Byline: Amanda Meadus and Wendy Hessen

NEW YORK — Though they’ve taken as many hard knocks as the rest of the fashion jewelry market, designer-manufacturer firms may be the ones best positioned for a comeback.
These companies, which cover a wide range of merchandise and price points, have suffered from many of the same maladies that afflicted the rest of the industry in the last 18 to 24 months — the grunge and minimalism trends, the move to casual dressing and the generally stale state of the fashion business, among other factors.
Vendors in this segment of the business, as in most of the costume jewelry industry, are not giants. Among the largest are Carolee Designs and Erwin Pearl, whose volumes are estimated at roughly $50 million each. They are virtually all independent businesses, giving them a measure of flexibility. Their wide-ranging price points stretch at retail anywhere from $10 to several hundred dollars.
Among other strengths that could help them overcome jewelry’s malaise are:
Targeted products that appeal to a specific customer and fit well into the niche-marketing strategy coming on strong in some segments of fashion retailing.
Widely varied channels of distribution that will help shield them from retail consolidation and other retailing changes.
Innovative marketing and promotional plans that attract loyal consumer bases in an environment dominated by “cross-shopping.”
Retailers pointed out that many of these lines are an important element in their ability to survive and grow.
Jacobson’s, Jackson, Mich., concentrates mainly on private label and high-end designer merchandise, according to Patty Denton, jewelry buyer, but does carry a handful of designer-manufacturer lines because they are so niche-oriented.
“We do a very big business with St. John jewelry, for instance, and in fact they are currently our number one jewelry line,” Denton said. “The jewelry appeals to specific customers; those who are also buying career wear or, specifically, the St. John ready-to-wear.”
St. John is an anomaly in the business, though, because it is part of an apparel company.
Other designer-manufacturer lines that have been performing well for Jacobson’s are Ciner, Judith Jack and Carolee.
“Carolee is the only name we carry in pearls,” Denton said. “We feel she’s the best overall source and targets our customers’ pearl needs extremely well.”
Gail Pisano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of accessories for Saks Fifth Avenue, said that despite the difficulties fashion jewelry has been through, certain segments have continued to grow and include such designer-manufacturer lines as Miriam Haskell, Carolee, Kenneth Jay Lane and Ciner.
“For us, selling fashion jewelry is a question of offering a balanced overall assortment and targeting key items without overlapping resources,” Pisano noted.
On the vendor level, companies are concentrating on playing up their strengths in a highly competitive environment.
Erwin Pearl, owner of a firm of the same name, said his company has actually been able to continue growing during the last 1 1/2 years due to its highly defined product, which it sells to a variety of retailers, from major department stores to single specialty stores.
“We have a definite niche, and regardless of what new product we introduce, we stay in it,” Pearl said. “We do a classic fashion look that appeals to a certain consumer segment. It’s not a mass tailored look, and it’s not a high-end designer look.”
Even the firm’s newest division, Bead Street, is in this vein. The company opened it a little more than a year ago after acquiring a beadmaking factory in Czechoslovakia.
“We veered away from the concept of beads as a very trendy item and instead gave them a classic treatment, one that is very consistent with the rest of our merchandise,” Pearl said, adding that much of the company’s recent growth has come from the division.
Haskell Jewels Ltd., which sells its Miriam Haskell line primarily to high-end specialty stores, has also been aided by a fairly narrow approach, according to owner Frank Fialkoff.
“We offer very different goods than the other companies on our price level do,” Fialkoff pointed out. “We really don’t compete on a product level with anyone, and since the high end of the market is still very product-driven, this has helped us a great deal.”
Having a firmly established product has helped the company deal with the wide swings in ready-to-wear trends over the last several years, Fialkoff said.
“Something like the feminine trend, which is happening now, only fuels our business even more,” he said. “On the other hand, when a trend like grunge came along, we weren’t necessarily hurt by it so much because the consumer that buys our jewelry wouldn’t be wearing grunge styles anyway.”
Maintaining or building varied distribution has been an important tactic for many firms.
“Our distribution is channeled mostly to upper-end specialty stores and small specialty stores, but we do try to keep that balanced with other channels by creating lower-priced lines and private label programs,” said Isaac Manevitz, owner of Ben-Amun. “And we’re always on the lookout for even more areas to diversify into.” Carol Dauplaise, owner of the firm carrying her name, said her company has always made a point of varying its distribution among catalogs, department stores and specialty stores.
“It’s meant that we’ve had to produce a lot of merchandise over the years to work with the various price points involved, but doing that has actually helped us stay in our design niche,” Dauplaise pointed out. “We’ve learned how to keep a consistent, recognizable look to the product through multiple price levels.”
Judith Rosenberg, co-owner of marcasite jewelry company Judith Jack, said her firm will push even harder this year to expand its department store, boutique and gift store business.
The company makes a point of staying flexible in working with specialty store accounts, Rosenberg noted.
“We pay a great deal of attention to regional needs and keep in constant contact with stores in an effort to guide them toward what those specific needs are,” she said.
Another marcasite company, Vintage Creations, has even extended distribution to fine jewelry stores, according to Drew Shapiro, vice president. Across all channels, the fact that the jewelry uses sterling silver settings has helped keep sales strong, he noted.
“The resurgence of a demand for quality has been a major selling point for us, particularly of late,” Shapiro said.
Courting a faithful customer base via attention-getting marketing events has been a crucial strategy for companies such as Carolee Designs.
“We’re probably more like a cosmetics company than anything else, in that jewelry sales, like those of cosmetics, are not driven just by putting goods in a case,” said owner Carolee Friedlander. “We have to repeatedly make consumers want to stop in to visit a store, rather than just come in once, buy something and leave.”
A significant part of the company’s marketing efforts over the last three years have been done in collaboration with beauty company Estée Lauder. The newest program to be rolled out by the two firms is called “The Glamour Game,” a series of in-store clinics that teach women how to experiment and play with color in jewelry and cosmetics. The program is scheduled to start next month and run through May.