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MILAN — Lots of Italian fashion houses are turning to fine jewelry to add glitter to their store windows and sparkle to their bottom lines.

Giorgio Armani, Gucci, Versace and Bottega Veneta are all looking to become major players in the fine jewelry category by creating gold pieces based on iconic motifs, such as Medusa heads and horse bits. The brands are undeterred about competing in an arena dominated by brands such as Harry Winston, Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Bulgari and Chopard.

“Their origins are in jewelry. Mine is an extension of the couture world — a collection of products that appeal to individuals interested in personalization and exclusivity,” said Armani, who launched Armani Privé fine jewelry, featuring bold pieces crafted with white gold, black diamonds, Tahitian pearls, rose quartz and misty aquamarines, in January 2005. Prices range from $3,848 to $36,000.

“The philosophy is to create pieces that are unique compared to what the market already offers,” added the designer.

Gucci’s creative director, Frida Giannini, had similar thoughts: “We can’t compete with companies that have centuries-old traditions, like Bulgari or Cartier, so we need to create a very specific identity for Gucci’s jewelry that reflects the brand’s background and heritage.”

Fine jewelry sales currently account for $157 billion worldwide, and branded collections are gaining 10 to 12 percent annually, versus the 3 percent growth of unbranded offerings, according to luxury expert Claudia d’Arpizio, a partner in Bain & Co., a consulting company here.

D’Arpizio believes fashion houses are taking advantage of the trend for branded fine jewelry, as well as investments in communications and advertising made by the likes of Bulgari and Cartier that give the product more attention, and the acceptance among rich and sophisticated customers of fine jewelry as part of their daily wardrobe.

“The best-selling price range [for fine jewelry] is between $2,500 and $10,000, just like a Valentino suit or Hermès bag,” said d’Arpizio.

In growing the Gucci jewelry business, Giannini, who hired two design assistants to work on the category, posed the question, “Why would a woman spend $5,000 on a Gucci jewel?”

The answer, she said, was a desire to buy into Gucci’s status symbol appeal, communicated by signatures such as the horse bit, the double-G logo and the Flora floral print.

This story first appeared in the July 10, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Gucci introduced jewelry in the Seventies and then reinvigorated the category in 1997 when Tom Ford launched a collection that sells only in the brand’s boutiques and comprises logoed rings in yellow gold and silver, among other items. According to chief executive officer Mark Lee, the house’s jewels, which range in price from $1,090 for an icon ring to $61,000 for a diamond Flora motif suite, have had considerable growth following an increased focus from design and management.

“We are trading up the assortments in terms of price and preciousness, with gold and diamond products now making the majority of our sales,” said Lee. “This category is particularly strategic not only for the growth potential that it offers, but also for its impact in communicating clearly Gucci’s luxury position.”

In 2005, Gucci jewelry sales were 92.1 million euros, or $113 million, with ad campaigns created specifically for the category.

Versace is also capitalizing on its staple symbols, such as the Medusa head.

“Versace was among the first brands to do jewelry, followed by other houses that migrated to jewelry like they did with accessories,” said Paolo Marai, ceo of Vertime, the unit of Timex Corp. founded in 2004 to produce and distribute Versace’s jewelry and watch collections.

Gianni Versace first introduced fine jewelry in 1989. Today, the Versace Precious Items collections are distributed in 42 countries through 800 select jewelry stores. Sales in 2005 doubled from the previous year, totaling between $15 million and $19 million. A 30 percent increase is budgeted for this year.

In line with the company’s new less-is-more approach, Versace’s baubles are cleaner and more understated, like rings with big stones nestled in simple settings.

“Ever since Gianni gave me a stunning canary yellow diamond ring, diamonds in all colors have become my favorite pieces,” said Donatella Versace, who wears the ring regularly. “[Diamonds] represent inner strength, true beauty and clarity that I find empowering.”

Versace’s top-selling collection is the V Diva, with flexible tubular chains that form rings, bracelets and earrings in yellow gold or white gold and diamonds. Prices for the collection range from $3,848 to $55,150. The brand also launched a new collection at the Baselworld Watch & Jewelry Show held in April in Basel, Switzerland, centered on Medusa heads interpreted in a subtle way and featuring white and black diamonds.

Bottega Veneta used the fall runway in February to unveil its new collection of chunky gold and silver chain necklaces and bracelets embedded with diamonds. The designs, made by Victor Mayer, a craftsman in Pforzheimn, Germany, gleamed against wispy chiffon dresses in black and brown.

“I’ve always used link motif in various aspects of Bottega Veneta’s designs and products, including the hand-braided sterling silver chain details on the evening dresses in the new fall collection,” said Tomas Maier, Bottega Veneta’s creative director. “Therefore, it was a natural evolution for the first jewelry collection to comprise links and chains.”

Maier added that he will soon introduce rings, earrings and colored stones to the lineup that will be available only in nine Bottega Veneta flagships. Prices range from $20,000 for a braided bracelet to $108,000 for a multistrand necklace with clusters of pavé diamonds.

“It’s about private luxury,” said Maier.

Maier added that he’s not worried about competition from established jewelers: “As long as [the jewelry] has design integrity, we can all share customers.”

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