Report from Las Vegas 2008

After waiting nervously for The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas, jewelry vendors breathed a sigh of relief when the reality proved far better than the anticipation. While foot traffic was down from previous events, the retailers who came were serious about buying. Some suppliers—Lafayette, La.–based Stuller was one—reported their best show ever.

It was a high-low show, with middle-market goods bearing the brunt of consumers’ down mood. Companies with low-price versions of high-fashion goods said those lines performed well, and ultraluxury goods continued strong. Buyers were two and three deep fighting over and bidding up big colored diamonds. Attendees at LUXURY by JCK, the invitation-only event immediately prior to the main show, also reported fewer people but solid business.

Few vendors reported a bad show in terms of business; most proclaimed their results at least satisfactory, if not outright excellent, in terms of both orders and new contacts. (A few wryly commented that they hope they get paid for the goods ordered.)

Diamonds and gemstones. One area that felt a pinch was the American Gem Trade Association pavilion, where the pace was slower than in previous years. Doug Hucker, AGTA CEO and executive director, said most of his vendors expected a slower show, understood the economic climate, and were happy with the level of business.

“Suppliers seemed to be coming to Vegas with no expectations,” says Stuart Robertson of the GemGuide. “Being there was more about making contacts that would pay off later in the year.”

According to Robertson, unusual products and special stones or pieces that required an on-the-spot decision to buy were selling, while traditional staples were not. He attributes that to shifting buying patterns in general—with toll-free numbers, online ordering, and overnight shipping, there’s no need to travel to Las Vegas to shop for bread-and-butter varieties of ruby, emerald, and sapphire.

But Jack Lynch, of Sea Hunt Pearls in San Francisco, said, “I don’t think people were going so much for the new and different,” adding that he thought most retail jewelers were buying in “safe mode.”

But Lynch did better than expected, and that, says Robertson, substantiates his view. “In a way, Jack supports my point. … He did well because his inventory is not the typical line of pearl product.”

In the diamond sector, business was mixed. Lessening demand for small goods, as well as scaled-back attendance and buying from the majors, left many Indian companies with mediocre results. But Israeli firms and some New York companies pronounced themselves pleased. Big stones are hot, and companies selling them did well. There was talk of foreign buyers coming and scooping them up.

Low expectations were a factor. One exhibitor noted that he expected to be 50 percent down; instead, he was up. But the price increases in the Rapaport Diamond Report, implemented just before the show, caused considerable confusion and may have hurt sales, some said. (See story on page 36.)

The best reports came from better-known manufacturers, particularly in the Plumb Club. One Plumb Club exhibitor pronounced the show “great” and another said “best show ever,” more evidence that the diamond market is stratifying between better-known companies and everyone else.

One interesting trend: The “greening” of the industry is in full force. Eric Braunwart, who sells fair trade gems, said he had his best show ever, and the Simmons Jewelry Co.’s booth was mobbed after Russell Simmons’s keynote address Friday morning. The businessman and philanthropist talked about his Diamond Empowerment Fund (see “An Interview With Russell Simmons,” JCK June, p. 191) and emphasized the need for the industry to give back to Africa.

Technology going strong. The Equipment, Technology Services & Supplies Pavilion started off strong on opening day, and traffic remained brisk until June 2, the day before the show ended. Some exhibitors thought it was the busiest section of the show.

The ETS pavilion—whose suppliers include technology companies, store designers, packaging and merchandising firms, and equipment manufacturers—was located in a separate area consisting of three sets of suites on the first floor of the Venetian Hotel, its home since 2003. Exhibitors again had a love-hate relationship with the space. Nevertheless, most exhibitors were happy, and some were surprised by the number of people they saw and the amount of business they did.

“I can’t believe it,” Artco Group‘s Henry Ballester said during the second day of the show. “I came here with no expectations, and I am extremely happy and surprised by the business we are doing.” The company, which specializes in store fixtures and retail store design, was located in the third tier of suites, which receives the least foot traffic. Ballester said his company does a good job of making appointments.

Maybe it wasn’t in spite of the economy but because of it that retailers seemed more interested in products and services that promise to help them become more efficient. MPI Systems Inc. was among several business-management software companies whose booths were busy throughout the show. Annette Schwarz Kaye, vice president of the Wilton, Conn.–based company said she was very happy with the response to the company’s new GEMINI retail software system.

CAD/CAM companies also saw a lot of action during the show. Some exhibitors said the increase in traffic was partly due to the number of innovative items introduced, which help independent retailers create and produce custom jewelry. They noted that retailers are discovering that custom jewelry is a way to compete with mass merchants and Internet retailers.

Some ETS exhibitors grumbled about the space, voicing two complaints. First, the suites are separate from the rest of the show, so buyers must make a special trip to the area. But according to many exhibitors, this is more a blessing than a curse. Keely Grice, of Grice Showcase & Display Mfg. Inc., Charlotte, N.C., has said every year that the people who see exhibitors in ETS are serious about doing business. As in past years, business for him was strong. This year, he said, the “tire kickers” didn’t appear until June 2.

The second complaint is that traffic diminishes beyond the first ETS suite, closest to the show lobby. While most exhibitors seemed pleased with the traffic and business, some expressed disappointment—though none on the record.

Some exhibitors work hard to jockey for a better position in the pavilion, often to little avail. Grid 3 International, a retail-design firm, lost its space in front of the main entrance of the pavilion. However, the firm remains in the coveted first set of suites, so there were no complaints from Ruth Mellergaard and Keith Kovar, principals of the New York–based company, who said they were extremely busy during the first day of the show and did well until Monday.

The economic climate had a visible effect on Las Vegas as a city. Taxi drivers said fewer people were in town, and luxury hotels offered discounts and room upgrades to attract business—at the last minute, some dropped their prices well below the show’s room-block rates. Attendees reported shorter taxi lines, and a few executives of prestigious watch brands reported no trouble getting last-minute reservations at upscale restaurants and night clubs. “That hasn’t happened before,” said one. “Usually, you have to make reservations weeks or even months in advance.”

Product trends. The cost of gold and platinum has driven a number of companies to find interesting alternatives in metals and gemstones. Companies such as Stephen Webster, Euphoria, and Old World Chain introduced silver pieces, joining the ranks of firms like David Yurman, John Hardy, and Scott Kay, who long ago proved that sterling silver and luxury can go hand-in-hand. Other firms turned to new alloys, such as Tache’s Precious 3, a proprietary blend of gold, silver, and platinum, or The Henderson Collection’s blend of 18k rose gold and bronze. There were big looks in 18k vermeil and hydrothermically grown quartz, such as those from the Italian fashion line Rebecca. There was also a noticeable increase in the number of companies offering—and retailers seeking—palladium jewelry.

Other design trends included an increase in less-expensive cuts and unusual varieties of stones. These included slices of heavily included diamonds; rough unpolished rocks; and dendritic agate, jasper, and moonstone. Cabochon gems played strongly in cocktail rings and pendants (also a means of keeping prices down). Precious-metal pieces often used negative space in the design as a way to reduce costs, and enamel appears to be an emerging trend.

Continuing trends include open designs and chocolate colors in pearls, diamonds, and now watches, seen in models by AK Anne Klein, Hellmuth, and Le Vian. Green—the movement more than the color—continues to grow. Customers are becoming more concerned about the provenance of pieces, say exhibitors, clearly an offshoot of the green and social-conscience movements that are empowering consumers to ask more questions and seek more information about products.

Watches. A number of foreign brands, some specializing in mechanical watches, launched in the U.S. market at The JCK Show. They include Obaku (Danish, minimalist styling); Orient (Japan’s largest mechanical watchmaker); Kadloo (German, Swiss movements); Montroa (Swiss-made Korean); D.Factory (Korean, a casual lifestyle brand from Samsung Watch Co.); Meyers (Swiss-made French); Azimuth (Swiss-made Singaporean,); and Morellato, Bello & Preciso, and Brosway (three of a number of Italian watch brands new to the U.S. market).

New U.S. brands included Dunamis, offering large Swiss-made couture diamond watches (by jeweler Jason of Beverly Hills), and Bathys Hawaii, whose Swiss-made watches include Lunar Wahine (a women’s line) and a 47 mm titanium diver’s watch.

Jewelry designers also added luxury watch brands, including Christian Tse’s innovative gem-set digital watches and Gert Hellmuth’s eye-catching timepieces.

The expansion of mechanical watches in the U.S. market continues, including popular-price brands. Among this year’s debuts were AK Anne Klein, Android, Armitron, Belair (private label), Bertolucci, Bulova, Giantto (including new Jimi Hendrix limited editions), IWC (including father and son pilot’s watches), Meyers, Montblanc, Orient, and Wyler.

Mido (owned by Swatch Group) relaunched in the U.S. market after a long hiatus. It offers Swiss-made, mid-price watches (70 percent mechanical) and is initially targeting the Hispanic market.

A number of brands said they’re expanding their markets or upgrading in quality and price, going after higher-income consumers. These include Casio (aiming at jewelers and high-end department stores with its Premiere G-Shock and thinner Oceanus), Vabene (including its $600 acrylic Gold Dust chronograph with interchangeable straps), Swiss Army (moving into the $600–$1,000 range with sophisticated case treatments and movements), TechnoMarine (moving upward with a limited-edition $11,000 analog/digital timepiece), Briel (with Swiss quartz Milano, $700–$2,000, including 47 mm unisex models), and EganaGoldfpeil USA, which is promoting its Puma “sports lifestyle” watch brand and Cerruti 1881, aimed at jewelers, both Swiss-made.

Environmentally responsible watches were offered by IWC, with a percentage of proceeds donated to environmental causes, and Wyler, whose newest chronograph is carbon neutral.