Fashion’s Newest Star

Pop Quiz: What blonde Gen X actress co-starred in the movie Hanging Up? What is the premise of the television program Will and Grace?What cable television series has made Sarah Jessica Parker an icon of urban 30-somethings? Think the answers to these questions are irrelevant to the independent jeweler’s business?

Think again.

The fine jewelry industry’s up-and-coming customers are constantly scrutinizing television and film stars. What celebrities wear influences the fashion market and, thanks to stepped up publicity, the jewelry industry, as well. Need anyone say more than two words-“tin cup”-to prove that a picture, especially a motion picture, is worth a thousand hard-bought words? SinceTin Cup necklace designer Wendy Brigode and her fashion-minded colleagues blew a layer of dust and stodginess off the pearl industry, pearl people have become attuned to the new reality. Today, fashion-forward designers like Robert Lee Morris are pushing the envelope with designs that mix pearls with semiprecious (or non-precious) materials, fashion editors are loading up their models with pearl jewelry, and more celebrities are appearing on screen and in magazines adorned in pearls.

In the filmHanging Up, Lisa Kudrow, co-starring with Meg Ryan, Walter Matthau, and Diane Keaton, played a type she’s made famous on television-a slightly off-kilter, late 20-something searching for a path to career and romance. What Kudrow also has made famous, both on-screen and off, is a sense of style that Gen X women have come to look to for guidance and inspiration. So when she spent five minutes on camera wearing Tahitian pearl jewelry, it was more than just a nudge for pearls, it was a major coup. According to the Cultured Pearl Information Center’s celebrity placement firm, Kudrow’s pearl turn reached an estimated 19.86 million Americans and had as much impact as $1,011,736 worth of advertising.

Among those nearly 20 million viewers were representatives of every community across the country.

Celebrity placement and television and film exposure have been identified as the impetus behind the huge demand for pearl station necklaces and their derivatives.Tin Cup, a moderately successful film at best, drove a trend that turned pearls into one of fashion’s hottest components. Around the same time as the film’s run in theaters (and the start of the necklace’s run in the marketplace), the entire industry began a major undertaking to heighten the profile of fine jewelry.

Diamond marketers, brand-name jewelers, and even small designers are running alongside pearl promoters in the race to get the hottest celebrities to wear their jewels. As everyone clamors to get the biggest stars to wear certain jewelry for high-profile events, the benefits are trickling down to even the smallest retailers across the country. Pearl sales have seen double-digit increases for seven years and show no signs of slowing. The past three years, meanwhile, have witnessed strong growth in fashionable pearl jewelry-from Tahitians and akoyas to the reasonably priced freshwaters that are luring costume jewelry designers (and new customers) into the realm of fine jewelry.

Helping to drive the pearl boom is a concerted effort by the Cultured Pearl Information Center, the publicity arm of the pearl industry, to boost exposure. In 1997, CPIC hired a firm to handle TV and movie product placements. Since then, a wide variety of audiences-from the teenage fans of shows likePopular to the more sophisticated patrons of the Harrison Ford filmRandom Hearts -have found themselves gazing at pearls as they watch their favorite stars.

“Television and film placement has always been around to a certain degree, but it’s becoming a more standardized practice in marketing,” says Cultured Pearl Information Center director Devin Macnow. “For us, it’s putting pearls in the public eye. Even though it’s subliminal, it’s still there.”

It’s no surprise that this trend is sweeping through the fine jewelry industry. From virtually every marketplace, the American public is inundated with celebrity endorsements. Endorsement king Michael Jordan may not be a spokesmodel for the fine jewelry industry, but a year ago nobody would have believed that Brad Pitt-Damiani’s newest face-would be.

Each product exposure in a film or on television is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in pearl marketing. For example, CPIC’s marketing company reports $6.5 million worth of Tahitian pearl placements during the one-year period beginning April 1999. And that represents less than half the total-the value of placements for akoya, South Seas, and Tahitian pearls combined is estimated at $17.5 million for the same period.

Sign of the time. Natural. Elegant. Graceful. Understated. Luxurious. These are the words that describe not only pearls but also fashion, interior décor, automobiles, attitude, and a lot more at the start of the 21st century. As a result, pearls are becoming the darling of both the jewelry industry and American culture at large.

In the world of fashion, for example, models in a new ad campaign for the Bebe clothing line wear pearls. From the world of business,Barron’s magazine recently used the image of a pearl on its cover. In luxury watches, a recent Rolex ad campaign featured pearl oysters.

While Macnow and the Cultured Pearl Information Center deserve credit for the promotion of pearls, the gems have gained a momentum nearly all their own. Consumer magazine fashion editors’ requests for pearl jewelry to use in photo shoots are on the rise, as is the use of pearls on fashion runways. Designer Michael Kors, who adorned his fall/winter collection with pearl accessories, calls the gem an appropriate symbol of today’s urban luxe attitude.

Macnow predicts that the pearl trend will continue strong through at least spring 2001, as fashion and culture are interpreted through upscale and luxurious products.

“I think there’s this movement afoot,” he says. “Pearls fit the elegant dressing that’s come since the death of grunge.”

New designs offer fresh attitude. Though conservative pearl designs remain staples in jewelry stores across the country, the fashionista image of the gems is nudging aside the idea of grandma’s string of pearls. At the high-end and designer market segments, newfangled pearl designs are seen in some unusual combinations of pearls and pearls, pearls and

gemstones, or pearls and other materials. Even tradition-steeped institutions like Mikimoto-which this year added new fashion-oriented lines-are approaching pearls from a fashion perspective.

Pearls of all varieties were on the fashion runways for fall and winter. Whether it’s a simple strand, a long station necklace, or a solitaire necklace, pearl jewelry is the fashion statement for the season. Many of the styles shown by designers-wearable clothes like tweeds and structured suits-work well with classic pearl strands, usually worn around the neck or wrist in multi-strand configurations.

According to Macnow, the major upcoming trends are mixed varieties of pearl (such as South Seas and freshwaters) together on a strand and combinations of pearls with semiprecious or precious gemstones.

Golden pearls are another strong direction, a spin-off from fashion’s trend toward a warmer palette and the general trend toward yellow gold jewelry.

At the high end of the market, chandelier and bib-style creations in akoya pearls are hot. Freshwater pearls, meanwhile, are sparking an uproar throughout the market. Whether combined with their pricier Tahitian and akoya relatives or going it alone, the new, rounder freshwaters give consumers at all economic levels an authentic precious gem at an affordable price.