World Jewelry Center unveils its home and vision

LAS VEGAS, Nev.,—Right now it’s just a barren parcel of land downtown, but plans are underway that will turn this piece of desert into a 5.4-acre international marketplace dedicated to the jewelry industry.

Called the World Jewelry Center, the one-million-square-foot project is being planned as a mixed-use facility that will include an office tower, retail space, and residential condos. The plans, including architectural renderings, were unveiled Wednesday at a gala event inside a white tent on the dusty property—part of a 61-acre site called Union Park, which once served as a Union Pacific railroad station. The gathering included local government officials; members of Probity Intl. Corp., the company developing the project; representatives of Altoon & Porter Architects, the architectural firm designing the complex; and officials representing the 11 jewelry trade companies and organizations that have signed letters of intent to occupy the center.

One of the biggest surprises of the evening was that a few hours earlier, the American Gem Society signed a letter of intent to occupy the building. Ruth Batson, AGS executive director and chief executive officer, told JCK that if the project is successful, AGS would strongly consider relocating its headquarters, which is already in Las Vegas, into the WJC. Batson said AGS is initially looking at occupying two floors in the center.

“Because of the growth of the AGS lab, we need to expand,” she said. “We are very excited about this project in our home town. … We are 100 percent committed to trying to make this work for us.”

Construction of the center is planned for 2007 and completion is anticipated in late 2009 till early 2010.

Bill Boyajian, the former president of the Gemological Institute of America, who was brought on as managing director of the World Jewelry Center in August, said the event was a way to create a buzz for this ambitious project.

“We want to share our vision with the jewelry industry and the local community and let them know what we’re doing,” he told JCK. “We want to generate some excitement and interest.”

This vision, he said, is to create “a one-stop shop for the gem and jewelry trade.” He explained that the complex will bring together jewelry businesses from around the world who are interested in doing business in the United States and, in particular, the western U.S. The WJC will serve as an international trade destination for the industry and the retail destination for consumers.

The office tower will be home to jewelry manufacturers and trade organizations. Unlike many business complexes, the companies that will occupy the tower will actually own their space. “We are creating an opportunity to buy a piece of the rock,” Boyajian said.

One of the major attractions for the international jewelry trade to come to the center is its future designation as a “Foreign Trade Zone.” This means that foreign companies will not pay a duty for products shipped into the U.S. until the products are sold. The designation hasn’t been granted yet, but it has strong political support and everyone involved with the project is confident that it will happen.

“This allows a lot of flexibility,” said Yogesh K. Madhvani of SimplexDiam, a New York City-based company that, among other things, imports products and services from India. “It allows our goods to come and be reviewed, and then we can send them back (without paying a duty).” Madhvani said he has signed on to buy a 2,000-square-foot space in the tower.

“The free-trade zone is very important to us,” added Tip Cornell, chief operating officer of Super Bell Jewelry, a Los Angeles-based company with manufacturing facilities in Hong Kong and China. “Obviously one of the issues to a company like ours is the whole duty issue.”

The tower is currently designed at 57 stories, but that could change. The top floors (how many is uncertain) will house luxury residential units.

Adjacent to the tower, will be a three-story retail complex that will include a gem and jewelry museum to attract tourists. Boyajian said that the retail units, as planned, will sell items from all over the world. Many of the retailers will be selling jewelry that is unique and unusual in the U.S. market. The retail complex could also serve as an incubator for WJC manufactures to test the market for new products.

Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman was at the event and pledged his full support for the project. He told JCK that even though Las Vegas has no shortage of new developments, this particular project is important to him and the city because it extends the economic base beyond the gambling and tourism industries.

“It is a way of diversifying the economy of the city,” he told JCK. “It is an industry that is rich. And the wealth is coming to downtown Las Vegas.”

The mayor’s ambition to diversify the city’s economy can be seen across the street from the WJC site, where a recently constructed World market Center sits. The furniture marketplace reportedly brings in 40,000 to 60,000 wholesalers and buyers twice per year.

The success of the World Market Center was one of the attractions for Robert Zarnegin of Probity Intl. to develop a mart for the jewelry industry, where he said, other than Dubai, there is no such facility.

“I was attracted to the concept of the furniture mart,” he told JCK. “Gem and jewelry manufacturers and wholesalers will be able to share their products in a permanent location—and what better place to have it than Las Vegas.”

Zarnegin and other participants say that the city of Las Vegas is attractive because of its low taxes, low cost of doing business, the 40 million visitors the city attracts each year, and the high number of people who are moving to Southern Nevada to take advantage of the booming economy (estimates range from 3,000 to 7,000 persons per month are moving into the area). Also, they said that because of the success of the JCK Show, the international jewelry industry is already familiar with Las Vegas.

While buzz may have been created, the reality of such an aggressive project is still a long way off. Boyajian says that they are looking for anywhere from 400 to 600 companies to buy into the project, and they need anywhere from 25 to 50 percent committed occupancy to get financing for the project. But he is optimistic  that the WJC will reach its goal.

“The first big challenge is get people on board,” he said. “The more people you get on board, the easier it will be to sell this to the rest of the world. Once they see the train leaving the depot, they will want to get on board.”