Is Business Good? Ask These 18,000 Enthusiastic Buyers

The 7th annual JCK Show in Las Vegas last month was the biggest yet, with 17,862 buyers crowding the aisles at the giant Sands Expo and Convention Center. That represented a stunning 25% jump over the 1997 attendance of 14,226. There was also a 30% increase in the number of retail outlets sending buyers.

Exhibitors, using comments like “terrific traffic” and “best show yet,” said attendees were in a buying mood, which augurs well for a strong 1998 among retailers. Membership recruitment by organizations such as the American Gem Society also surged past expected targets.

Show organizers and exhibitors alike attributed the big turnout largely to the vibrant economy, the booming stock market, and growing consumer willingness to spend on luxury items.

The show is becoming increasingly international, with visitors this year from 63 countries, up from 47 in 1997. Some 120 buyers came from Australia alone. There were also more than 400 exhibitors from 21 countries.

No giant trade show escapes a snafu, and this one was no different: A malfunctioning transformer dimmed lights at booths on the first floor all five days. Nevertheless, exhibitors stayed steadily busy writing orders.

While buying and selling are always the focus at Las Vegas, the pre-show educational sessions drew hundreds of jewelers who spent two days honing their retailing and gemological skills. Subjects were wide-ranging, including how to attract more customers and understanding emerald treatments. New this year was a session encompassing 10 roundtable discussions on mom-and-pop stores, repair departments, and other topics.

Dates for upcoming JCK shows were announced. The 1999 Orlando show will be held Feb. 6-9 at the Orange County Convention Center. The 1999 Las Vegas show will take place June 2-8, again at the Sands. The educational Conference Program runs June 2 and 3; exhibits open Friday, June 4. The Expo Center in Las Vegas will have expanded by next year, but any additional space obtained by the show will be offered to the current maximum of 2,200 exhibitors.

The big news in diamonds: ideal cuts and coloreds

As business boomed throughout The JCK Show, the focus on diamonds shifted to quality and “distinctiveness” – mainly in the form of ideal cuts and colored diamonds.

Diamond dealers and jewelry manufacturers reported that solitaires were the hottest diamond item at the show and that ideal cuts were the fastest-growing trend in diamonds.

“There’s a substantial increase in demand for better makes, and in rounds that means ideal cuts,” said Sheldon David of American Diamond Syndicate in New York.

Until a few years ago, ideal cuts were considered a specialty item confined to American Gem Society retailers and a few others. But most of the diamond dealers at this year’s show were offering ideal or near-ideal cuts. There are several reasons for the cut’s resurging popularity:

  • Ideal cuts have been getting more publicity, and consumers are growing more knowledgeable about diamonds and jewelry quality.

  • The AGS Gem Lab, which offers a cut grade on its diamond grading reports, has created more awareness of them.

  • Competition has driven premiums on ideals over more commercial cuts down to 10% or less from a traditional 15% to 20%.

  • They offer better value than larger diamonds with lesser makes.

  • Internet services such as Polygon are including much more cut and proportion information.

David credited the AGS lab for much of the ideal boom. “It’s becoming a major factor in the industry,” he said. “The AGS ‘0’ cut grade is becoming the standard for the ideal.” AGS assigns a diamond a cut grade on a scale from 0 to 10, with the former having the “most ideal” proportions – 57% table, 34.5 degree crown angle, etc. – and descending to a poor make, which carries a 10 grade. “Consumers are hearing about the AGS ‘0’ and starting to ask for it,” David said.

Allen Lipscher of Global Diamond in Chicago offered another take on the cut’s growing popularity. “For years everyone concentrated on color and clarity as a measure of diamond quality. That’s fine if you are dealing top-grade goods. But if you’re selling middle colors and clarities, then you don’t have anything positive on which to sell the stone. If you have an ideal cut in the middle color and clarity range, it not only looks much better than a commercial make, but you can tell customers it’s the best as far as cut goes.”

Just before the show began, the ideal cut received a boost with a major article in the Wall Street Journal about the Boston-based Hearts on Fire diamond program marketed by Di-Star. Jack Gredinger, who heads the Hearts on Fire marketing program, said the article underscores the interest consumers have in the “ultimate diamond make.”

Hearts on Fire is actually a package program for retailers. It includes a special proportion-viewing device that screens out white light, allowing the viewer to see the “hearts and arrows” indicating a “perfect” cut.

Gredinger stressed that the AGS “0” grade is only one part of a three-part cut grade – proportion. Symmetry and finish also need to be “0” as well for the stone to be a true ideal. All Hearts on Fire diamonds are “triple 0.” Gredinger said that many other companies claiming to offer ideal cuts and AGS “0” makes score that grade only on the proportion.

Apart from AGS stores, few retailers at the show said they’re converting fully to ideals. Most said that a mix of commercial cuts and ideals allows them to offer a choice of various qualities. Hearts on Fire diamonds carry a 20% premium over commercial makes of comparable quality.

Discount ideals also were available at the show in the form of fracture-filled stones from Yehuda Diamond Co. of New York. Yehuda premiered its line of ideals at the show “in response to many customer requests,” said Dror Yehuda, who claimed to have 500 diamonds “of AGS 0 parameters” in stock. Prices were 40% below non-filled ideals. “We’re filling a need for customers who want ideal cuts at a lower price point.”

Coloreds shine bright. There were more colored diamonds on display at the show than in all previous six shows combined, dealers believe – from very, very costly blues and pinks to more affordable yellows to cheaper brownish yellows.

Robert Golask of Rahaminov Diamonds in Los Angeles sold an array of pinks and yellows, including a 5-ct. yellow square cut ring. “Many more people are aware of them today, and retailers are looking for something unique to set themselves apart from the commodity-type price competition in diamonds,” he explained. They’re also for consumers who aren’t intimidated by price; the cost of pinks and blues can be 20 to 40 times that of a quality white diamond. Yellows are more affordable but still not a popular-priced item, unless laced with brown or unattractive in color.

“Most people who ask about them are prepared to hear higher prices,” said Golask. Customers for such stones are rarely first-time diamond owners.

“Many retailers are interested now because there’s no price list, like there is with white diamonds. They can make more from them if they understand them,” said Joseph Schlussel of Diamond Registry in New York.

Falling demand for expensive coloreds in Asia also contributed to the abundance of stones at Las Vegas. “The only good [colored diamond] market left there is Taiwan, and even that’s been dropping,” said one dealer.

Gem news: Kasumigas, Price Guide, Moissanite

Two pearl merchants exhibited the newest Japanese cultured pearl from a fresh-water lake just 50 miles northeast of Tokyo. The bead nucleated gems are extraordinary, showing high luster and beautiful color range from pure light pink through a medium-dark pinkish purple, with few spots and decent roundness.

According to Schoeffel Pearl Culture of Stuttgart, Germany, importers of fine South Seas pearls, the “Kasumiga” pearl (named for Lake Kasumigaura) mollusk is a Japanese and Chinese mixture. From the Japanese shell, the pearl inherits its size and structure. And from the Chinese shell, the pearl picks up its fine luster and natural pink color.

Its shape is also quite stunning, since with fresh-water mollusks round pearls are an exception to the rule. Implanted with a mother-of-pearl bead, the Kasumiga pearls can grow as large as 15 to 16 mm. Few are smaller than 10 mm.

Japanese Kasumigas are also being marketed in the United States by Cybel Trading Corp. of New York.

New pricing guide for enhanced gems. Richard Drucker, president of Gemworld International of Northbrook, Ill., and publisher of the pricing reference book The Guide, has introduced what could be the first pricing structure for enhanced gems. In a seemingly unprecedented move, Drucker has added enhancement categories – unheated, heated, surface infilling (unintentionally filled), and fracture filling (intentionally filled) – for rubies and sapphires. The categories for emeralds are untreated as well as slight, moderate, and extensive levels of treatment.

“By talking to dealers, we realize that there are price differences,” said Drucker, who gives seminars on enhancement. “And we also realize that it’s an evolving situation, so these percentages won’t be permanent.”

Drucker has found that unenhanced gems are now selling at a premium over his “list” prices for emerald, ruby, and sapphire. For example, unheated sapphire of fine quality is going for 5% to 10% above The Guide’s list value; prices could be even higher for “exceptional gems.” Because most sapphires are heated, The Guide’s list value is for heat-treated sapphires with no filling of fractures.

The same holds true for emeralds. Values in The Guide represent stones with slight enhancement; the new list puts emeralds with no enhancement at values at least 10% to 15% higher than The Guide. Emeralds with moderate enhancement are valued at 10% to 15% lower than The Guide’s list for fine-quality emeralds.

“Jewelers today are being asked to perform at a higher level than GIA’s lab,” Drucker said. “GIA only discloses the presence of enhancement, but does not identify what it is. I’ve been doing a lot of appraising, and now people want to know, is it oil or is it opticon? Jewelers really have their backs against the wall to identify and price these things.”

Moissanite is finally here, C3 says. Machines that detect synthetic moissanite have been available for months, but the diamond substitute itself hasn’t materialized. Now that situation is being rectified, according to C3 Inc. president Jeff Hunter. At The JCK Show, he said “thousands of pieces” were scheduled to be shipped in June to two initial markets, Atlanta and Miami. The 3- to 8-mm gems weigh 0.10 to 1.65 cts.

“Several years ago, we decided to educate” the retail jewelry trade before releasing the gemstone into the market, Hunter explained. But retailers have complained that the lag time between education and delivery has been protracted. Some even suspect that there’s no product. The C3 synthetic moissanite tester, the most expensive available at more than $500, has been extensively marketed.

“We’re creating a consumer market with support for retailers [before the product is shipped],” said Richard French, head of the public relations firm for C3. “If you don’t help the retailer, it’s not going to help the sale [of the stone]. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”

French is planning a strong media package for consumers. Synthetic moissanite is being marketed as a unique gem, not a diamond substitute. Ad copy for the gem includes lines such as “a gemstone so rare in nature, it had to be created by man,” and “Moissanite – originally brilliant.”

Design: Serious jewelry is back

It’s undeniable. Important jewelry is back in vogue. It made design news at three major spring shows: the Basel fair, the Couture Collection and Conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., and The JCK Show. Jewelry designers and manufacturers are expressing as much confidence in their consumers as they are in their designs, resulting in show halls filled with pieces making big statements instead of practically apologizing for being jewelry.

The most noticeable design shift in Las Vegas was a return to color. White metals and diamond pavé were prominent at Couture and in Basel, but in Las Vegas it seemed that while both have taken a permanent place in the showcase, they were not the biggest newsmakers.

After a few years on the back burner, yellow gold and colored gemstones looked fresh again.

The newest combinations featured bright tones of yellow gold with a soft surface texture treatment and lighter shades of color, especially peridot, which is enjoying an unprecedented surge in popularity. Other favorites were tsavorite garnet, green tourmaline, aquamarine, amethyst, and a noticeable presence of lime citrine as a lower-priced alternative to costly Mali garnet.

The predominant color palette was cool, but there was some representation of warm gem tones like yellow citrine, fire opal, and rubellite tourmaline. Garnets and sapphires in a variety of tones were popular gemstone choices.

Color gradation is a trend to watch. It began to show up in apparel about a year ago, and in jewelry the look first surfaced in Basel and again at Couture. Most of the pieces featured a single hue in an ombré from light to dark, or in different levels and layers of tone-on-tone. In Las Vegas, designers also began playing with rainbow gradations or multiple shades in the same family, such as blue-into-green.

Pearls continue to be popular. The newest pearl looks were – not surprisingly – combined with yellow gold or colored gemstones.

Colored pearls, especially fresh-water and baroque varieties, were shown in thick torsades with interesting clasp treatments.

The leading design influence right now is the turn of the 19th century, including touches of Victorian, Art Nouveau, Edwardian, and Art Deco styles. Design motifs centered on nature themes like flowers and insects, especially butterflies. Drops are big news, attached to everything from multi-strand chokers to small single-row collars, as well as brooches, earrings, and asymmetrical slip-on pieces with a single off-center drop.

Drops ranged from antique reproduction styles to bezel-set, modern interpretations. Alternative styles to drops were lariats and bolos in gold, with fringed ends.

Even modern, sculptural designs often had a noticeable influence of turn-of-the-century style. For example, a huge platinum, diamond, and pearl bib by Robert Lee Morris featured his signature puffy, sculpted metalwork, but the piece’s individual modules were connected in an open, orderly fashion reminiscent of the grand collars of old.

In the Design Center, delicate and feminine looks continued. A new influence here, however, was folded metal. Sometimes two edges were brought together to form the setting for a gemstone; in other pieces, the metal was folded or twisted to add depth and dimension to the design.

Other trends of note:

  • ornamentation with Greek key motifs, scrolls, arabesques, and engraving;

  • basketweaves, braiding, and meshes, with diamond and gemstone accents;

  • colored gemstones in platinum as well as in yellow gold; and

  • increasing numbers of designers launching “boutique” or secondary lines in silver and gold.

Watches: Dizzying range of new styles and brands

Exciting new brands and types of watches made their debuts at Las Vegas, and one of the celebrities promoting a brand – Cindy Crawford for Omega – was the talk of the show.

The focus on elegance was pronounced. Bangles were the finest example. Fashionable bangle watches are the counter-trend to sports watches. The trend was sparked by brands like Anne Klein and Gucci. Feminine high fashion also got a boost from watches such as Baume & Mercier’s gold “Catwalk” and the new St. John “Marie” watch.

“I think what we’re seeing is either ultra-contemporary or ultra-retro,” said Seiko’s Cheri McKenzie. “Some of these styles are influenced by the 1970s, but they are perceived as contemporary. It’s a return to elegance rather than dressy.”

On the tech front, titanium stood tall. From Citizen’s titanium Eco Drive collections to Sector’s titanium Dive Team watch, this lightweight metal is proving to be a heavyweight as it bursts into the mainstream.

Bulova broke technology barriers with alarm watches that utilize vibration as well as sound. Armitron’s talking Mel Blanc Voice Watches spoke loudly, as did Lorus’s touch sensor laughing watches featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, courtesy of Disney. Solar and dual-time-zone watches also came forward.

Brand power. Cyma, a watch brand its retailers swear by, is broadening its horizons with a jewelry line under the name Sequoia. The Sequoia line showcases a distinctive style of earrings, rings, bracelets, and pendants.

St. John and Apple computers are among the new brands leaping into the watch market. Via distributor Swiss Army Brands of Shelton, Conn., St. John launched an elegant women’s line of timepieces from $50 to $18,000 with diamonds. Beverly Hills, Calif.-based Sportime unveiled Apple Watches, retailing from $40 to $50, which include a kids’ line and a line showcasing familiar Apple logos like the “bomb” and the “trash.” Sportime also launched the Side Watch, a colorful line for younger consumers – worn on the side of the wrist, rather than on top.

Wheeling, Ill.-based Genender’s Kermit Collection paid homage to the king of frogs. Featuring Kermit and his fellow Muppets Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Animal, the line is directed toward baby boomers who grew up with “Sesame Street.” It retails from $35 to $65.

Prime Time Watch Co. of New York launched Halston designer watches, Swiss-made steel timepieces from $175 to $500, slated to hit fine jewelry and department stores in September. Also from Prime Time came Hush Puppies watches, priced at $50 to $65 and boasting the same colors and genuine waterproof suede (on straps) as the retro shoes.

Building Timepieces by Projects of Woburn, Mass., launched concept watches, in which famous architects re-create their famous 20th-century museum designs on a timepiece. Designed for specialty retailers, these are $100 each.

What’s Your Line is not a game show, but a new line of thematic watches by Carole De Woskin Spilberg of Atlanta. They feature three-dimensional themes under the watch crystal – including basketball, tap dancing, and “new mommy.”

Stuller jumped into the watch strap business with rembordé leather bands retailing from $9.95 to $21.95. This new business is triple keystone and service oriented.