Brazil’s Bold Steps

H. Stern is the biggest jewelry brand in Brazil and the best-known Brazilian jeweler throughout the world. That status isn’t surprising—Stern has dozens of stores scattered around the globe, and its jewelry adorns Hollywood stars.

But Stern isn’t the only Brazilian jeweler longing for the international limelight. Manoel Bernardes exhibits his jewelry in Russia, and Yael Sonia shows hers in France. FR Hueb and Vancox are two others trying to break into global markets, including the United States. Meanwhile, a group of about 20 Brazilian designers visits various U.S. shows every year. All aim to grow—perhaps to Stern size.

In the last decade, the Brazilian jewelry industry has worked hard to increase its visibility and business abroad. Its innovative efforts reveal an industry that’s aware of the importance couture plays in its success. At the same time, Brazilian jewelers are addressing production and design matters that experts say are crucial to capturing well-heeled audiences overseas.

In Brazil, fine jewelry and fashion coexist harmoniously—on runways, in fashion designers’ collections, and in the efforts of jewelry-focused public relations firms. Jeweler Manoel Bernardes, for example, places jewelry on models during fashion shows—most recently in June 2005 and January 2006—and employs two stylists to help him. Brazilian clothing designers and stylists, such as Walter Rodrigues for Forum Romano, frequently design jewelry lines for jewelry companies to produce, which generates additional interest in those companies. And the Brazilian Gems and Jewelry Trade Association (IBGM) organizes fashion shows and open jewelry showrooms and also garners press coverage for the industry. “IBGM develops programs to promote jewelry in the fashion world,” says Hecliton Santini Henriques, president of the organization.

As a result of such initiatives, Brazilian jewelers are poised for growth in high-end jewelry markets abroad. IBGM has boosted promotion of its biannual Feninjer show in recent years, and international attendance increased in response. Brazilian designers also exhibit at U.S. jewelry shows. As a result, jewelry exports between the United States and Brazil have increased more than 200 percent since 2000, according to IBGM.

Despite those efforts, the notion of Brazilian jewelry as a global luxury product has yet to take firm root. The key question: Can cultures other than Brazil’s appreciate Brazilian designs? Those designs typically feature large colored gemstones, 18k yellow gold, long curvy silhouettes, and motifs from nature. “Brazilian women, like Italian women, are extremely confident and glamorous in their style,” says Paola DeLuca, co-founder and creative director, Trends Jewellery Forecasting, Arezzo, Italy. “But not every culture is able to carry off big, bold, colorful designs.”

American culture is one that, in general, has yet to embrace Brazilian jewelry. Although Brazilian designs appeal to a small number of consumers, they aren’t widely distributed.

Another issue for the Brazilian jewelry industry is the need to improve the quality of construction and the quality of the gemstones used. “Brazilians aren’t using the best stones, and their jewelry is too expensive for what they do,” observes Lorenz Bäumer, a longtime jewelry designer from Paris who designs lines anonymously for a well-known fashion brand. IBGM brings Bäumer to Feninjer to buy colored gemstones and speak with the design community about competing internationally. Among his tips: Work on pricing and offer a better value.

“Brazilians can’t compete on the low-cost side, because their labor is way too expensive compared with China or Thailand, and the labor in those countries is better quality than in Brazil,” he says.

Brazilian designers craft most of their collections with local markets in mind. Brazilians are their first clients, and native jewelry provides overseas customers “with a new product option, as long as it is differentiated and incorporates the diversity, cheer, and movement characteristic of Brazilian jewelry,” notes Henriques. Nevertheless, there is general agreement among industry observers that Brazilian designers will have to transcend local inspiration if they want to emerge from the middle market.

Some designers are aware of the requirements of other markets and alter merchandise to suit them. One option is to strengthen thin mountings. “We put very little gold in mountings to keep costs low and to highlight the stones,” says Bernardes of his rings.

Criticisms aside, some think Brazilians are ready for global trade. Readers of Gay Gahan’s Hia, a magazine based in the United Kingdom that targets female consumers in the Middle East, already appreciate Brazilian jewelry, which debuted at a show in Bahrain in October 2004. In this market, according to Gahan, Brazilian “manufacturers are prepared to adapt their production to fit the market requirement.”

IBGM agrees. “The main Brazilian jewelry companies—mainly those who already export—are technologically qualified in both process and modern equipment,” says Henriques. “These companies are on equal terms to produce jewelry with the quality and competitive edge required by the international market.”

Besides gemstones and indigenous design talent, Brazil has another potential strength: its status as a relative newcomer in international competition. Brazil started pushing into the U.S. market in 2001, but just a few brands, such as H. Stern and Amsterdam Sauer, have their own overseas stores. This newcomer status means it has a fresh vision for jewelry, and, according to Bäumer, a “free spirit to go for anything.”

After his visit to Feninjer last August, Bäumer says the Brazilian jewelry industry is still “eager to learn” and “is very optimistic” about its future. “They have a story to tell,” he says. “It just needs some fine-tuning.”