Jewelry Retailing: Italians Do It Differently

Jewelry retailing in Italy looks a bit like 1950s America: small, family-owned firms with one, or at most two or three, storefronts.

But there the resemblance ends. The Italian jewelry market is vastly different from the U.S. market. Italian consumers are better educated about jewelry, own more jewelry per capita and pay more per piece than U.S. consumers.

One telling example is the number of jewelry stores compared with the population in the two countries. Italy has 58.1 million people and just over 20,000 jewelry stores, says Francoise Izaute, director of the Diamond Information Center in Milan. By comparison, the U.S. has 261.8 million people and about 28,100 jewelry stores.

Another example is the amount of gold used annually. Italians consume 110 tons of fine gold annually, compared with 30-40 tons for many other countries, says Claudio Pagani, jewelry division manager for the World Gold Council in Europe.

Underlying the figures is a centuries-old affinity for fine jewelry and design excellence in Italy, whose northern region – now home to the jewelry-making centers of Vicenza, Valenza and Arezzo – once cradeled the Renaissance.

Style-conscious: The focus on design excellence continues today. In fact, much of the world’s leading fashion design now comes from Milan, not Paris. This, combined with the tradition of la bella figura, or always putting one’s best face forward, makes Italian consumers extremely conscious of looking good. Italians are taught good grooming and elegant dress habits in their childhood; by the time they reach their 20s, they have a well-defined sense of individual style. This sense of style demands good, interesting design in jewelry.

Italian women begin to acquire jewelry while very young – some even at birth. “Italian women don’t feel ready without jewelry,” says Izaute. “It’s part of the culture.”

While women in the U.S. typically acquire their first piece of diamond jewelry when they become engaged, their Italian counterparts typically acquire it much earlier.

Italians also are ahead of Americans in ownership of gold jewelry. Seventy-nine percent of Italian women own five or more pieces of gold jewelry, compared with 69% of American women, says John Calnon, director of merchandise planning for the World Gold Council Americas. While 39% of the Italians plan to acquire more gold jewelry in the coming year, only 35% of Americans do. And don’t forget that 18 karat is the minimum for gold jewelry in Italy.

Like their American counterparts, Italian consumers also are growing more interested in platinum, especially in bridal jewelry. “Platinum offers revamped design and added value in wedding bands,” says Wilma Vigano, who heads the Platinum Guild International’s office in Milan. The number of Italian manufacturers offering a line of platinum wedding bands has grown from 20 a few years ago to an estimated 60 this year. Indeed 3,500 retail jewelry stores in Italy now offer a comprehensive selection of platinum jewelry, she says.

In color, Italian consumers prefer emerald, ruby and sapphire, say retailers. Pearls and cameos also are popular. Less popular but gaining appreciation are fine qualities of amethyst, aquamarine, garnet and lapis.

Regarding display and merchandising, Italian jewelers are masters. As in the U.S., some jewelers fill their windows and cases with jewelry while others highlight just a few important pieces. But the Italians pay special attention to artful arrangements accented with props such as scarves or unusual color and textured fixtures. Often a light fixture is as much an artistic focus as the objects it illuminates. The Italians also pay great attention to packaging – usually a piece is ready for gift presentation without any further enhancement.

Retailing types: Segmentation of the jewelry market also differs. In Italy, prestige names such as Bulgari and Buccellati enjoy the same market position they have around the world. (Pagani, of the World Gold Council in Europe, estimates Italy has about 1,000 of these top-level stores.)

On the next level, midmarket or upper midmarket jewelry stores in Italy would be considered high-end in the U.S. (Pagani estimates there are about 5,000 of these stores.)

The rest of Italy’s jewelry stores are considered mass market, though they bear more resemblance to a U.S. midmarket store. For example, Splendori of Milan, the new retail division of wholesaler Faro, focuses on affordably priced jewelry (less than US$50 to more than $10,000 retail) for working women. The store is large by any standards (about 4,550 sq. ft. of selling space) and huge by Italian standards.

Distribution in Italy is like the old days in the U.S. About 85% of all jewelry sold goes from manufacturer to wholesaler to retailer. The rest goes directly from manufacturer to retailer or through the retail shops of some very upscale manufacturers.

Most of the manufacturing is done by small, family-owned businesses. Of an estimated 6,000 jewelry manufacturers in Italy, only about 300 are industrial size, with more than a couple of dozen workers, says Pagani.

Who buys fine jewelry? In Italy, everybody. While women in other European countries will wear bold, expensive costume jewelry, Italian women want the real thing, says Izaute of the Diamond Information Center. In addition, Italian men are more likely than their American counterparts to wear jewelry.

“A good percentage of our jewelry is purchased by a man as a gift to a woman,” says Lorenzo Buccellati, chairman of Federico Buccellati, the luxury jewelry house in Rome and Milan. “But in our case, since our jewelry is bought to be a family heirloom and a good percentage of it is custom made, often the man and the woman buy it together.” Anselmo Grimoldi, who has two jewelry and watch stores near the tourist area of Milan, says his sales are about evenly split between men and women and that the women are often buying a gift for a man. And at Splendori, women are more frequent purchasers than men, and they spend more per purchase than men, says director Renaldo Scloza.

Compare these findings to the U.S., where women buy jewelry for themselves more often but generally spend less than their Italian counterparts.

Another difference is what people buy. Women who buy jewelry for themselves tend to buy rings in Italy, earrings in the U.S. And while yellow gold is still the market leader in Italy, Italians are more willing than Americans to experiment with other colors. Yellow/white gold combinations are very popular in Italy, as are pink/white gold, pink gold/platinum and yellow gold/platinum.

Regional taste preferences are one thing that Italian and U.S. jewelry markets seem to have in common. In both countries, southern customers gravitate to bigger hair, bolder jewelry and brighter clothes, while northern consumers have a more subdued, understated style. Analysts in both countries say regional preferences have their roots in climate and culture. Both countries are warmer, sunnier and more agricultural in the south, cooler and more industrial in the north.