How Peru’s 1,000-Year-Old Jewelry Industry Is Reinventing Itself to Attract Millennials

According to legend, when Spanish troops wrested Peru from the Incas in the 1500s, they saw its potential and dubbed it a “beggar, sitting on a bench of gold.”

Centuries later, the country still teems with potential, particularly with regard to jewelry. (It also still produces plenty of gold.) The Incas and their forerunners were famed for their metallurgic skills, and that craftsmanship and knowledge has been passed down through the generations. Even today, much of the Peruvian jewelry sold to the domestic market (and tourists) evokes Incan iconography, such as dragons and the sun.

But even with all that history, the country’s jewelry industry has struggled in recent years. Once known for its intricate filigree and weave work, it’s lately been hit by high gold prices and competition from centers with lower labor costs. The local jewelry business has shrunk so much that eastern neighbor Brazil enjoys a far higher industry profile.

But the country now aims to change all that. Two weeks ago, MVI Marketing invited myself and a group of U.S. jewelry manufacturers and retailers for a trade mission to Lima to find out more about the country’s jewelry industry and to pitch its new program: Peru Certified.

The fledging (and not-yet-official) initiative, conceived by MVI for government export agency PromPerú, takes advantage of the country’s unique role as both a jewelry manufacturer and miner of gold and silver. The thinking goes, if you join those elements together and enlist an outside group as monitor, you’ll have a tracked-and-traced certified-origin jewelry line. That is still a relative rarity for our business, although it’s becoming more common outside it.

Such a line might appeal to millennials, who increasingly want assurances about a piece’s provenance, argues MVI. What’s more, since the government monitors working conditions in its mines and factories, Peru Certified items could conceivably be labeled and possibly even co-branded fair trade.

Of course, while this program shows tons of promise, it also faces challenges. The country produces gemstones, including amazonite, blue-green chrysocolla, sodalite, rose quartz, and blue and pink opal—beautiful gems, to be sure, but they don’t exactly top the gemstone hit parade. To really sell jewelry in the U.S., the visitors said, you need diamonds, or at least better-known gems. But most diamonds and gems are not trackable, undercutting the program’s main selling point. As a result, some jewelry spurred by this program may not ultimately bear the Peru Certified label.

In addition, while a handful of big Peruvian manufacturers sell chain and other items to major players like QVC and Richline, much of the jewelry business there remains, in the words of one visitor, “a cottage industry,” with companies better equipped to supply boutiques than major accounts. And some items produced there might find limited buyers beyond its borders: One manufacturer, for example, featured jewels made from bulls’ horns. The company owner stressed that the horns come from slaughterhouses, so the bulls are already dead. Still, a tough sell.

Overall, though, trade mission participants were impressed by the attitude of Peru’s jewelry companies and their desire to learn and crack the U.S. market. Peru is one of the world’s oldest jewelry manufacturers. With Peru Certified, its industry may rise again.

I will have more to say about the trip and this program in an upcoming issue of JCK.

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JCK News Director