Vicenzaoro Design: Subtlety Reigns

Italians scale back their traditional boldness in jewelry design

Subtle changes and understated elegance characterized new design trends at Vicenzaoro I, held Jan. 14-21 in Vicenza, Italy.

The most noticeable element was diminutive sizing: a scaling back of the Italians’ traditional boldness. Though many pieces still were significantly larger than U.S. manufacturers might offer (recession or not, this is Italy!), exhibitors found ways to make even large-scale pieces cost less. Most often this was achieved with lighter weights (“We make lightweight pieces” was a popular sign in many windows) or fewer gems, especially diamonds.

Also apparent was a reciprocity of design ideas. It used to be “Italians innovate, Americans copy,” but now many design trends originate here and are copied in Italy. A case in point is the Melrose Place look: dainty “Y” necklaces and delicate chains with gem or gold ornament stations. Italians, faced with a faltering economy, have borrowed the delicate (smaller and less expensive) style.

Varied shades of yellow gold formed another “from-here-to-there” trend at the show. Italian gold traditionally has a certain shade, a rich but not-too-intense yellow. Americans have been hot on green gold, however, or at least greenish tones of yellow, and the look now is making inroads in Italy. The Italians also are experimenting with a deeper, more intense yellow, often in 22k.

Other trends at the show included new link treatments and new interpretations of past design themes.

Here’s a recap:

  • Texture and finishes. Popular at the show were nautically inspired 18- to 24-inch open-link chains with links that appeared to be wire-wrapped or hammered and then forged into links. Many were handmade. The focus was on the chains, though some also had a few gold anchors. Elsewhere, satin, satin-and-polish combinations and mesh textures were in vogue.

  • Diamonds. There was a move away from diamond-intensive jewelry toward metal-intensive design to keep costs down. Except for bridal rings or very high-end pieces, most diamond jewelry shown was pavé-set, and even the pavé seemed to have bigger beads of gold between the stones.

  • Colored stones. Lots of aquamarine, pink tourmaline, blue topaz and other pale gems and occasionally white quartzes, set in white metals.

  • Metals. White gold and platinum were important, along with the traditional tricolor gold.

  • Merchandise categories. There was renewed interest in classic hoop earrings, especially with different surface treatments. Some other popular styles, including doorknockers, seemed to have taken a back seat.

  • Themes. Ancient-inspired looks continued, but the intaglio/medallion style was giving way to pieces that look like they were rescued from sunken treasure chests. Also popular were stations, hearts, stars, moons, flowers, elephants (though waning in importance) and letters spelling out words. (The latter included letters held in place by two thin gold tubes that form a bangle, engraving on gold jewelry, and gold or diamond pavé letters in necklaces and bracelets spelling out names or messages such as “I Love You,” and “Forever.”)

American style: Most exhibitors said they noticed fewer U.S. buyers; most of those who did attend were wholesale importers or large-volume retailers instead of independents. (The Vicenza Trade Fair Board reports that attendance totaled nearly 17,500, with 10,300 of those Italian jewelry buyers. Americans are the largest foreign contingent, representing 9.5% of foreign total.)

The Americans were cautious and prudent in buying, said Denis Ghirardello of the manufacturing company Chiampesan. “In the ’80s if a retailer wanted to order two styles, we could easily convince them to try four. Now if they say two, it’s two. This isn’t a time to make mistakes.”

Many of the Americans were interested in white metal, according to exhibitors and buyers. Carolyn Kelly, fine jewelry buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue, said white metals are important at Saks. “Platinum has been selling very well, but we need some things in white gold also,” she said. “Platinum is too heavy for some pieces.” Otherwise, she was looking for “diamond, all diamond. No color.”

Platinum and white gold were the order of the day for Cherryll Walzel of Cherryll Walzel Collections in Houston, Tex., one of the few U.S. independent stores represented at the show. And she thinks long chains will be important, because there are “so many things you can hang off them.”

Tim Braun, fine jewelry buyer for Neiman Marcus, was looking for the delicate Melrose Place styles, which he said have been blowing out of stores.

Manufacturer Pippo Perez, president of Pierez, also observed that his U.S. customers were interested primarily in white diamonds, white metals and delicate sizes.

Economics: Christmas sales were lean and late in Italy, according to executives who spoke at a press conference during the fair. Italians still bought jewelry, but they spent less per piece.

Overall, jewelry manufacturers with a well-established export business are doing well, those who are new to exporting (one or two years) are doing so-so and those who sell primarily in Italy are unsatisfied, said Andrea Turcato, executive director of the Vicenza Trade Fair Board. “We must look for new markets,” he said, mentioning eastern Europe, South America and Asia in particular.

The Italians also are concerned about a 10% drop in exports to the U.S. in the first nine months of 1995 (the most recent figures available). The Italian World Gold Council, for example, has launched a program called “Italian Gold for the U.S.A.,” showcasing a variety of styles manufactured in Italy and designed to appeal to the U.S. market. U.S. buyers were asked to complete a survey offering their opinions on how well the designs would suit their needs and, if not, why not.

The Italians have two strikes against them in competing for U.S. business: high labor costs in Italy and tariffs on Italian goods here. (Israel, Thailand and some other jewelrymaking countries benefit from lower labor costs and low or no tariffs on goods they export to the U.S.)

In addition, the budget debate that shut down the U.S. government unsettled the Italian business community. Turcato said the shutdown didn’t help to build optimism about the U.S. market.