Byline: Wendy Hessen

Rolex, Tiffany, Cartier. Many consumers would be hard-pressed to add to this short list of powerful, iconic fine jewelry brands.
But in a market where fine jewelry, like many other luxury items, is becoming more accessible — all those Nasdaq winnings have to go somewhere — the temptation is strong among jewelry makers to try to join the mega-branded elite.
Who’s really ready?
The bulk of the industry languishes in a state of underdevelopment when it comes to the art of sophisticated branding, and opinions differ on whether the climate is right for that state of affairs to change.
“It’s a very natural evolution, and an inevitable one,” says Mike Kowalski, chief executive officer of Tiffany & Co., of branding in the fine jewelry market. “If you believe that time is the greatest of all luxuries, it’s tough to devote the time needed to learning to trust an unknown entity or vendor. Brands have earned consumers’ trust over the years, and it is simply a more efficient way to buy — it’s fundamental.”
Carolyn Kelly, vice president of product development at the online fine jeweler, says branding is definitely the way forward, especially for what is often described as the midrange or self-purchase tier, jewelry priced under $10,000.
“A brand name makes the customer feel more confident and secure,” says Kelly, who prior to joining the e-tailer oversaw the fine jewelry assortments at Saks Fifth Avenue. “These products aren’t stand-alones — like a big diamond — but are part of a pyramid of products that’s built on a look and a collection. The whole premise of branding is to get an iconic, identifiable product. There isn’t one person that is that well known among all American consumers.”
Tim Braun, Neiman Marcus divisional merchandise manager, precious jewelry, agrees with Kelly, saying that while there are very well known names in fine watches, most of the dominant names in fine jewelry are actually designer, rather than jewelry, brands.
“There are designer names with the wish or desire to become a brand, but I can’t say there are many that are there yet,” says Braun. “A brand has to have a very recognizable look and lend itself to other products. Barry Kieselstein-Cord is a brand that has successfully moved into other products, and David Yurman potentially has that kind of longevity. It takes many years to show consumers that you can go through generations and still be appealing.”
Not everyone completely buys into the concept of branding as the inevitable future of fine jewelry, however. Independent jewelers, for instance, have been particularly resistant to adopting the merchandising and promotional strategies that surround brands.
“We’ve been branded to death, and it has hurt our profitability,” says John Green, president and chief executive officer of Connecticut-based Lux, Bond & Green. “We let the pendulum swing too far in favor of brands. Sure, there are some, like Rolex, David Yurman and Mikimoto, that are truly driving business. But with so many of the lesser-known brands, it’s us selling it, putting it in our catalogs and our salespeople loving it.
“We don’t want to build someone’s line and brand name over our own. Unless we fall madly in love with a designer or their plan, many jewelers are deciding that there is one name to count on — their own. It might take a little more effort, but our name is just as important. Why else would these powerful brands want to associate with us?”
Neiman’s Braun says he believes it is harder than ever to become a brand in the already crowded marketplace, especially given the enormous costs of such an undertaking.
It can be a struggle even for companies that would typically be thought of as already well established. Barry Kieselstein-Cord’s 25-year-old firm has a long-standing relationship with Neiman Marcus, manifested in four precious jewelry boutiques and two more shops that feature his sterling silver jewelry and handbags along with precious jewelry. There are also six Barry Kieselstein-Cord stores in Germany, one in Zurich and stores in Aspen, Palm Beach, and Las Vegas. A unit on Madison Avenue is slated to open in January 2001.
“We don’t have the resources of a publicly traded firm,” Cord says, “so for national credibility, we went to the top stores, like Neiman’s, hoping that would also lead to international exposure. Having a definable direction with a signature look is the only way to establish a brand. What Cartier did with Le Must de Cartier was very clever, and what Bulgari is doing now is in a similar vein.
“The single most important component is design, followed by media purchasing; it’s paramount, whether it’s in the major fashion, shelter and lifestyle publications, or on the Internet.”
The company has had less exposure in independent jewelers, a situation it is planning to change, especially in light of the industry’s recent interest in firms that can offer multiple product categories besides jewelry, as Bulgari has done.
“We are in the process of relooking at that market, but we’ll cherry-pick the people we would like to represent us,” Cord says. “With leather goods, eyewear and sterling silver jewelry, we are poised to take advantage of that trend. We started a test program three years ago, and we think there may be 100 stores that could sustain a couple of counters.”
For the tiny firm of Slane & Slane, in just its fourth year in business, attracting brand recognition is a daunting task that requires constant vigilance.
“It’s a huge challenge to get noticed,” says Heath Slane, who along with her sister Landon founded the company. “When Landon and I started, we had a clear vision about what our merchandise would look like, but we were also very conscious of things like our logo; what it would say about us and what the color should be.”