Brazilian Designers Find Their Place in the World

“Export or die,” Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso recently warned his country’s industries. And jewelers are heeding his words.

Like their counterparts in the fashion industry, fine-jewelry designers and manufacturers in Brazil are making great strides toward their ultimate goal: a spot in the international jewelry marketplace.

Though competition is great, the Brazilians have several advantages: They are doing their homework and producing well-made and innovative designs.

Traditionally a self-sufficient market—for jewelry and most other industries—Brazil has been moving for several years toward becoming an international player. Three years ago, the government began encouraging consortiums—groups of manufacturers interested in exporting—and last year began offering money to these groups.

“They are providing financial support to improve technical skills, marketing, and other things among jewelers,” says Sergio D’Auria, a member of Rio Design Group, an export consortium. “What we are hoping to do is sell the concept of jewels from Brazil.”

Though a new idea, it’s no surprise from a country that has long supplied precious gems to the world. Combined with a ravenous appetite for life—characterized by the spirit of Carnivale and a native passion for jewelry—Brazilian jewelers seem to be on the verge of something big … and they’re taking it seriously.

Jewelers are looking for more than just hype on the international scene. The Brazilian fashion industry has made significant inroads that provide evidence of the abundant creativity native to Brazil—the country’s “fashion week,” for example, has joined those of Milan, Paris, and New York as a major global fashion event—and now jewelers are building a sound infrastructure for their industry.

In Rio de Janeiro, for example, a local university has started an MBA program for jewelry design. The first class—18 students—graduated last year after studying jewelry history, gemology, the manufacturing process, drawing technique, and computer design. The goal: to create an educated and well-rounded base of jewelry designers and manufacturers who understand the relationship of jewelry and fashion as well as jewelry’s appeal among consumers. “Our idea now is to focus on the design process,” says Claudio Magalhaes, coordinator of the design program. “Our goal is not to forget goldsmith work, but to create a concept.”

Working with retailers is part of the training these designers undergo. “We want to create a new synergy between designers and retailers,” says D’Auria.

Similarly, the industry in the state of Minas Gerais emphasizes education for jewelry designers and manufacturers. Four years ago, local schools and universities began developing gem and jewelry design courses. Though perhaps behind in global distribution, Brazilians are nonetheless advanced in understanding jewelry’s role as an accessory.

“Jewelry is becoming as fashionable as clothes, even though it is a luxury product,” says São Paulo furniture designer Fernando Campana, who along with his brother was recently commissioned to design a new jewelry collection for H. Stern. “Young people are also closer to jewelry now, despite the prices, and that is probably because of fashion.”

Many designers stress the importance of paying close attention to international fashion and creating collections that reflect color and style trends. It is also common for jewelry designers to have studied fashion. Freelance designer Patricia Correa of Minas Gerais says all design has a foundation in fine arts. “I started studying fashion, which changed my jewelry design,” she says. “It’s all a process of creation that is far-reaching.”

Even as the world has been introduced to Brazilian style, international style has been imported at an increasing rate into Brazil. In jewelry, that has meant exposure to Italian and German designs that Brazilians first imitated but now integrate into their own jewelry. “Design here has been growing because imports started coming in and threatening our [native] industry,” says designer Carlos Henrique Reis. “In just five years, Brazilians have gained access to international fashion brands without having to leave the country,” says Jacques Rodrigues Junior, a Belo Horizonte jeweler.

Brazilian consumers generally wear more jewelry—and larger, more colorful pieces—than their American counterparts. This phenomenon is based partly on the country’s diverse population, whose ethnic groups, including Native Americans, Africans, and Portuguese, share a traditional fascination with precious adornments. It also derives partly from the country’s natural beauty and resources. Although Brazilian designers understand foreign markets and are working to adapt their designs to serve those markets, the designs retain a distinctly Brazilian feel—fashionable, colorful, and sensual.

Brazilian designers feel less constrained by American and European “traditional” ideas about jewelry. In the country that’s home to the Amazon rain forest and Minas Gerais gemstone mines, jewelers frequently work with unusual materials—especially varieties of wood—in combination with precious stones.

Pepe Torras, a native of Spain and 40-year resident of Brazil, is one such designer. His collection of hand-finished wood with 18k gold and Brazilian stones is an innovative salute to the country’s natural resources. He uses and combines 14 different colors of wood, and his work is recognized around the world. Torras regularly holds exhibitions in various countries.

Though faced with challenges—including export taxes that jewelers are lobbying to change—Brazil is poised for international exposure. While consortiums regularly exhibit at major trade fairs like The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas, smaller designers frequently say they are hoping to find agents interested in distributing their jewelry abroad. The Americans who have discovered Brazilian jewelry, meanwhile, call it one of the jewelry world’s best-kept secrets.