What I Learned at the LINK Jewelry Summit in Vienna

It’s been nearly two weeks since the LINK Jewelry Summit concluded in Vienna on April 24 and I’m still processing all the interesting ideas that came out of it. Before I arrived in Vienna, my fear was that the event was going to be a poorly disguised commercial for Swarovski, its sole sponsor. But to the Austrian crystal- and jewelry-maker’s credit, that was hardly the case.

The best way to describe the summit, whose initials stand for “Learn, Imagine, Network, and Know,” is that it was like a mini-TED conference for jewelry.

It didn’t hurt that Richard Saul Wurman, the founder of TED, gave the closing remarks (which, sadly, I missed because I had to catch a flight to Basel). But his presence isn’t the only reason I’m compelled to draw the analogy to TED. The panelists and speakers who participated in the two-day affair came from the jewelry industry, but also from worlds that intersect it at oblique angles, resulting in a wonderful mash-up of points of view that provided some fresh takeaways.

(Full disclosure: I was asked to guest-moderate a panel on day one of the summit in part because I have been a longtime freelance contributor to the jewelry and watch sections of the International Herald Tribune, whose London-based event planning division was hired by Swarovski to organize the conference.)

Mirrored mannequins draped in jewels greeted guests upon their arrival at the conference venue, Vienna’s Aula der Wissenschaften, or Hall of Sciences.

The opening presentation, by Pete Eckert, a blind photographer who uses sound, touch, and memory to create haunting, illusory images, set the tone for the unconventional musings that would follow. “As a blind visual artist, I have an opportunity to see the world beyond the other senses,” Eckert said. “Why would jewelry be important to me? It’s the aura, the sparkle built up around the woman. That’s a metaphor for how I see it.”

Lois Sherr Dubin, an author and museum curator with the George Gustav Heye Center at the Smithsonian Institution, spoke about the timeless, universal appeal of body adornment, tracing our love affair with baubles as far back as Morocco c. 100,000 B.C., where the discovery of beads provided evidence of abstract thinking—“because beads didn’t keep you warm or feed you,” she explained (no doubt to the delight of the Pandora and Trollbeads executives in the audience).

“We wear jewelry because it’s personally meaningful,” Sherr Dubin concluded. “It is a visual language that communicates what we want people to know about us.”

The next session featured the impossibly chic Nadja Swarovski, a member of the executive board of Swarovski, in conversation with the impossibly cool Delfina Delettrez, who praised materials such as resin, leather, and rubber. “I’m 25—I’m a jeweler of my time,” said the designer, a fourth-generation member of the Fendi family. “I have an eye to pioneering materials.”

The panel discussion on “key consumer insights for jewelry retail success” that followed sounded like it might put me to sleep, but the effect was quite the opposite. The panelists—Anne Martin-Vachon, the chief merchandising officer of HSN; Rita Clifton, a London-based branding expert; and Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of the Ogilvy Group—were absolutely full of zingers.

Take, for example, Sutherland’s eccentric ideas: “One reason jewelry is such a powerful gift is because men don’t like it very much. It’s a very obvious act of sacrifice.”

Or this one: “An engagement ring is, essentially, a game theoretic device: It’s an up-front expense as proof of a long-term commitment.”

As a collective whole, the panelists lauded the narrative potential inherent to jewelry.

“We’re about a great product, a terrific story, and a terrific storyteller,” Martin-Vachon said, before adding: “The beauty of our business at HSN is that we are 100 percent proprietary. We need to keep it fresh and relevant.”

Martin-Vachon and I had briefly chatted at the preconference cocktail party the night before, where she let slip that jewelry makes up 13 percent of HSN’s business but takes up a disproportionately higher percentage of her time because she considers it “the gateway to younger consumers.”

On that note, the conference included its fair share of commentary on digital platforms, mobile shopping, and social media—including British blogger Susanna Lau, who goes by the moniker “Susie Bubble” (she urged attendees to personalize their social media communications), and Chris Morton, cofounder of the social commerce site Lyst, who summarized the five laws he has learned about the nascent field of social commerce:

1.    It’s about sales (i.e., quantifiable results).

2.    Purchase intent is essential. (In other words, people are more apt to buy when they’re intentionally searching the Web or on a site that promotes shopping—and not, for example, IMing with friends on Facebook.)

3)    The “taste graph” (people whom I’m interested in—ergo, Twitter) is not the same thing as a “social graph” (my friends—ergo, Facebook).

4)    The consumer is always in control.

5)    The story must be told. It’s essential to providing context so the consumer understands why the product is relevant to him/her.

No global jewelry conference would be complete without a panel on emerging markets. The one organized by the LINK Summit included some serious heavy-hitters, including Mohammed A.R. Al-Fahim, CEO of Dubai-based Paris Gallery; Kent Wong Siu Kee, managing director of Chinese mega-retailer Chow Tai Fook; Rony Rodrigues, founder of Box 1824, a consumer research and trends firm based in São Paulo; Sanjay Kapoor, managing director of Genesis Luxury; and Janet Wang, international business director for China’s Tmall.com.

“[Consumers in Brazil] are starting to understand the concept and value of design,” Rodrigues said. “If you ask 100 women, they say they’re crazy to buy fashion jewelry. But they don’t know where to buy it.”

By the time day one concluded, my head was exploding with insights and story ideas. The magnificent black-tie gala staged that night at Palais Liechtenstein, one of Europe’s grandest properties, home to a private collection of Old Masters whose colors were so saturated they seemed to be rendered in Technicolor, offered the perfect opportunity to press reset.

The Garden Palace owned by the princely family of Liechtenstein served as the grand backdrop to the LINK Summit’s black-tie gala.

The highlight of day two was a conversation with the inimitable Iris Apfel, the legendary New Yorker, interior designer, and fashion icon who described herself as “the world’s oldest teenager.” (Her topaz blue–colored marabou feather boa seemed to support that sentiment.) Apfel delighted the audience with her lessons learned over the course of 92 years as the original fashionista:

“I don’t like adaptations. I like the real McCoy.”

“If you’re not interested, you’re not interesting.”

“Stay in the company of young people, because they know what’s going on.

“I never met a color I didn’t love, as long as it was in the right tonality.”

“Be yourself. Do your own thing. But you have to remember—if you do your own thing, you have to have a thing to do.”

Amen!

My idol, fashion icon Iris Apfel, joined Nadja Swarovski and Deborah Lloyd, president and creative director of Kate Spade New York, in a day-two conversation at the LINK Jewelry Summit.

The summit, expertly chaired by Fabergé creative and managing director Katharina Flohr, was truly a first of its kind. I’m told a second annual summit is already in the works. Count me in (if, that is, they’ll have me)!

P.S. Check back with Off the Chain in the weeks to come because I’m going to revisit the LINK presentations that focused squarely on economics, including a McKinsey consultant’s fascinating predictions about how the jewelry landscape will look in 2020, and a financial consultant’s sobering review of the industry’s consolidation phenomenon—and how it’s due to speed up.