Chastened by the still-wobbly economy, luxury consumers are thinking twice before spending. Nevertheless, they’re willing to pay a premium for one quality above all others: uniqueness.
The vote is in and it’s unanimous: Election years are notoriously tough on fine jewelers.
A combination of lingering economic uncertainty, wobbly consumer confidence, and the fast-approaching presidential election has left the luxury market in a state of limbo as the 2012 holiday season comes into focus.
Amid the ambiguities, many retailers and brands have pinned their hopes on the ultra–high-end consumer. Others, however, are scaling back with silver lines or diffusion collections aimed at fashion-forward impulse shoppers. Interestingly, both sides seem to be speaking the same language. “The affluent customer is much more willing to mix high and low these days,” says Olivia Cornell, co-owner of Cornell’s Jewelers in Rochester, N.Y. “Customers have become more conscious of their purchases and the longevity of those pieces, but we think it gives us an opportunity to educate our customers about versatility.”
18k gold necklace with 0.90 ct. t.w. diamonds; $8,940; Katie Decker at Fragments, NYC; 212-334-9588; fragments.com
Meeling Wong, former president of John Hardy who now specializes in brand positioning and merchandising consulting for fine jewelry and watches, agrees that midrange price points are struggling. “The high end over $20,000 seems to be thriving and so does the other end of the spectrum,” Wong says. “Everything in between, especially under $5,000, is highly competitive due to operating in a crowded space. The luxury shopper is definitely more discerning—she’s looking for new, fresh designs and not just brand names.”
Reports from the retail and wholesale trenches bear out Wong’s point. For New York City–based Temple St. Clair, sales at the JCK Las Vegas Elite Enclave show proved that retailer buyers were once again purchasing with commitment. The company’s new Athena collection, which starts at $1,500, was a big focus, as were sales of one-of-a-kind pieces ranging from $35,000 to $250,000, says designer Temple St. Clair Carr.
Moshe Klein, director of sales for the Julius Klein Group, is happy to report that the very high end is where the “sales are still happening,” he says, noting that “diamonds remain a good investment,” a fact that occasionally transcends their appeal as objects of romance, love, or beauty. Klein says fancy shapes including pears, cushions, ovals, and even radiant cuts are in demand, as are fancy colors. “In bridal, the halo effect is still very, very much in play,” he says.
Chunky Juana ring; price on request; Wendy Brandes, NYC; 212-213-3504; wendybrandes.com
Not everyone, however, sees the ultra–high-end market as a slam dunk. Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing and author of the book Putting the Luxe Back in Luxury: How New Consumer Values Are Redefining the Way We Market Luxury, remains particularly cautious about holiday prospects for fine jewelry spending. “When it comes to luxury goods like jewelry, nobody needs to buy any of it, so this is a sector inordinately impacted by consumers’ feelings of wealth and prosperity,” Danziger says. “HENRY consumers”—referring to those High Earners Not Rich Yet, with household incomes of $100,000 to $249,999—“now feel very much middle class, even though they are in the top 20 percent of all U.S. households. As a result, they are indulging more moderately, so brands like Tiffany sterling and Pandora are appealing—as are faux, crystals, and gold plate as alternatives to the higher-priced fine jewels and precious metals.”
While known brands seem to have an edge in this marketplace, emerging names like Wendy Brandes Jewelry, Fashion Group International’s 2012 Rising Star for fine jewelry, are concentrating on unique, well-priced product for the holiday. “I’m deliberately designing pieces that can retail for either less than or high above the pre-2008 sweet spot, which was between $2,000 and $6,000,” Brandes says.
One-of-a-kind 18k white gold earrings with emeralds, mint chrysoprase, and rose-cut diamonds; price on request; Irene Neuwirth, Venice, Calif.; 310-450-6063; ireneneuwirth.com
Online luxury customers, however, appear to be more receptive to middle-range price points. Moda Operandi, a Web-based concept store that debuted in 2011 and offers customers a chance to preorder unedited collections of top fashion and jewelry designers months before they are available to the wider market, is enjoying a sweet spot of $5,000 to $15,000 for fine jewelry, with particular focus on statement earrings and unique product.
Heather Severs, Moda Operandi’s accessories and jewelry director, sees fine jewelry as an increasingly important part of the company’s offerings. “Our client base looks to us to introduce them to unique products that aren’t available everywhere. We have experienced a lot of enthusiasm about our special pieces—vintage, one-of-a-kind, personalized, or custom pieces,” Severs says.
Regardless of where their products are sold, luxury marketers across-the-board recognize that uniqueness is key to capturing the high-end consumer. Forevermark, for one, is betting on the notion for the holiday, focusing on a series of designer partnerships in support of its Center of My Universe campaign, the new halo ring design concept that celebrates the idea of a woman as the emotional center of those around her. “Designer collaborations were a very important part of our philosophy when we started,” says Stephen Lussier, CEO of Forevermark. “These collaborations are a natural example of bringing the creativity of our partners to bear on the final offer of Forevermark. We think that we are even greater than the sum of our parts.”
One such collaboration is with Waris Ahluwalia of House of Waris, who created a one-of-a-kind yellow gold pendant centered on a 14.58 ct. oval Forevermark diamond from the Julius Klein Group surrounded by pavé-dusted golden spokes. Although the piece is clearly deluxe, it also affirms Forevermark’s intention to promote handcrafted, design-driven jewelry as much as staples and bridal.
Ring in 14k gold with diamonds; $6,895; Mizuki at Fragments, NYC; 212-334-9588; fragments.com
Sally Morrison, director of the World Gold Council, will also be promoting inspiring, aspirational, and innovative jewelry offerings across a wide range of price points. “Given the robust price of gold, there is renewed design interest at the high end in showing jewelry design where gold itself is the precious element—as opposed to a vector for other expensive materials,” Morrison says. “The jewelry industry can really capitalize on the energy of the high end of the market right now.”
Morrison echos others who point to a desire for exclusivity. “The luxury consumer wants a unique, bespoke product that allows her to tell her personal history in an interesting way,” she says. “Story, or personal narrative, will continue to be critical.”
But if all else fails, there’s no harm in appealing to a client’s sense of vanity this holiday season. “When customers come in with their expensive Chanel totes, I always remind them that when they’re out to dinner, that purse is on the floor,” Cornell says. “Your jewelry, however, is always on display.”