Water Under the Bridge

Used in the fashion sense, the word “bridge” was coined by apparel makers to describe a market niche between designer and mass. Higher-quality materials and more refined styling set the clothes apart from lower-end goods, but with price points well below the top end, it made a designer’s name attainable to a much wider audience.

At first, the concept was highly successful, but over time it gradually became a category that was neither here nor there, and for a long time it languished. Innovativeness declined but the prices didn’t, and women quickly realized they could find similar looks (and often equivalent quality) in moderately priced garments.

The distinction between fashion jewelry and fine jewelry is more clear-cut: Fine jewelry contains precious metals and/or gems; fashion jewelry is typically made from base metals or other nonprecious materials. But fine-jewelry designers frequently incorporate nonprecious materials like wood, silk, and rubber into their designs, and often those pieces—owing to their use of gold, platinum, diamonds, and other precious gems—carry a price point that would give accessory buyers sticker shock.

So the meaning of bridge becomes increasingly nebulous in the jewelry world. Say “bridge” to a traditional jeweler and the response might be a puzzled, “What’s that? Oh, you mean like sterling silver?” But is this correct? How, for example, would one classify a silver and citrine bracelet?

Technically, it can be classed as “fine,” since sterling silver is a precious metal and citrine is a gem material. But with a much lower price point than the same piece would be if it were executed in platinum or white gold with yellow sapphire, it could be argued that the sterling version is an impulse fashion purchase—the stuff accessory departments are made of—and many jewelers and department-store buyers would therefore call it bridge.

Meanwhile, some of the biggest retail growth in the fine-jewelry industry is coming not from traditional jewelry stores but from fashion boutiques, specialty stores, design stores, and other kinds of retailers who understand the importance of having the right finishing touch to an outfit ready to put on the customer at the point of sale. (See “Specialty Retailers Join the Jewelry Game,” p. 82.)

These retailers are selling jewelry that by any legal definition can be called fine. Their selection may be more limited than a traditional jewelry store’s, and they’re not necessarily ready to support the kind of real estate and security that jewelry showcases demand, but they have an eye for fine jewelry and a customer looking for just the right piece to add to their wardrobe.

The semantics of what to call this category don’t really matter. What matters is that some incredibly talented designers are creating fashion-forward jewelry made from precious metals and gemstones that would be equally at home in a jewelry store, a department store, or a fashion boutique. The rest, as they say, is water under the bridge.