The awards-season red carpet has become a corporate battleground for jewelry companies jostling for brand recognition by enticing stars to wear their gems.

It’s all about reaching for glamour, burnishing image and, of course, spending money to get there.

Harry Winston, Neil Lane and Fred Leighton and a few others dominated the market to bejewel stars for the Golden Globes, Academy Awards and other key events. In recent years, however, the red carpet has become inundated with jewelry from fledgling or less well-known companies such as Daniel K and Kwiat.

To compete, some jewelry houses are said to pay stars — and the stylists who dress them — to wear their gems. But the practice, which is acknowledged in whispered conversations, is something that few, if any, companies will admit to publicly.

Houses such as Cartier, Bulgari and Van Cleef & Arpels have found other ways to get in the red-carpet game, in which being anointed by actresses such as Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Salma Hayek and Cate Blanchett can catapult a brand to worldwide attention.

Cartier will cosponsor the NBC/Universal-Focus Features Golden Globe party in the penthouse of the Beverly Hilton hotel after Monday night’s awards show. The event will be an homage to the brand’s long association with Hollywood: Eight vintage pieces from the private (not-for-sale) collection, such as the diamond bracelets Gloria Swanson wore in “Sunset Boulevard,” will be displayed as the centerpiece of the 300-person fete, and huge images of icons such as Elizabeth Taylor in Cartier will decorate the room. Events like this can cost as much as $1 million, according to industry estimates.

Frédéric de Narp, president and chief executive officer of Cartier in North America, said it is important for Cartier to have a presence on the red carpet even if it doesn’t translate into dollars and cents.

“We are selling without the red carpet,” he said. “Our clients are more sophisticated, they don’t come to us because they see a pair of earrings on a celebrity and desire to buy them. I’m not hiding the fact that it does attract interest. It brings glamour and value to be chosen by an A-list celebrity we like. To tell you it will add on the bottom line, I don’t measure or see the results so far.”

This story first appeared in the January 10, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Van Cleef & Arpels, which, like Cartier, is owned by Compagnie Financière Richemont AG, is equally selective. The firm is flying pieces from New York and Europe — some of them never before unveiled — to Hollywood in the hope of getting just the right star to sparkle in them.

“[The red carpet] is one of the main opportunities to showcase jewelry,” said Emmanuel Perrin, ceo and president of Van Cleef’s North American division. “It’s definitely a very important event where you link the celebrity and glamour with fashion and jewelry….We are trying to use that event as an opportunity to unveil pieces we have not shown before.”

Chopard sponsors many film industry events, including the Cannes Film Festival. “The company…would definitely love to see its creations worn by the most talented women in the field,” said Stephanie Labeille, director of press and public relations. Chopard came under intense media scrutiny in 2004 after unnamed individuals said the firm paid actresses such as Charlize Theron to wear its jewelry to the Oscars. The company denied the accusation.

Stylist Tara Swennen, who is dressing Rebecca Gayheart, who will accompany her husband, “Grey’s Anatomy” co-star Eric Dane, to the Globes, said of the pay-to-wear issue: “I personally have not been approached by any [company], but my agents have said, ‘Look, if you want to go that way, there are people who are interested.”‘

Industry sources estimate that having a top-tier actress wear jewelry to an event ranges in cost from $30,000 to $200,000. Additional expenditures typically include flying staff to Los Angeles, armed guards, insurance on both the jewelry and the celebrity, a hotel suite and catering.

Joan Parker, former director of the Diamond Information Center, the marketing arm of De Beers, the diamond mining company, who is now a consultant, used to openly offer to give thousands of dollars to charity in exchange for an actress to wear jewels. Parker said the jewelry world faces different obstacles than fashion designers on the red carpet because having a prominent actress wear jewelry doesn’t make a new customer or excite an existing one.

“It’s slim to none that someone will buy jewelry off the red carpet,” Parker said. “For the people buying high-end jewelry, they may see something they haven’t seen before [but it doesn’t make them want to buy it]. It’s a become a real marketing exercise for a lot of jewelers.”

Some jewelry companies with the largest and rarest gems don’t make a red-carpet push.

“When one of our clients spends six or seven figures on a piece or Graff jewelry, it’s very special,” said Henri Barguirdjian, president and ceo of Graff in America. Graff is known for it’s large emeralds and yellow and white diamonds in addition to the highest-quality pinks and other gems. “If anyone can just borrow the jewelry, it’s a disrespect for them.”

Alyce Alston, ceo of De Beers, North America, said her customers would probably be turned off at seeing De Beers brand jewelry on the red carpet. “Why would you want to buy a special piece of fine jewelry when it’s worn by anyone, let alone a celebrity?”

Salma Hayek wore an impressive suite of Leviev diamond jewelry to last year’s Academy Awards. Although the company is now only one year old, such press isn’t necessarily what the company is seeking.

“Some companies, they will trip over anyone else just to make it happen,” said Thierry Chaunu, president of Leviev, saying that Hayek came to borrow the jewelry “naturally,” and was familiar with the product before the Oscars. “I don’t think we are really into it at all. It’s just not our strategy.”

A lesser-known brand by consumer standards, Kwiat courts future potential A-listers.

“The association with Hollywood has been important for us,” said Greg Kwiat of Kwiat Diamonds. “It translates into retail stores across America. In a year like this, it’s harder for a brand to come out of nowhere. The key is developing relationships. Celebrities will look to who they have worked with before, and we want them to think of us.”

Sophia Chabbott, Marcy Medina and Rachel Brown

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