Star Marketer

Laurie Hudson knows what it means to “reinvent” oneself. Thanks to her talents in marketing, brand building, and new-business development and her fearlessness in taking risks, Hudson has already forged two successful careers in the jewelry industry—with the American Gem Society and Platinum Guild International—and she’s well into her third act as the co-founder of Luxury Brand Group.

Hudson began honing her marketing skills early in her career with stints at Carter Hawley Hale and Professional Marketing Associates, both in Southern California. She handled public relations and coordinated special events at both companies.

A lifetime lover of gems and jewelry, Hudson jumped at the chance to apply for a public relations/marketing position with a jewelry trade association that she saw advertised in Adweek.

The association was AGS. Although Hudson had no previous jewelry experience, she was hired on the spot in 1981. She said she was immediately taken with the industry and wasted no time immersing herself in it.

“I was hired around Christmastime in 1981, and I went to my first jewelry event in January—a Southern California Guild meeting,” Hudson recalls. “What immediately struck me was how much all the jewelers liked each other and knew about each other. I had come from two previous jobs that were very corporate and competitive, so I hadn’t experienced this before. I also was very moved by how warm and welcoming all of the jewelers were, offering me contact information and inviting me to visit their stores. And I was absolutely fascinated by their passion for the jewelry industry.”

Hudson calls her time at AGS one of the cornerstones of her career. Her job responsibilities included creating marketing programs for North American jewelers, planning and organizing the AGS Conclave, creating new member services, creating co-op programs with De Beers and other organizations, and developing both revenue-based programs and fund-raising campaigns for the nonprofit association. She not only learned a wide range of disciplines—including marketing, advertising, fund raising, conference planning, and association management—but also saw how the jewelry industry works. Hudson stayed with AGS 11 years.

“That was a very long time for an entry-level person to stay in one position,” she says. “The way most people learn and gain experience today is by moving to a new job every couple of years. But my responsibilities continually increased at AGS, and I got more experience by staying there than I ever would have gotten by moving around.”

Hudson’s success in creating marketing programs for AGS members paved the way for what she calls the “opportunity of a lifetime.” She approached the leading platinum producers in South Africa seeking funding for a plan to market and sell platinum jewelry through select AGS retailers. After presenting the plan to Anglo Platinum (then known as Rustenburg Platinum), the platinum producers accepted her proposal.

Although Hudson envisioned the platinum plan as an AGS program, the platinum producers realized they would need a full-time presence to lead the U.S. effort. They first asked Hudson for contacts and ultimately offered her the position. She discussed the opportunity with AGS executives, who offered their blessing. Hudson launched the PGI USA jewelry branch in 1992. She formed a corporation (funded by the platinum producers); took office space in Newport Beach, Calif.; hired a staff; and wrote one- and three-year business plans for the new venture.

At first, Hudson’s task seemed daunting. AGS had been a mostly North American operation, targeted at better independent retailers. PGI was global, and its sphere of influence included domestic and international retailers and manufacturers, upscale independents, and mass marketers. To understand the platinum market better, Hudson said she took a “world tour” of PGI’s overseas offices in Germany, Italy, and Japan, and also started attending the major international shows where platinum had a presence, including Basel, Switzerland; Munich, Germany; Tokyo; and Vicenza, Italy.

Other than a handful of suppliers and designers working in platinum, the metal was woefully underrepresented in the United States at the time. Hudson said the main problems were that retailers were leery of stocking platinum because they thought it was too expensive; didn’t think consumers wanted another white metal; didn’t need any more inventory; and felt it was difficult to work with if they had to resize rings, for example.

Hudson’s strategy was multipronged: (1) she took the case for platinum to the casters, to convince them of the benefits of working with the metal; (2) she hired manufacturing expert Christopher J. Cart as PGI’s technical advisor, to assist platinum manufacturers and design classes and instructional videos on working with platinum; and (3) she realized she needed to give retailers a reason to carry platinum, so she moved to a heavy consumer bridal advertising strategy, made a big push to tie platinum into the Hollywood scene, and conducted extensive research on consumers’ perceptions of platinum jewelry.

When PGI’s research confirmed that many bridal customers wanted platinum, expected to pay more for it, but were frustrated by the lack of it in stores, Hudson took the data directly to retailers to show them how much potential business they were losing. Platinum started to make slow but steady gains in the market under her direction, and over time regained a prominence it hadn’t seen since its heyday in the 1920s. In fact, Hudson noted that, during her PGI tenure, the U.S. platinum jewelry market grew some 1,500 percent in less than a decade.

“A lot of my job at PGI was strategy, fact-finding, evaluating information, and repackaging and disseminating it in an exciting way, such as through PGI’s big breakfast event/fashion show at The JCK Las Vegas Show,” she says. “It was like earning an MBA through hands-on experience in making a business work. We had a small budget at first, but we were very good at spending in a targeted, insightful way. Working for PGI was one of the greatest professional opportunities of my life—and I’m proud that I was able to make a difference and help change the jewelry industry.”

By 2002, Hudson felt she had accomplished all she could at PGI and was ready to try new challenges. Drawing on her prior fund-raising experience, she accepted the job as executive director of Jewelers for Children. After only a few months, however, Hudson and JFC both agreed that the match “wasn’t a good fit” and Hudson resigned.

In 2003, Hudson launched her own business—Luxury Brand Group—with former PGI USA vice president Frank Proctor. The firm provides marketing, advertising, and public relations services to fine-jewelry and luxury retailers worldwide.

Hudson believes LBG pulls together everything she’s done in her career and puts her back in the exhilarating, hands-on role of developing and nurturing a young business—but this time, from a position of experience.

“We’re very prudent with budgets—both our clients’ and our own,” she says. “We have a small staff and do almost everything in-house, but we know how to target spending to get the biggest impact.”

In December 2004, Hudson was named president of Jewelry.com, a Web site that doesn’t sell its own product, but promotes jewelry from a select group of retail partners. The high-profile post was basically a part-time consulting position for Hudson, where her main role included serving as the “face” for the site to the trade and the media, developing strategies to promote the site, and forging strategic alliances with major industry players.

“It was very interesting to work in a Web environment and see how the site dealt with the majors,” she says. “I was able to draw on my jewelry fund- raising experience by developing a Clicks for Kids tie-in to JFC. It was a very successful promotion that was picked up by major media, including USA Today.”

Although Hudson still does some consulting work for Jewelry.com, her main focus now is her own business. The goal at LBG, she said, is to help companies create and stick with a long-term branding and marketing strategy, as well as to develop innovative ideas to attract customers.

“This industry does too much inside-the-box thinking,” Hudson observes. “Store owners need to think outside the box by looking at what business sectors like the auto, beauty, cosmetics, and high-tech industries are doing and learn from them. They also need to let their people get outside the box as well, such as by attending nonjewelry shows for ideas. To really be successful—and maintain that success—you need to have a broader, more global perspective, and you also need to be able to adapt and change with the times.”