Two Continents, Two Men, One Idea

When Nicholas Paspaley, executive chairman of Paspaley Pearls Pty, with offices in Broome, Darwin, and Sydney, Australia, met Matthew Stuller, founder and CEO of Stuller Inc., Lafayette, La., the two men felt an instant kinship. Both were entrepreneurial and experimental. Both ran highly successful jewelry businesses in the middle of nowhere, far from any jewelry districts. And both were acknowledged by the jewelry industry as leaders in their respective fields. Something interesting was bound to happen. “Broome and Lafayette have a lot in common,” explains David Norman, who handles wholesale distribution for Paspaley. The Northern Territories in Australia and Louisiana in the United States were one decade apart in their founding. Both are hot and humid, and both are imbued with a sense of spirit and adventure. Both are like a foreign country within their host country. In Lafayette it’s the Cajun (Acadian) culture, and in Broome it’s the Nonya, Malay, and Chinese—all hardworking, loyal people whose cultures are water-based.

But beyond some cultural similarities, not the least of which is eating strange crawly things, the question of why Paspaley would want to partner with Stuller might have seemed like an odd one: Paspaley is arguably the pearl world’s equivalent of Harry Winston, while Stuller is solidly dedicated to the independent jewelers of Main Street, USA. But the two discovered more in common than entrepreneurial kinship.

The time was right on both sides, says Norman. The fastest-growing segment of the luxury market has been “democratic” luxury—goods that carry high-end cachet at an entry-level price. And some of the new Stuller/Paspaley line is most democratic, starting at an affordable $199 (retail), formerly unheard of for quality South Sea pearls. The line’s top price points—$100,000 and beyond—are decidedly un-democratic, but as they say in Oz, no worries. Stuller has been gradually but steadily moving into more upscale goods. While not abandoning its core market, the firm’s expansion into platinum and loose diamonds and gemstones has attracted many upscale and custom jewelers.

The time also was right, fashionwise. Pearls have enjoyed a steady upswing in popularity in the past decade, and the rapid rise of female self-purchase has fueled growth in almost all categories of fine jewelry. Christine Prince, international marketing director for Paspaley, says the versatility of the collections—many of the pearls are designed with interchangeable neckpieces and bracelets—is especially important from a fashion standpoint, while the classic appeal of pearls also makes this a great gift item. “It’s not boring design. That’s why Paspaley has been so successful in [its retail shop in] Sydney.

A rousing start. The Stuller & Paspaley pearl collection debuted with a “soft” launch at The JCK Show ~ Las Vegas. Ramona Marshall, who is in charge of sales and marketing for Stuller’s diamond and gemstone division, said during the show, “There’s been great response to the line, a constant barrage at the show.”

The collection is categorized by price point into four groups: Foundation, Fashion, Fine, and Statement. All are within the traditional size range for South Sea pearls—usually between 10 mm and 15 mm—and some rare super-pearls range from 15 mm to 20 mm. A dozen shapes are represented in the collection: round, near round, drop, oval, circle, triangle, baroque, flat button, full button, topped drop, reverse drop, and ornamental. Colors range from the most common white, silver, and cream colors through a range comprising subtle shades of pink or “rainbow” undertones. Nacre thickness, which affects the pearl’s luster, also affects the categorization process.

Each pearl or piece of pearl jewelry comes with a Stuller & Paspaley guarantee certifying that the pearls are natural color and luster, not treated in any way with chemicals, dyes, or other artificial enhancements. Stuller’s guarantee, which extends to both jeweler and customer, provides for a 30-day full-refund period should either party not be fully satisfied. Paspaley’s guarantee also emphasizes the firm’s ongoing commitment to environmental protection and conservation. The Australian government works closely with its pearl producers: It imposes strict quotas on the number of shells being farmed, and the country’s unpolluted waters—the environment in which Paspaley’s pearls are grown—are world-renowned in the pearl industry for their cleanliness.

Seeding of Paspaley pearls takes place in June, July, and August, when Southern Hemisphere oceans are coldest. The company runs its own airline to get employees and equipment to its farms. American shell bead nuclei ranging in size from 5 mm to 6 mm are implanted, and the oysters are kept out of the water for only 10 minutes. Then they’re put back and left to nature, where 90% will produce marketable pearls. That’s a remarkable feat, says Norman, considering that 15 to 20 years ago only 20% of seeded oysters produced pearls. Paspaley, which has been in business longer than any other Australian pearl farmer, has another record, says Norman: About 30% of the pearls it farms are round, compared with an industry average of 18%-19%.

The right sort. How does an upscale operation produce pearls that can retail for less than $200? The evaluation process is the key.

“Foundation” is the entry-level price point. These pearls have noticeable blemishes on the majority of their surfaces. Unusual baroque designs, striations, and other distinctive characteristics give these pearls an artistic appeal but keep them “affordable.”

Fashion-quality pearls are the next-highest category. Slightly more expensive than foundation quality, these have slight to moderate surface blemishes under examination, and most blemishes would still be visible when the pearls are set into a jewelry design.

Fine-quality pearls in the collection have slight blemishes on their surfaces, but these are small enough not to detract from the overall beauty of the pearl, and many will not be visible once the pearl is set into a finished jewelry design.

Finally, the crème-de-la-crème “Statement” pearls are spotless on the surface, either when set into a jewelry design or a strand. These are the pearls used for the most high-end pieces, particularly strands (which can take up to 10 years to complete until perfect matches are found) and earrings. The strands, incidentally, feature a special proprietary knotting technique that keeps the knots entirely hidden, unlike traditional strands where the knots are visible between each pearl.

Getting the word out. Following on the heels of the successful “soft” launch, Stuller plans to introduce many more pieces of the Stuller & Paspaley Collection at the JA show in New York and present it at other trade shows around the country. When complete, the collection will contain between 300 and 400 styles of finished jewelry, in both 14k and 18k gold, in a broad range of price points. Pearls also will be sold in strands, pairs, or singly, and Stuller says the niche market appeal of the collection offers jewelers a significant opportunity for larger margins than many other products.

Marketing for the collection will be significant but follow Stuller’s traditional emphasis on the independent retail jeweler. Rather than blast the market with a barrage of consumer magazine advertising, the companies will focus their marketing efforts. One component of the program is a special Stuller & Paspaley self-produced magazine. Steve MacDiarmid, Stuller’s marketing and public relations director, explains that while the collection is a branded one, the goal of the program is to provide the retailer with the equipment to position himself as the South Sea pearl authority in his community. “Our sense is that for the independent retail jeweler, the store is the brand,” he says. “It’s as much about education as anything else, and Stuller knows how to do this.”