ITALIAN JEWELRY SHINES, BUT WITH LESS LUSTER

Byline: Valerie Waterhouse / With contributions from Wendy Hessen, New York

VICENZA, Italy — While cognizant that the fine jewelry heyday of the last few years could be tempering a bit, most exhibitors at Vicenzaoro, remained optimistic that there was still room for some gains in 2001.
Vendors who have already made inroads into the American market were among the most enthusiastic about prospects for continued growth despite the rumblings that started with the slower-than-expected holiday season. Still, the U.S. is by far Italy’s top fine jewelry export market, accounting for a towering 33 percent share of exports in the first nine months of 2000.
The Vicenza fair, held Jan. 14-21, is the first major jewelry trade show of the year and is a key destination for retailers from around the world looking for new directions. While some manufacturers expressed concern that fewer American stores were seen shopping the aisles, show organizers claimed that Vicenza registered record attendance, with 25,500 visitors making the trip. U.S. attendees rose by 4.27 percent to 1,026, they said, representing slightly more than 4 percent of the total.
There was consensus among buyers and vendors regarding what was likely to attract consumers who have been somewhat more cautious of late. Among the show’s key themes were:
More subtle, airy and contemporary looks in either white or yellow gold.
Fashion-led motifs including animal-stripe engraving, Seventies-inspired florals and brickwork, architectural or geometric designs.
Lariats or pass-through styles that can be worn as longer pendants or shorter on the neck.
Fringe or tassel looks.
Mesh was a strong attraction for John Green, president and chief executive officer of Hartford, Conn.-based Lux, Bond & Green.
“Whether it was in yellow or white gold or even sterling silver, I felt mesh were pretty exciting,” Green said. “It looks great in lariats, many of which were also well-priced at under $1,000 or even under $500.”
Green said he bought quite a few yellow gold unadorned pieces for the firm’s Christmas catalog and in general felt that although there was still “a lot of white gold, and it will still sell, but we will have a bigger percentage of yellow gold than we had last year. We’re seeing it so much in clothes now.”
He also said he was surprised at the weakness of some colored stones such as amethyst during this past Christmas, but still believes color will play an important part in spring. Among the stones that he felt would remain strong were peridot, onyx and tanzanite. South Sea and Tahitian pearls are another strong arena, Green said, which he attributed to increased knowledge by consumers and a slight softening of prices.
Sue Ann Newberg, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue, said she felt that many vendors were holding back all their new merchandise for the Basel fair in Switzerland in March.
“Overall, there wasn’t a lot of newness, but we did notice some key looks,” Newberg said. “Among them were a preponderance of long, drop earrings, whether they were simple chain links with tiny diamonds or very fluid looks. We will certainly try some from some of our key designers, like Stefan Hafner.
Newberg also expects interest in translucent, milky stones in pastels to continue, which “we’ve seen for awhile but there is a lot of now.”
“We also started to see more black diamonds, but I don’t believe they will be that strong,” she said. “The consumer just doesn’t understand them.”
Still, Newberg added that she had seen some black diamonds mixed with rubies set in either white or black gold that were “pretty exciting.”
For Suzanne Betchart, buyer for the Mervyn’s chain based in Hayward, Calif., the show was about gathering inspiration.
“Vicenzaoro is good for identifying new trends from Italian companies,” Betchart said. “I’ve noticed lots of Gucci-inspired lariat necklaces, big hoop earrings, dangle drops, square tubing on earrings, bracelets and bangles, multistrand necklaces, and tassels and fringes on everything. And yellow gold pieces without stones are definitely on the rise.”
“Our sales to the U.S. were up by 20 percent last year,” said Marco Sgoifo, corporate marketing director at Pasquale Bruni. “We expect to experience even higher growth of around 25 percent in 2001 and hope to open our first U.S. flagship in New York by December. Currently, around 20 percent, or about $8 million to $9 million wholesale, is sold there.”
Sergio Antonini, co-owner of Antonini, expressed similar hopes for 2001 when he said: “Our U.S. sales increased 29 percent in 2000 and we hope to maintain a comparable increase this year.”
At least some of that growth will come from its new Barcellona collection, which he said was well received at the show. Inspired by Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi, the line features elongated, yellow gold O-shaped pendants dangling from rigid, circular collars that can be worn from day to night.
La Nouvelle Bague co-owner Leopoldo Poli said his firm registered an increase of 18 percent last year in the U.S., bolstered by the demand for color.
“We haven’t felt the effects of the so-called downturn,” Poli said. “Russia and Japan are also strong and we had already met our February sales target by the end of December.”
Among the top picks at the show were colorful pieces, like the firm’s signature lacquer, gold and diamond bracelets, now available in a Tuscan-inspired range of colors.
One of Italy’s top diamond jewelers, Casa Damiani, established a U.S. subsidiary, in New York, last December.
“We aim to increase the number of retailers in the U.S. from 27 to 200 and to open a New York flagship by fall 2002. The U.S. is the strategic market in which to establish an international brand and we’ll also be undertaking an ad campaign there,” said Paolo Novembri, president of Damiani USA.
Novembri said retailers at Vicenza were looking for combinations of white or yellow gold with colored diamonds. Among the company’s bestsellers were its new Jungle rings, featuring a zebra skin design in white gold and black and white diamond pave, and a tiger-skin pattern in yellow gold and brown and white diamond pave.
“Non-diamond-intensive jewelry may be selling more in yellow than white gold, but white gold has actually increased in use with diamond jewelry because it offsets the stones much better,” he added.
Peggy Grosz, co-owner of diamond jeweler Stefan Hafner’s U.S. distributor, Bernard Grosz, tempered the enthusiasm with a more cautious note and said: “Last year was the best for fine jewelry in anyone’s memory until the last six weeks, when wariness crept in. Sales to the U.S. were up 15 percent against those in 1999 and we’re expecting sales to remain stable over 2001.”
Despite the generally positive mood, Grosz’s observations were supported by figures recently released by the World Gold Council, which said sales of gold jewelry in the U.S. decreased between 2 to 5 percent in the fourth quarter. The Council attributed the slide in part to uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the U.S. Presidential election, the rising cost of oil and economic caution. Grosz said future success lies with innovative design.
“Our sales increases last year were largely due to our treating fine jewelry like fashion, by bringing out several collections a year,” she said.
Buyers were most interested in Hafner’s new elongated drop earrings set with white or yellow diamonds and pink or blue sapphires or light, airy designs in white gold and diamond necklaces, which reveal skin between their delicate strands. The trend for less-intensive designs stems from both economic and aesthetic foundations, Grosz said.
“People no longer feel safe wearing ultraexpensive jewelry,” she pointed out. “They don’t want to walk out in $800,000 ear clips when $25,000 earrings are acceptable.”
Roberto Coin, owner and designer at the namesake company, agreed that “there’s a feeling a slowdown might occur, but beautiful, well-designed merchandise will always sell.”
Coin also pointed to delicate, ultrafeminine necklaces, earrings and rings fashioned from fine, curved gold wire and decorated with discreet stones as a draw for retailers. Combinations included white gold with white diamonds, or yellow gold with Madeira citrine and diamonds. Coin also plans a version using fire opals.
“The balance between sales of yellow and white gold is currently about 50-50,” said Coin. “Ninety percent of the time, diamonds are set in white. I’m not convinced that they should be set in yellow gold.”
The dilemma of white versus yellow gold was the topic of considerable discussion, with many firms realizing that white gold — previously more of a temporary trend than a staple — will remain a constant presence even as demand for yellow gold increases. Even fashion-forward firms like Pianegonda, which has achieved a cultish following in its five years and is known for its use of sterling silver and colored gemstones, is planning to add a collection in yellow gold for the first time, although it won’t make its debut until next year.
Producers other than diamond specialists agreed that yellow gold pieces offset by colorful stones were among the best-selling items to U.S. buyers at the fair.
“Colored stones set in yellow have become fashionable in the States, two or three years after the trend began in Europe,” said Giulia Cazzola, president of Fope Inc. USA.
Gold jewelry specialists Chimento offered a solution for the yellow white dilemma: reversible bracelets from its Double collection featured an inch-wide series of links reminiscent of brickwork, which are yellow gold on one side and white gold on the other.
Hard-edged Seventies-inspired designs turned up in square rings and tubing. Fope showed chunky rings with colorful stones set in rectangular cushion-settings, edged by a double row of diamonds, while La Nouvelle Bague showcased square-set rings with small stones forming floral motifs.
Some companies tried iconoclastic mixes of precious with more commonplace materials. One irreverent design at La Nouvelle Bague featured clear plastic, graffiti-strewn bracelets inspired by watch straps with a gold rectangular centerpiece, sometimes decorated with diamonds.
Damiani’s recently launched lower-cost and more youthful line, Bliss, offered leather pieces mixed with gold and diamonds.

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