Vicenzaoro Upbeat Outlook, Foreigners Welcome!

Italian exhibitors at VicenzaOro I, the year’s first major international trade fair, were optimistic about the outlook for 1995.

Their business had been hesitant as Italy struggles with recession and an unstable political environment. But the recovery that drove U.S. jewelry shows last year now appears to be helping Vicenza. Average 5% sales increases among U.S. retail jewelers this past Christmas helped them to feel confident and ready to buy at the Vicenza fair, held Jan. 15-22. Show officials reported the number of American visitors increased 30% to 658, and exhibitors such as Denis Ghirardello of Chiampesan reported seeing many American clients, both old and new. “I can’t say how much sales will be, but I’ve seen good faces, real buyers, and lots of Americans.”

Though the Italians were enthusiastic about their American clients, the Americans were not as enthusiastic about design innovations at the show. As always, the jewelry was elegant and beautifully crafted, but most pieces were cost-reducing adaptations of existing trends rather than new directions in design.

But for retailers seeking well-made classics, this wasn’t a problem. “We found quite a lot that we liked,” said Joanna Gaines-Barusch, divisional merchandise manager for Luria & Son, Miami, Fla. Sandra Yodefsky, vice president of sales and marketing for J.K. Jewelry Inc., Rochester, N.Y., agreed, saying her buying team found several good sources offering the styles they sought.

The most avant-garde Italian designers showed art-to-wear jewelry that brought sighs of admiration – and resigned shrugs – from Americans. James Rosenheim of The Tiny Jewel Box in Washington, D.C., loved the pieces offered by designer Flavio Ricci, for example. “But I can’t sell it,” he added quickly.

The look: Here is a brief summary of jewelry design at the show:

· Smaller sizes and lighter weights, owing to the economy (both help keep prices down) and to fashion (smaller, delicate lines are a worldwide fashion trend). Interesting link treatments remained important, but the links were slimmer, shorter and accented with texture instead of gemstones. Lines were flowing and soft, with more curves than angles. Some pieces, particularly the smaller versions of formerly bold link collars and bracelets, were still bold enough to be worn on their own. Other truly dainty pieces lent themselves to piling on in multiples.

· Matte finishes. Texture, well-ensconced in U.S. design, was rarely seen in Italy until recently. Last year, the presence of texture was strong enough to denote a trend; this year, it virtually exploded. Almost every manufacturer at the show used satin and matte finishes to some degree. It’s an elegant look that complements today’s streamlined apparel and is understated enough to appeal to recession-conscious Italians. Another popular new look: bezel-set matte gold intaglios used as a pendant or charm.

· Tricolor gold. A running trend in Italy for several years, this year tricolor was as “in your face” as a trend can get, especially with matte finish rose and white gold. Platinum designs had a noticeable presence. But Italian consumers have an affinity for gold, and it’s tough to convince them to spend more for platinum during tight economic times.

· Fewer gem-intensive pieces. The Italians traditionally love diamond pavé, but there was less of it this time, and the smaller pieces required less pavé to get the same design proportion. Stud setting was a popular gem look, with small gold pins anchoring cabochon beads in a three-dimensional design. The result looked significant and gem-heavy, but the cab cuts and the way they were bound together gave lots of look at lower cost. Bezel setting and stations also were popular.

· Celestial themes. While Italians have long been entranced by elephant, flower and heart themes, they’re now adding the sun, moon and star themes so popular in the U.S. for some time. Flowers remained particularly popular, however, especially delicate, three-dimensional textured petals made of thin yellow and rose sheet gold.

· Stations and bolo styles. Longer necklaces were enhanced with stations of gemstones, pearls or gold, frequently in the elephant, flower, heart or celestial motifs. Any kind of jewelry featuring chains as a design element remained popular, as did gold bolo-inspired necklaces. Generally only the bolo silhouette, not the design, was taken from the American West.

· Amber. The movie Jurassic Park renewed U.S. interest in amber; now the Italians are using it more. New here was mixing amber with gold and other more expensive materials.

The economy, again: Early last year, the top news in Italy was a fervent hope that elections in March 1994 would end on-again, off-again governments and restore some stability to the economy. The elections did indeed “clean house,” but the new government collapsed before year’s end.

Analysts suggested that current officials have the potential to bring the country a much-needed stability. But all Italians that JCK interviewed on the subject had the same response: shrugged shoulders, raised eyebrows and a hearty laugh. The prevailing attitude is to go about one’s business as usual and not waste time worrying about the government. “People get used to the government changing,” said Andrea Turcato, executive director of the Vicenza Trade Fair Board. “Politics go one way, the economy goes another.”

If the Vicenza fair is a bellwether, that attitude may be just what the country needs. Business at the fair was brisk with 15,490 buyers – 9,544 of them from Italy and 5,946 from other countries. “The fair has been good this January,” said Turcato. “For the first time in two years, we feel more optimism. If the next shows continue this way, maybe 1995-1996 will be the years jewelry recovers.”

Some manufacturers seemed to agree. Lynn C. Grimm, vice president of sales and marketing for Gori & Zucchi/Uno a Erre, said the company’s executives felt the show seemed like a turnaround. “Mr. Gori thinks the political situation [in Italy] and the economy may have bottomed out and are now coming back.”

Exports are the leading hope of the Italian jewelry industry. “The devalued lira has helped exports tremendously,” said Turcato, noting a 17% increase in foreign buyers at the show. He confirmed that attendance by U.S. and Japanese buyers was high (though the Kobe earthquake, which occurred during the fair, may stall business there). While many Italian manufacturers are attracted to the huge U.S. market, they are hesitant over Americans’ slow-pay habits. But rather than turn down U.S. business, they are just more careful with credit.

“Officially, the economy in Italy isn’t very good,” said Leopoldo Poli, president of La Nouvelle Bague. But what’s “official” and what’s really happening are two different things.

Italian designer Maria Luisa Vitobello Van der Schoot summed it up best: “We’ll carry on.”