Color Evolution: The Spectrum Awards at 25

Few factors in the environment influence people’s emotions more than color. Temperature and humidity affect comfort, and smell is a powerful memory trigger, but only color has the power to energize, soothe, cheer, or subdue a mood. Ironically, however, diamond jewelry—without color—is far more frequently marketed on the basis of emotion than color gemstone jewelry.

Since 1981, the American Gem Trade Association has encouraged both jewelers and consumers to add more color to their jewelry boxes. Although diamond jewelry still accounts for 40 to 50 percent of U.S. jewelry sales, color has gained ground, especially in the designer sector.

In many ways, AGTA’s Spectrum Awards design competition reflects the growth and development of designer jewelry in the United States. While neither is responsible for the other, the timing of both coincides with rising awareness of design and quality in the general consumer marketplace.

Douglas Hucker, chief executive officer of Dallas-based AGTA, says the increase in consumer sophistication became evident in the early 1980s across a variety of categories besides jewelry, including wine, clothing, tabletop, art, and home decor. A renaissance of color in general was part of this movement, and both AGTA and the Spectrum Awards were a natural outgrowth.

AGTA was established in 1981 when a group of gemstone dealers came together in Tucson, Ariz., and realized they needed to promote themselves. “Our industry was driven by the popular gemstones, period,” says Hucker. “Newness wasn’t driven by fashion, but by margins.”

The Spectrum competition was created two years later to create awareness of color gemstone jewelry in general, beyond the traditional ruby, emerald, and sapphire. The category, says Hucker, suffered from the classic “chicken or egg” syndrome: Consumers didn’t buy much color, because there wasn’t enough to choose from, but designers didn’t create it, because not enough people were buying it.

Twenty-five years later, there’s been a total turnaround. The popularity of color gemstones is enhanced by the popularity of color in fashion, home furnishings, and other categories. “We’re at a point now where consumers have become educated about color, from TV [jewelry] sales and the ubiquitous presence of color everywhere,” Hucker says.

Getting down to more practical matters, margin still has a lot to do with the increasing popularity of color in jewelry. Consumers love diamonds, but shrinking margins make it difficult for jewelers to earn a living from diamonds alone.

Hucker also touts color gemstone jewelry’s fun factor, noting that inexpensive material can be carved into briolettes, beads, and other fashion-focused designs. Indeed, AGTA’s Cutting Edge competition—a companion to Spectrum—not only helps jewelers appreciate excellent gem cutting but also has sparked a renaissance of cabochon cutting, which allows lapidaries to use lesser gem material to make beautiful stones without worrying about inclusions.

The Spectrum Awards competition also gives emerging designers a showcase for their talents. Many of the designer jewelry sector’s early notables, such as Jean-Francois Albert, Michael Bondanza, Henry Dunay, Judith Evans, Jose Hess, Cornelis Hollander, and William Schraft are on the roster of Spectrum winners. Today, emerging designers, retailers, and other talented jewelers and lapidaries take their place alongside well-known winners like Erica Courtney, Alan Friedman, Mark Schneider, Robert Wander, and Stephen Webster.

From Wild to Wearable

There has been an evolution in color gemstone jewelry design. The Spectrum competition used to be mainly about avant-garde design. Winning pieces made a major statement about color but weren’t necessarily wearable or reproducible, notes Hucker. They may have been beautiful art, but they weren’t helping build the color jewelry business.

That changed as the competition matured. Although each year’s entries still include spectacular one-off designs, many more are wearable. The addition of specific-occasion categories such as bridal and daywear has helped, as have awards such as Platinum Honors (sponsored by Platinum Guild International) and Manufacturing Honors, which emphasize wearable pieces. Today, even classic design benefits from the competition. Some of the 2008 winners are very Victorian, says Hucker.

In the 25 years since Spectrum’s launch, a design-driven culture has emerged in the United States. In the early ’80s, good design was hard to find at a mass level. Today, as a result of the media, the Internet, and the proliferation of design-centric retailers, American consumers are not only more aware of good design but also have access to well-designed goods regardless of income.

Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, a leading color research and forecasting center, credits colored diamonds as one key driver of color trends. Although it’s hard to know if the Spectrum competition has sparked any general color trends, Hucker says it did launch the big, bold statement ring. The concept got a push from the Diamond Trading Company’s right-hand-ring campaign, he says, but it was Spectrum that drove the big-ring trend.

“Just as Oscar winners influence other movies being made, winners in important competitions influence production of other pieces in that arena,” Hucker explains. Trends are important, but, Hucker adds, salespeople must know how to interpret them for customers.

Another trend driven by the Spectrum competition is multihued pieces. Early in the competition, there were more single-color, single-stone pieces, whereas today there is much more mixing of colors in both Spectrum entries and in color gemstone jewelry in general. Blues, greens, and pinks have led the trends, but fashion-driven colors such as cinnamon or yellow often show up in Spectrum entries, says Hucker. Blue is always the most popular color in the competition, and tourmaline is the most frequent gemstone among winning pieces. This year’s competition was notable for an explosion of moonstone—feminine, appealing, versatile, and, most of all, affordable.

For the first time, this year’s Spectrum competition will include a consumer element. AGTA is working with MVI Marketing, Paso Robles, Calif., to establish a Consumers’ Choice award. All entries were put on MVI’s Jewelry Consumer Opinion Council advisory Web site for its panel of consumers to select their favorite, one in each of Spectrum’s five categories.

Consumer input gives AGTA further insight into what will sell. “There is demand on behalf of the consumer,” says Hucker. “They want something unique, something that makes a statement. A woman wants a piece of jewelry that makes people look at her, that expresses her taste and who she is.”