Selling French Style

The French want nothing more than to sell their jewelry in the United States, the world’s largest market. However, success in the U.S. market is a tale of the haves and have-nots. High labor costs, stringent work rules, high taxes, and strict enforcement of laws make it difficult for many French jewelry producers to compete with other European countries—such as Italy—in this market.

This particularly hurts manufacturers of mid- to low-end jewelry, whose main attraction for shoppers is often price. In addition, the French have been reluctant to dedicate the resources needed to establish their products in the United States and to provide after-sales support.

But a number of French companies have enjoyed success in the United States and other countries by promoting their brands as both unique and as the essence of French design and style. Most importantly, they are marketing their products to fashion-conscious shoppers who will almost always choose quality over cost. Among the French brands using this formula—with varying degrees of success—are Korloff, Christian Bernard, and Bellon.

Korloff Paris. Headquartered in Lyon, Korloff has a network of 220 multi-brand outlets in France and more than 200 “points of sale” overseas. The brand is well represented in Northern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. More than 60% of the company’s sales are overseas. The company produces jewelry, watches, silk scarves, pens, and other fashion accessories for men and women. It employs 125 persons worldwide, including 50 at its Lyon headquarters. Korloff is making its second attempt to enter the U.S. market, by forming Korloff U.S.A. and opening a boutique in Washington, D.C.

Korloff’s first foray into the United States didn’t fare well, but president and CEO Daniel Paillasseur says the attempt taught him some valuable lessons, and he’s ready to return. “We believe in order to be successful in the United States, we have to be American first,” Paillasseur says. “We have to provide an after-sale service. We have ambition to have a presence in all major U.S. cities. The U.S. for us is a source of major future potential,” he adds, noting that Korloff also will work to sell its products through major U.S. retailers.

Paillasseur founded Korloff in 1978, taking its name from an 88-ct. brilliant-cut black diamond once owned by the Korloff Spojinikoffs, a noble Russian family. The black diamond is described as the “very heart and soul” of Korloff and is used in all of the company’s marketing materials.

Marketing iconography aside, the real heart and soul of Korloff is Paillasseur. Everything about the company, from the fashion lines to the look of the boutiques, reflects its founder’s vision. The use of color and original materials and the creation

and use of the company’s “double K” trademark, used in some manner in almost every product the company sells, are the work of Paillasseur.

“We do 100% of the brainstorming in house,” Paillasseur says. “We design the furniture, the displays. Our advertising concept and our message are all done here. If we want to keep our originality, if we want to keep our stamp on the work, we have to do all of the work here. If not, then we will look like everyone else.

“I care for originality, colors, and the combination of different materials,” he explains. “We are creative. We like to develop new things. In many ways, we have been in the forefront. And we always try to be different.”

Products created by Korloff include the Black Diamond Ring collection, set in white gold, and a chronograph watch collection that combines sapphires with white gold, gold and steel, and an assortment of colored crocodile-skin straps.

Paillasseur uses lacquer in unique color combinations as well as in original ways. It is evident in many of the pieces the company creates, such as the “St. Petersbourg” line of rings, which can include a touch of colored lacquer. The use of this medium is most evident in the company’s recently introduced pen collection, which comes in 12 colors.

Bellon. Located in a corporate office center outside Lyon, Bellon Createur is a family-run business that has been in existence since 1907.

It originally produced religious cameos, which it still makes today. But the modern incarnation of Bellon focuses mainly on 18k women’s jewelry, which is sold to approximately 1,200 retail outlets in 30 countries. About 13% of the company’s production goes to Japan, its largest foreign market.

Only 5% of Bellon’s products are sold in the United States, at prices ranging from $150 to $2,000. Pierre Bellon, vice president of marketing and sales, says the company would like to see that change. “We’ve sold our products up until now at trade shows and with salesmen visiting the United States about four or five times a year,” Bellon says. But now, “we are looking at forming an organization for the United States.”

The company’s modern facility employs 55 persons and combines traditional handcrafted techniques with the use of modern equipment—such as a “welding tunnel”—to produce about 130,000 pieces per year. “We can now make our products quicker and with better quality,” Bellon says. “The evolution of the tradition is not so different from its tradition.”

The product line includes 18k rings, earrings, and pendants set with gemstones. The company likes to use its trademark circular shapes in all of its jewelry.

“We design for the present consumers’ lifestyles and taste,” Bellon says. “We work on the idea of passion and our own brand of quality design.”

Christian Bernard Paris. Founded by Nguyen Bernard in Paris in 1972, today’s Christian Bernard Diffusion Group may be the model of French success in making its brand known internationally. Christian Bernard Paris has more than 2,000 points of sale throughout the world and sells approximately $141 million worth of jewelry and watches per year, with 90% of turnover generated outside France. A significant percentage of those sales comes from the 19 Christian Bernard boutiques in the United States.

Although the company uses the Paris name and its flagship boutique on rue de la Paix to emphasize its brand (“In America, Paris means something,” explains Pierre Tardy, president of Christian Bernard’s U.S. operation), its headquarters is a diamond-shaped structure of glass and steel nestled in the countryside of the Jura Mountains. Here, in the town of Maiche in eastern France, the products are created and manufactured. Some items are designed in house; occasionally, the company partners with well-known French designers.

The company keeps finding new and different ways to cater to U.S. consumers. A recent product that’s had some success in the United States is the men’s “Diamond Engagement Watch.” Capitalizing on the broadening economic power of American women, the watch—which retails for $1,250 to $6,000—is marketed as an engagement gift from women to men. It’s an attempt to create a new marriage tradition—a gift that can be passed down from father to son. It’s also a personalized gift, containing a laser-engraved photograph on a hidden locket as well as a personalized message. For an additional charge, a buyer may opt for a hand-written message scanned and engraved on the watch.

“This is the future of watches, where the customer is the brand,” Tardy says. “The only way to make it in the United States is to do something special.”

That’s the kind of marketing that makes French companies successful in the States.