O’Connor Tapped to Head PGI P.R.

Michael O’Connor, a veteran public relations and marketing specialist in the jewelry industry, has been named senior vice president of Platinum Guild International in the United States. He will be responsible for all of PGI-USA’s public relations as well as trade relations in the eastern United States.

Prior to joining PGI, O’Connor held high-level marketing positions with Goldstein Communications, managed the jewelry and watch department of Gucci’s Fifth Avenue store, was a freelance jewelry designer for a time, and spent 10 years with bridal jewelry manufacturer Frederick Goldman, where he helped develop the firm’s branding strategies. In an exclusive interview with JCK, he talks about PGI’s global branding and marketing plans, the metal’s seemingly stagnant position in the United States, and how the American PGI office is addressing both issues.

Supply vs. demand. In the decades between World War II and 1992, platinum had a minimal presence in the market. But since 1992, when PGI opened an office in the United States, platinum jewelry has enjoyed phenomenal (1,500%) growth. In recent years, however, demand for the metal seemed to level off, but O’Connor says that’s not true—rather, the problem was on the supply side.

“Research that PGI has done shows there’s immense demand for platinum, but the supply isn’t there to meet the demand.” The issue is twofold, he says: Designers and manufacturers perceive the metal as difficult to work with, and sales associates at the retail level aren’t trained or knowledgeable enough to answer customers’ questions about it. “They’re equipped some, but not enough,” he says.

Among the new initiatives under way at PGI is a training program for sales associates. As for manufacturers’ contention that the metal is difficult to work with, O’Connor wants to debunk that notion, too: “It’s different [from gold], but not difficult!” He says PGI’s in-house technical expert, Jurgen Maerz, is available to assist with any manufacturing or bench question.

Branding. PGI has launched a global branding campaign, positioning the metal in terms of its purity, rarity, and other attributes. Both the American office and the guild worldwide have been retrenching and taking a hard look at the brand, a process that’s now complete.

“PGI [in London] has done a phenomenal job globalizing the brand, consolidating its vision, mission statement, and imagery around the world. It’s been defining the DNA of the brand. No matter where it’s shown, the focus will be the same throughout the world,” says O’Connor. “The campaign relates to why people give jewelry in the first place—its rarity and emotional appeal—but these are also actual attributes of the metal.”

He sees PGI in a partnership role with manufacturers and designers. “A lot of small brands in the jewelry industry are falling by the wayside because they can’t sustain [a branding effort]. It’s great that they have a product, but you need a distribution channel, you have to have salespeople trained, you have to build excitement about the product, and you have to have customers come through the door. You have to close the loop. That’s what’s so exciting for me—it’s not just creating demand, because PGI did that [since 1992], but to close the loop. It’s really about targeting.”

The initial emphasis—as it was in 1992—will be the bridal market. “From everything I’ve learned over the years, there’s a tremendous window of opportunity [with a couple getting married]. People remain loyal to the brands they try at that time,” O’Connor says. And, having acquired platinum bridal jewelry, they’ll want to build on their collections in the future. That being said, however, O’Connor still feels there’s a place for fashion. “Even if bridal is the focus, you can’t ignore fashion. After all, bridal has a fashion element to it.” He wants to make sure the metal remains top-of-mind with important fashion stylists who dress celebrities for the various awards programs.

He’s aware of the role celebrities play in consumers’ minds. “I think people always look to icons to help define their own style,” he explains. “What a lot of people put together for fashion is what they see on celebrities or on the red carpet, etc. It’s sort of an endorsement halo.”

Platinum value. Will platinum join the ever-growing parade of luxury brands targeting the entry-level luxury consumer? “It’s about creating a value equation,” explains O’Connor. Platinum may be a bit more expensive, but the real question is whether the customer thinks the metal is worth the extra expense. The ad campaign touches on the reasons people give jewelry and ties those into the metal’s attributes. At the same time, it addresses some cost issues from a design perspective, such as the use of platinum pendants on leather cords. O’Connor cites a similar approach taken by Gucci when silver prices soared: The company got around the sudden increase in costs by incorporating wood into its jewelry designs. “There are so many different design techniques to be employed.”

The bottom line, he says, is the perception of value. “Whether you’re spending $1 million or $100, nobody wants anything less than value for their money.”