One of the biggest trends in the fine jewellery market does not involve a new style of earrings or unusually coloured diamonds.
Instead, designers normally associated with costume jewellery have launched fine jewellery lines, working for the first time with precious stones and metals and often charging prices that are, understandably, well above those of their standard offerings.
For costume jewellery brands, the impetus to expand into the fine realm is simple: it is a comparatively easy way to increase their reach.
“It’s critical for designers and their companies to find growth,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group, which tracks the retail sales industry. “It’s easier to create another version of your core business than it is to do something totally different. They’re playing off the product and the consumer base that they have and creating an aspirational product to do it.”
In many cases, these lines have a spunkier sensibility than consumers would expect to find at, say, Tiffany & Co.
Alexis Bittar’s fine jewellery collection, launched last autumn, tweaks vintage-inspired pieces with settings that suggest eagle claws and barbed wire, albeit in 18-carat gold, while Aurélie Bidermann’s line includes a gold apple core charm dangling from a paper clip. Jewellery design duo Dannijo’s new gold pieces, Fine by Dannijones, look like items one might see on Shoreditch twenty-somethings.
Tastemaker brands such as Zara Simon and CC Skye are also about to launch fine jewellery lines.
The trend includes mainstream brands such as Swarovski, which introduced fine jewellery in China in late 2012. The company has two boutiques there dedicated to the collection, as well as 10 shop-in-shops in its traditional stores. The line is about five times more expensive than Swarovski’s costume pieces, starting at Rmb5,000 ($827).
Francis Belin, Swarovski’s senior vice-president of sales and operations in Greater China, comments: “If you want to grow and be a key player in the jewellery market, not being in fine jewellery at all is a handicap.”
Although his brand’s precious pieces do not feature logos, many are designed around motifs with which it is associated, such as a swan. Swarovski and its peers are offering essentially fashion jewellery crafted from investment-calibre materials.
In China, the jewellery market is growing: it was up 5 per cent in 2013, according to a recent report by Bain & Company.
“Our Chinese customers are becoming more and more affluent,” says Mr Belin. “They’re very much in tune with international brands. Quite a few of them were asking: ‘When are you going to be getting into fine jewellery?’”
Eddie Borgo, a New York-based designer, says he was asked the same question. In response, he created a handful of 18-carat gold-based pieces last year – a Cleopatra-themed group for Chinese retailer Lane Crawford and a limited edition of six numbered cuffs for Neiman Marcus in the US.
While his costume collection is vast, his strategy is to limit the distribution and number of styles of the precious creations.
“What I didn’t want to do was cannibalise the costume business with the fine business,” he says. “I wanted to run them as separate entities. For us, the answer really is in the exclusivity of the pieces.”
Drawing a line between high and low collections, even though there may be customer crossover, has proved a successful tactic.
Anna Sheffield launched her fine jewellery collection in 2011 after building a solid customer base for the Bing Bang costume line. Last year, her fine jewellery sales nearly tripled and are now four times more than costume sales. She recently opened her first boutique, showcasing precious jewellery, in Manhattan.
One factor in the transition into the fine arena may be the price of gold, which dropped substantially last year. Still, the greater investment in metals and gems has some brands starting small.
Dannijo, for example, in November launched its fine collection exclusively on its website to keep down overheads and the number of pieces it needed to produce initially. “We were very conservative with our numbers,” says Danielle Snyder, who founded the brand with her sister, Jodie.
“Fine jewellery’s more expensive; the raw materials add up quickly.”
Some items sold out on the first day and a second collection of more pieces is planned.
Mr Bittar spent six years building brand recognition and opening boutiques in affluent areas before launching his fine jewellery collection, which includes pieces with diamonds, sapphires and amethysts. “A retailer needs everything in place: the packaging, the brand manifesto, the staff to support it,” he says.
Economic conditions are conducive to fine jewellery’s appeal. “Now the economy is recovering, we expect the jewellery industry will see rising revenue,” says Caitlin Newsom, retail analyst at IBISWorld, a research company, that forecasts US industry revenue will rise for the next five years.
“Timing is everything,” says Mr Cohen. “Trying to do this four years ago would have been a waste of time.
“Now, aspirational mid-market consumers are feeling pretty confident, and they are only going to gain in confidence as economic recovery continues.”