The Might of White

Certain truths about white metals seem to be self-evident: that more and more brides are choosing platinum, and that fashionable consumers love Italian white gold jewelry. Today, however, there are some new truths about jewelry that would have sparked jaw-dropping astonishment among traditional retailers of a generation ago: silver and steel are being paired with super-precious gems, not just semiprecious gems.

Thanks to a mixture of forces, including influences from other segments of the fashion industry and the recent economic pullback, what began several years ago as fringe trends in jewelry design emerged this year as a mainstream move toward a less traditional definition of “fine jewelry.”

The rise of silver began with the proliferation of designer sterling silver jewelry. The metal that’s the darling of David Yurman and his worldwide following of affluent women did more than earn acceptance—it also spurred demand. Two years ago, Yurman broke new ground with his Silver Ice collection, and this year the idea of mixing silver with diamonds is taking off. Robert Lee Morris, for example, recently introduced his Crested Wave collection, mixing his signature sculptural sterling looks—which have graced fashion runways for decades—with the diamonds he incorporated into the fine jewelry line he launched three years ago.

According to spokesperson Tracy Silvia, the line meets the needs of those affected by the current economy: Diamonds offer an upscale look to women who have become accustomed to buying luxury merchandise, while sterling holds down prices. Morris’s bold cuff bracelet, for example, features diamonds and a designer name but retails for just $595.

A number of companies are mixing silver with other precious materials—but not necessarily gemstones. Mikimoto, for example, recently launched the Paris Collection, which features an alloy of silver and platinum. The result is a deep, lustrous gray metal that contrasts beautifully with white pearls. Bermudes, a Parisian design firm, is working with a similar silver-platinum alloy.

Mikimoto launched the new line as part of its move toward a more modern and fashionable image, says Kevin J. Lane, Mikimoto’s vice president of retail marketing. The unusual color and feel of the alloy, especially in contrast to the pearls, has attracted the growing fine-jewelry customer base of fashion-conscious women. “Fashion and jewelry work so well together,” he says. “This is just part of our continuing efforts to make Mikimoto a more fashion-forward brand.”

A soft spot for steel. While sterling continues to carve its niche and grow as a luxury product, another metal has found new acceptance in the fine-jewelry industry. Stainless steel—best known for its uses in food preparation and pharmaceutical manufacturing—has found a home in the fashion world.

Stainless steel first showed up in watches, a category it now dominates. Its recent discovery by jewelry manufacturers and designers has established it as the newest fine-jewelry metal.

Roberto Coin, well known for high-end 18k gold designer jewelry, launched a new line this year featuring stainless steel with gold accents. Stainless steel allows the pieces to be lightweight and comfortable against the skin and provides a lustrous surface, says Pilar Cabo Coin, image and communication director for Roberto Coin.

Proponents within the industry also note the durability and lighter price points for designer pieces crafted in stainless steel rather than gold or platinum.

While many retail jewelers have been dubious about consumer acceptance—and therefore hesitant to put stainless into their merchandising mix—customers are proving to be interested in the metal.

Nancy A. Schuring of Devon Fine Jewelry in Wyckoff, N.J., took a chance on an unlikely product for her store—the Nomination stainless-steel line. After a small initial purchase that customers devoured, she increased her stock and became a regular customer of the Italian firm, she says. The product offers not only appealingly low price points for customers but also large margins for retailers.

For consumers already accustomed to stainless watches—some of which feature diamonds—stainless-steel jewelry is a natural next step, says Daniel Bogue, president of Alfex watches in the United States. This spring, Alfex launched its own line of stainless jewelry to coordinate with its watches.

Unlike silver, stainless steel doesn’t tarnish, and its hypoallergenic properties have been touted for years by manufacturers of body-piercing jewelry.

Meanwhile, the strength of the metal and its rare use in jewelry have attracted even the most cutting-edge designers. Barry Kieselstein-Cord, one of the jewelry industry’s leading branded designers, this year launched Art Steel—his own line of steel jewelry—for both his retail shops and wholesale accounts. The collection features structural steel, which, because of its strength, took years to develop. The designer says he was drawn to the uniqueness of the product.

German manufacturer Stahl has been on the cutting edge of the trend for years, crafting and selling modern and affordable stainless-steel jewelry. As the concept gains ground among other designers as well as retailers and consumers, Stahl is moving on to fresh ideas in white metals. According to spokeswoman Lorraine Garvey, the company is creating pieces containing stainless and sterling as well as a line of stainless or sterling combined with ruthenium.

While each takes a different approach, the common trend represents a new way of looking at fine jewelry. In a trend that’s part restless creativity, part 21st-century techno style, jewelry designers and manufacturers have harnessed the craze for white metal in haute couture and traditional jewelry design and are applying modern interpretations.

As Kieselstein-Cord says: “It’s a mania for reinvention.”