MERCHANTS’ MOOD REFLECTS CHANGING TIMES

Byline: Wendy Hessen

GENEVA — American retailers shopping at two of the world’s largest fine watch and jewelry shows in Switzerland showed concern over the tough economic conditions in the U.S. and Japan.
Still, many top executives felt the upscale segment should turn in respectable increases for the rest of the year.
The jewelry and watch merchants said spring sales have been satisfactory, thus far, and added that the importance of seeing new products and trends at both fairs couldn’t be overlooked. The World Watch & Clock Show in Basel ended its eight-day run on March 29 and the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva ended its five-day stand on March 31.
“Basel is definitely the most important show of the year whether you buy or not,” said Mark Udell, president of New York-based London Jewelers. “We actually went with more people [on our staff] than ever, although we bought a little safer than last year, especially in watches. But there is still plenty of money around and many of our customers are pretty well padded.”
Hank Siegel, president of Hamilton Jewelers, with four stores, two each in New Jersey and Palm Beach, Fla., said: “We were certainly a little bit more cautious this year and probably bought a little less. We were looking for specific things rather than going in with guns blazing, and we may stagger our deliveries a bit more this year.”
Several firms see the slowdown in the economy as an opportunity.
Anthony D’Ambrosio, executive vice president of watch retailer Tourneau, said: “One of the most positive things happening is that some watch manufacturers are releasing their limited products in greater quantities. Many of those pieces were presold, which contributed to us having a strong March. Plus, some manufacturers expressed concern about the [stability of some] Asian markets, which U.S. retailers will also benefit from.”
John Green, president and chief executive officer of Hartford, Conn.-based Lux, Bond & Green, said for firms that continue to be aggressive in this changing marketplace, there are a lot of good deals out there.
“We’re not running way ahead, but our business is OK,” Green said. “You can’t keep up at the rate of 30 percent to 40 percent increases every year, but we can still see single-digit increases.”
Green was among the retailers who generally lauded vendors for tightening their price structures and focusing on expanding successful product lines.
“People really paid attention to making their price points right,” he said. “Now, it’s about smart retailing, rather than just throwing something in the case and knowing it will sell because the economy is so good.”
The watches that caught the attention of store executives were new versions of some of last year’s strongest performers. Among them:
Patek Philippe’s “24,” which was offered in a smaller size and in versions with more diamonds.
Franck Muller’s ladies’ styles of its popular Long Island watch, now with diamond bezels and pastel dials and straps.
Corum’s smaller version of its hot Bubble watch.
Jaeger Le Coultre’s Master Ultra Thin for ladies in pastel colors and diamond bezels.
But there was still room for some new entries as well as some standards.
Tourneau’s D’Ambrosio said his team favored the classically styled German line Glashutte.
“We have been doing very well lately with high-end watches,” D’Ambrosio said. “We recently took on Roger DuBuis, so we’re looking to add to brands at that level, especially since they often have such a limited supply and are not so widely distributed.”
Mary Forte, executive vice president and chief merchandise officer for Zale Corp., pointed to the moderately priced Citizen line, which she described as “looking better than it ever has, particularly in ladies’ executions with the addition of Swarovski crystals.”
“They are an incredible value for $250 to $350 and a good gift item, as well,” Forte said. “And with the introduction of the men’s chronograph, the David Yurman watch line has evolved into a look of its own versus being an accessory to the jewelry. On the upper-moderate side, Tag Heuer’s retro-styled pieces, such as the Monza, looked excellent.”
Tag’s Monza Caliber 36 model is inspired by a Fifties style that will now feature a skeleton back in order to see the new movement by Zenith, encased in a square, black dial on a tobacco-colored strap. Tag and Zenith, which is not related to the TV manufacturer, are both owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
Beyond specific watch models, the most overwhelming trend was the demand for color, both in watch straps and in stones adorning watch cases and dials, and especially throughout much of the jewelry arena.
Steve Magner, vice president, divisional merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus, said he saw “more innovative uses of color than we’ve seen in a long time, from both very well-known and not-so-prominent brands.”
“People were standing in line to buy color from such [watch] vendors as Lachman and Technomarine, and [watch and jewelry firm] Chopard is doing a lot more with color,” Magner said.
He pointed to Chopard’s beach version of its Happy Sport series, with colorful fish floating inside the case, as being “truly fun to see.”
Whether it was in watches or in jewelry from the likes of Pasquale Bruni and La Nouvelle Bague, color was also a dominant force for Sue Ann Newberg, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“Chopard’s ‘H’ watches in new color combinations and cognac-colored diamonds from Pasquale Bruni, or gorgeous, new pave pieces from La Nouvelle Bague, all looked particularly good,” said Newberg. “Our customers continue to want more pave colored stones and lots of wonderful combinations for long earrings and pendants, and more pieces set in black gold than ever before.”
Though Newberg said she wasn’t looking to open many new resources, she did spend considerable time focusing on having the strongest merchandise from each of Saks’s current collections lined up for the unveiling of the main floor of the company’s Manhattan flagship, slated for late October.
“We’re creating a tremendous destination for fine jewelry and watches, and will be doing a lot of events surrounding that opening,” Newberg said.
Colored diamonds and sapphires were of particular interest to jewelers as well. Hamilton’s Siegel said: “What I really enjoyed seeing was the use of dark to pastel colors in pave. We also saw some interesting uses of green tourmaline and we still feel strong about turquoise.”
London Jewelers’ Udell said the breadth of color offerings has spurred the purchase of third or fourth watches by his customers. In jewelry, it was about “making use of interesting stones that used to be popular, like [bright orange] Mexican fire opal and Mandarin garnet, mixed with smoky topaz and quartz,” Udell said. “The color combinations, like those at Valente Gioellieri are beautiful.”
Neiman’s Magner called black diamonds “over-the-top chic,” and lauded brown and yellow, and black and white color combinations in diamonds and sapphires, which the firm bought set into jewelry or loose.
“We bought several parcels to combine with deep red tourmaline or fancy colored diamonds,” Magner said. “[In finished jewelry,] we really liked Henry Dunay’s oxblood and coral set into yellow gold rings and we found Tamara Comolli remarkably innovative, refreshing and imaginative. We will sell her collection in six stores this fall.”

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