 million, according to industry sources, may seem an unlikely one at first glance.
But Fabrikant executives Lester Friedlander and Edward L. Deutsch insist that each firm brings certain strengths to the table.
“Robert has a 25-year bond with the fashion industry, but there has been a shortage of his products in the market,” Friedlander said. “We can keep the flavor of his studio operation and nurture it into a much larger business.”
Friedlander is president of Clover Corp., an $80 million-a-year division of Fabrikant, which manufactures and markets more than 1.8 million units of diamonds and gold jewelry a year to such companies as Zale and QVC.
Deutsch has been named president of Robert Lee Morris Inc. and is responsible for the day-to-day operations; Morris is the design director.
The structure of the new venture will be like that of the five other Fabrikant divisions: Each has access to the corporation’s extensive infrastructure of accounting, inventory control, shipping and distribution, and its global sourcing network, but functions independently in design, product development, sales and promotion.
“Eddie will have the organization to function with total autonomy,” said Friedlander.
With the addition of Robert Lee Morris, this is the first time Fabrikant has had a designer name or sterling silver jewelry in its mix. Besides Clover, Fabrikant’s other divisions specialize in bridal jewelry, gemstones, loose diamonds and finished jewelry, and South Sea pearls through its partnership with a Japanese pearl firm.
“We want to redefine the way designer jewelry is created and sold in the U.S.,” said Friedlander. “We’re not looking to do this for a few hundred thousand dollars. Our relationships are not transactional, but long term. Many have been in place for over 30 years.
“The amount we will invest is a pittance compared to what we see for the direction of Robert Lee Morris. We expect this to be the most fun of anything we’ve done in a long time.”
While Fabrikant’s specialties have been solely in fine jewelry, Deutsch has experience in costume and designer jewelry. He is part of the second generation of Keyes Jewelers Manufacturing Ltd., a 70-year-old Montreal costume jewelry manufacturer that in addition to its own label has produced jewelry for such firms as Butler & Wilson, Courreges and Valentino. He also is a major supplier to QVC and Duty Free Shops.
The scope of the Robert Lee Morris company has varied widely over the years. Besides his own collections, in the consumption-oriented Eighties, Morris made jewelry for Donna Karan and compacts and lipstick holders with Elizabeth Arden, while simultaneously developing his own fragrance, producing handbags, belts, scarves and tableware, some under license, and running two freestanding retail stores and numerous wholesale accounts. He also ran Artwear, a SoHo multi-artist laboratory and gallery.
But years of fashion minimalism took its toll on his business, as they did on many other accessories and jewelry firms. By the mid-Nineties, the licenses were closed down, and Morris had pared his operation to just jewelry and a watch license, department store accounts and one freestanding store. Artwear was closed in 1993.
Although he declined to provide specifics, industry sources said Morris’s sales had peaked at near $10 million worldwide, which included his longstanding license in Japan with Vendome Yamada and other licensed products.
Morris always hand-made nearly every piece himself — something Deutsch hopes to change.
“Robert is a designer’s designer; he has great vision,” said Deutsch. “I’ve never met someone who is more approachable and multitalented. Now, with our resources, we’ll able to help him to match and even improve his quality in certain cases and expand into other areas.”
Morris began designing costume jewelry and then moved into sterling silver. The new partnership will allow him to focus on gold and platinum jewelry with diamonds and gemstones, and continue working in sterling silver. The costume segment has been dropped.
Deutsch and Morris have hired several new bench workers and are modernizing his factory. Deutsch said the production staff would be increased from a dozen now to about 30 in the next year. Because of the fine jewelry, security is being beefed up at the factory, at the SoHo showroom and in the store on 400 West Broadway. There will also be a showroom in Fabrikant’s midtown offices to accommodate both department and fine jewelry stores.
The first 18-karat gold and diamond pieces were hastily finished when Morris was admitted to show at the upscale Couture Collection & Conference trade show in Scottsdale, Ariz., last week. Most of the collection will be introduced at the JCK International fine jewelry show, which opens in Las Vegas Friday.
Those pieces will launch at retail in October and November, when Morris will travel to stores to educate fine jewelry consumers about his background.
“Robert’s pieces lend themselves very easily to stones and diamonds because of their sculptural shapes and edges,” said Deutsch, showing the edge where a sculpted necklace will be trimmed with diamonds.
He also showed off the founding piece of a new collection, called Riverstone. Inspired by stones found on Morris’s property in the New Mexico desert, the line is based around a series of what looks like a round stone that has been eroded and hollowed out by water rushing over it, leaving what amounts to a bezel for a diamond or other stone without the traditional visible prongs seen in most fine jewelry.
These “river stones” will be made in a variety of sizes and combined in a host of pieces. It was important that there be no hard edges, Morris said.
“So much of what is going on in fine jewelry today is classic and very uptight, and very much what I’ve always rebelled against,” he said. “I want to bring the opposite feeling to this industry, that of warm, voluptuous and organic looks — a low tech look to balance the accelerated world we live in today. Over the years, I’ve had an army of ideas that I couldn’t figure out how to make. Now I have the support to actually make almost anything that comes out of my head.”
Besides jewelry, Deutsch is keen to attack other segments, namely men’s jewelry; watches, produced under license by Swiss Watch Corp., and the home category, an area where Morris had strong success previously.
“We hope to have realigned the watch line by early next year with much more product,” said Deutsch. “We will invest with Swiss Watch and share development costs there, and we are also looking at other areas for license.
“I have a mandate to make Robert into an international brand. Obviously, we will concentrate on jewelry, but the home arena will be equally important.”