Blue Box Blues

What would you do if the entire contents of two display cases suddenly disappeared? That?s the question 265 former U.S. accounts of Tiffany & Co. are asking themselves. When Tiffany halted sales from its trade division eight months ago to focus on store development, it left a major void in the inventories of those 265 retailers, some of whom relied on Tiffany products for as much as 20% of their business. And jewelers miss the venerable blue box?the classic emblem of the Tiffany purchase.

But U.S. jewelers?and those in Europe, too, as of July?are learning to cope. ?I?d prefer to sell the line, but there?s nothing we can do about it,? says Tim Greve, president of Carl Greve Jewelers in Portland, Ore., which sold Tiffany products for 14 years. ?But the upside is that now I?m finding new business in different areas,? he adds.

Life after Tiffany. Jewelers suffering from Tiffany withdrawal have had two options: brand their own merchandise or pick up comparable lines. Most jewelers have made a virtue of necessity and transformed the predicament into an opportunity to strengthen their store?s brand and identity or to offer unique?sometimes exclusive?products to their customers.

When confronted with Tiffany enthusiasts seeking ?blue-boxed? items, jewelers explain the products? absence and suggest comparable pieces. Marc Green, vice chairman of Lux, Bond & Green in West Hartfield, Conn., is delighted with the opportunity to step up company branding efforts, despite a lifelong relationship with Tiffany. ?Now we?re constantly marketing ourselves,? he says. Since Lux, Bond & Green products replaced Tiffany stock at Green?s store in January, sales have remained steady, he reports.

Retailers who aren?t interested in store-branded pieces but want to carry products that are equivalent to Tiffany?s have plenty of suppliers to choose from, including Robert Lee Morris, Dobbs Boston, Links of London, and Pianegonda. Some jewelers cluster such lines with other designer merchandise. Others dedicate whole cases to new lines or create in-store boutiques for them. Prices of items from Tiffany?s-alternative companies range from $40 to $1,800 keystone. Pieces include two-tone stainless-steel mesh and 18k gold jewelry; sterling silver jewelry with colored gemstones such as amethyst and aquamarine; sterling silver Rolo-link bracelets and snake chains; and baby-related items, such as cups and pacifier holders (an item Tiffany doesn?t make).

Carrying a high-end sterling silver line is essential for jewelers in high-traffic areas such as strip malls. Most buyers of sterling silver items want high-quality products at reasonable prices?meaning $500 or less per piece, say jewelers, similar to the prices mass-market consumers are willing to pay.

Suppliers to the post-Tiffany market are faring well, with some reporting business increases as high as 70% over the past six months. Major suppliers include:

Dobbs Boston, Gloucester, Mass. Company president Bart Schick notes that the company has 50 items that are similar to Tiffany?s products. The firm, which makes sterling silver jewelry, reported a sales increase of 30% (or 60 former Tiffany accounts) at press time. Packaging includes white boxes with navy-colored velvet lining as well as gray pouches and boxes. Call (800) 233-6227 for more information.

Links of London, London, England. Among the company?s offerings are sterling silver jewelry; gifts, including crystal items; baby goods, such as sterling silver cups; and two-tone gold vermeil and silver jewelry. The firm offers a turnkey marketing program for jewelers to set up a complete in-store Links of London boutique. Packaging includes black velvet bags, tan boxes and lids trimmed with navy, and tan bows and matching bags trimmed with navy. Links? first U.S. store will open on Madison Avenue in New York this fall; international sales manager Debbie Wagstaff tells JCK the firm?s goal is to have 20 vendors in key U.S. cities by year?s end and 40 by the end of 2001. Call (877) 795-4657 for details.

Mikimoto, U.S. headquarters in New York City. This maker of giftware and baby items (picture frames, crystal, pens, compacts, and sterling silver baby cups, rattles, and spoons) also makes a line of handbags. The company reports ?double digit? sales increases over the past six months. Packaging is navy or white boxes with silver or gold ribbons. Call (800) 223-4008.

Pianegonda, U.S. headquarters in New York City. This Italian company has enjoyed sales increases averaging 70% a month since October 1999, when its products?sterling silver and colored gemstone jewelry?made their U.S. debut. ?Entertainers are wearing our pieces,? says Aaron Mink, American distributor and division director for the company. According to Mink, Jada Pinkett will wear Pianegonda jewelry in the next Spike Lee movie. Packaging is navy blue boxes with silver lettering and blue and gray bows. Call (305) 672-8476 for details.

Robert Lee Morris, New York City. At press time, the company, which produces two-tone gold and sterling silver jewelry, sterling bowls, candlesticks, and platters, had picked up 15 former Tiffany accounts ?with little effort,? says Lisa Roman, vice president of sales and marketing. ?We expect many more after The JCK Show in Las Vegas,? she adds. Packaging consists of black pouches adorned with the silver RLM logo and a ?romance? card about Morris and the inspirations for his designs. Black textured paper bags and boxes featuring the RLM logo also are available. Call (800) 829-8444 for details.

Syratech, Boston, Mass. Syratech is the parent company of Wallace Silversmiths, International Silver Co., and Towle Silversmiths. It makes sterling silver bracelets, baby cups, picture frames, and giftware including flatware, bowls, and candlesticks in sterling silver as well as in crystal. Sales in the past six months are up 20%, says Marshall Steed, a sales manager for the company. Packaging consists of navy, green, or white gift boxes. For details, call (617) 561-2200.

The John Hardy Collection, New York City. Hardy designs two-tone silver and gold jewelry as well as some gift items and flatware, including sterling silver cufflinks, silver and palmwood letter openers, goblets, bowls, utensils, and baby items such as silver cups, bracelets, frames, and spoons. Sales in the past six months are up, according to the company; exact figures were unavailable at press time. Packaging consists of different-colored boxes wrapped in textured cotton with beige on top and black on the bottom and a pink and cream combination for the baby collection. For more information, call (800) 2-HARDY.

Tous, U.S. headquarters, Walnut Creek, Calif. The company makes jewelry in gold, two-tone gold, stainless-steel mesh, and some in sterling silver. It also offers giftware, baby items, and leather products. Although at press time, Tous had picked up only two former Tiffany accounts since January, jewelers are setting up roomy in-store boutiques to house the diverse Tous line. ?We even lured a former Tiffany sales representative to work with us,? says Sharon Williams, the company?s national sales director. ?She left a secure post at Tiffany?s to sell our line because she was so excited and confident about its success in the States.? Packaging for stainless-steel and gold jewelry consists of teal boxes lined with white velvet and white ribbons featuring the Tous name in teal. Giftware and sterling silver pieces are placed in reusable silver-colored ?bubble? packs with Velcro seals and ?Tous? in red lettering. Jewelry comes with a certificate of authenticity. Call (925) 280-5444 for information.

Tiffany, meanwhile, expects to maintain an annual growth rate of 12% to 15%. ?Our net earnings are up 88% in the first quarter of 2000,? notes Mark Aaron, the company?s vice president of investor relations.

Room for Improvement

The Tiffany brand is ?irreplaceable,? said a New Jersey jeweler to Bart Schick, president of Dobbs Boston in Gloucester, Mass., while placing an order for sterling silver jewelry in January. Schick understands why retailers are sad to see the Tiffany?s relationship end. ?Their merchandise is excellent,? he acknowledges.

Most of the companies mentioned as alternatives to Tiffany don?t fully measure up in every product area. The downsides:

Dobbs Boston. Doesn?t offer baby items, such as sterling silver cups, rattles, and frames; or giftware, including crystal, porcelain, and flatware.

Links of London. Has a limited selection of crystal barware and porcelain.

Mikimoto. Its line of sterling silver jewelry is sold only in department stores.

Pianegonda. Doesn?t offer baby items or giftware, including crystal, porcelain, and flatware.

Robert Lee Morris. Doesn?t offer giftware (including crystal, porcelain, pens, flatware, or pocket knives) or baby goods.

Syratech. Doesn?t make sterling silver rings, necklaces, pendants, key rings, cufflinks, or porcelain giftware.

Tous. Doesn?t offer baby cups, crystal, or glassware.

The John Hardy Collection. Has a limited selection of crystal and does not make porcelain giftware, though select items do feature exotic wood accents.

All companies. Not one secures treasures in the sine qua non of the Tiffany?s shopping experience?the pale blue box.