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home | Feature Articles | A Look at Where the Designer Jewelry . . .

A Look at Where the Designer Jewelry Market is Headed in the New Millennium (1999)
Cindy Edelstein

The following is based on a presentation by Cindy Edelstein to the GIA Symposium held in San Diego in June of 1999

I was asked here today to shed some light on the future of the designer jewelry marketplace. But after hearing from my three colleagues, you can tell for yourself that the future is bright.

With Steven Kretchmer's commitment to the brain power of innovative design and Robert Lee Morris's championing of the artists' soul and David Yurman's challenge to the wallets of designer businesses, these three designers are leading the way for the next generation.

Before we discuss where designer jewelry as an artform and marketing concept is headed we ought to understand where it is and where it came from. I'm going to offer you today several trends that will evolve over the next decade - these predictions can serve as inspiration or as a warning for where to take your own businesses in the near future.

As futurist Edith Weiner says, every trend kicks up a counter trend and business success can be found in leading the trend or leading the rebel movement - demise is only found in between the two.

Designer jewelry is more than a merchandise category and less than a true artform.

It's the business marriage of commerce and art. A compromise between what is beautiful and what is ultimately wearable. There is more to it's appeal than the sum of its parts - the designer story is a valuable commodity alongside the stones and metals.

There's an emotional investment in almost all jewelry purchases - it's how we celebrate our lives - but with designer jewelry there's an emotional investment in the creation as well.

Designer jewelry differs from branded jewelry in a distinct way - even though designer jewelry can become a brand like David has just shown us, its the exception to the rule. For now at least. Brand recognition has a lot to do with the packaging, marketing and image of the product while designer jewelry is mostly still about the design. We're hearing a lot about branding at this event but the distinction I'm offering is this - when a consumer hears the word Rolex they often think of a particular type of person - a Rolex kind of guy and all that goes with it - when they hear the name Steven retchmer what will most often come to mind is a tension set ring or maybe purple gold.

Every designer has paid their dues in some way - biding their time at craft fairs, retail repair benches and part-time jobs until their business acumen met up with their esigning talent. Or their blind faith.

Designer jewelry as a business category is relatively new. While you all came here oday because you know the names on this panel or have a vested interest in making or selling designer jewelry - Up until the mid 1970s the designer names that consumers could relate to were those of the big retail design houses. Women collected jewels by Cartier, Harry Winston, Tiffany's and Van Cleef and Arpels. Perhaps the closest resemblance to today's designer business was David Webb but his work was still only available at his namesake store. These fine houses offered fine design but not necessarily a signature look or a singular artistic view. Those that had that to offer worked behind the scenes at many of these establishments often biding their time till public recognition found them.

For Jose Hess and Henry Dunay, the trailblazers in the designer business, the sixties were a time for bold experimentation and more than a little business struggles. When Jose opened his business he called it Flair Craft. This anonymous business name gave him credibility, he thought. When Henry Dunay first opened his business's doors, under his own name, he met with much resistance and even a little outrage. How could you put your own name on the jewelry they said. How could I not? he replied.

And now two decades later we're all very used to the "names" in our business. We see designer names promoted all the time in design competitions, magazine articles and trade events. They represent the sizzle in our industry - they offer an interesting point of view. So much so that many manufacturers are now adding a person's name to their

company logo - whether or not that person actually designs jewelry- or in some cases, actually exists at all. And that trend will continue to grow in the coming years.

Thanks to the hard work of Dunay and Hess - paving the way for countless designers to come. Until then the jewelry industry was steeped in tradition and design status quo. Fine design on an accessible level was more along the lines of gold circle pins,

a simple strand of pearls and perhaps a gold circle pin with pearls on it. While movie stars and society dames could afford the brilliant work of Schlumberger, David Webb, Harry Winston and Van Cleef, there wasn't much available to the middle class that didn't look, well, middle class. For style and the chance to make a more personal statement there was only costume and fashion jewelry. Or at best, silver jewelry by the likes of Georg Jensen and his fellow modernists. But fine jewelry that would make a lasting statement about the wearer's style and sensibilities.......there were not many options beyond princess rings, bangle bracelets and love beads.

However, the times they were achanging. there was a monumental shift going on in the art world too. While Dunay and Hess came to the business from inside the trade -- apprenticing and working at the bench for other manufacturers -- there was a wave of metal artists graduating from a diverse range of universities and art schools. These young jewelry artisans were rough and tumble - they were technical masters or at least creative genius's working with new materials, working old ones in new ways, sort of playing a creative one-up-manship with each other.

Many historians mark 1969 as the birthdate of the contemporary designer movement and the fields of Bennington Vermont as the birthplace. The Bennington Craft Fair rew by mythical proportions and morphed into the famed Rhinebeck Fair in 1973. This outdoor craft fair became the benchmark for fine handicrafts - especially jewelry. Many designers got their start at this show including David - who was creating small scale wearable sculptures and beaded necklaces before he found his cable muse.

Many remember these years fondly - as a time of experimentation and artistic freedom. What often gets left out of the reverie however is the lack of capitol, continuity and mass recognition. Hence the wave of artisans that slowly became businesspeople thanks in part to the efforts of Mort Abelson and the Jeweler's of America trade show in NYC. In 1977, after perusing the Rhinebeck crafts fair Mort invited 12 brave souls to exhibit in a special showcase at the jewelry industry's preeminent trade show. Alan Revere remembers when his invitation to step up to the big leagues came - he was advised to get himself a three-piece suit and act respectable.

Trade shows have always played an enormous role in the designer jewelry marketplace. While many many designers could toil in their workshops selling to a local clientele or even having a sales rep take their work to stores across the nation, it's only at trade shows that designers get to meet their customers en masse and perhaps even more importantly, meet the editors and tastemakers of the industry.

Trade shows continue to be vital to the success of most designer businesses. The exposure is unrivaled. The stakes never higher. And not just here but overseas as well.

American designers who exhibit in Basel Fair increase their exposure by great measure, but it was a big risk in 1980 when Dunay debuted in the American Pavilion. S everal designers soon joined Dunay including Steve Lagos, Jose Hess, Michael Good, Michael Bondanza and David making a design as well as marketing statement. Meeting buyers from around the globe taught them invaluable lessons in selling

and patience - many have said it took 3 to 5 years for European customers to pay them any attention - but it sure did build their name recognition amongst the American retailers who shopped Basel.

Trade show booths are another way for designers to promote their particular aesthetic and educate the retailer on how their jewelry should be displayed and promoted. Today trade shows are bigger than ever before, so buyers have learned to shop more efficiently, which has forced designers to become more efficient in their marketing as well.

Trade show pavilions are the latest trend - the grouping of like minded exhibitors to create a cohesive merchandising presentation is all the rage. While once there were only loose parameters - where just the newcomers or old stars were clustered together, now there are physical show-within-a-show salons offering a very particular viewpoint to the viewer.

As example of this trend witness The JCK Show in Las Vegas, it launched in 1992 with a designer area of 70. Over the years that area has become a freestanding pavilion of 160 designers with a cappuccino bar, piano lounge and most recently, in light of the millenium and the rising prominence and competition in the designer sector - a concierge , guide book and signature totebags that lenda distinctive ambience as well as the chance to co-brand- key word in the new millenium- the pavilion with the designers and the trade show promotors.

On the retail front, designers like Michael Bondanza, Michael Good, Michele and Janis Savitt, and Eddie Sakamoto have eased into the collective consciousness. They evolved signature styles that resonated with their customers. In the past decade more retailers have seen the benefit to stocking designer jewelry. Some were quick to relate to the groundbreaking design, feeling the emotional connection offered by the designers. Matching their passion to meld art and commerce. But others, were just interested in having something new to offer their customers.Some very fine, upscale jewelry stores have ordered from designers since the 80s challenging the habit of selling jewelry by pennyweight and carat alone.

Department stores have bought into the designer concept in a big way too. Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstroms use all their marketing muscle to promote designer jewelry. They promote designers with catalogs spreads, instore events, ncredible customer service, all of this has made these stores very successful in co-branding&endash; promoting their own name alongside the names of their vendors. And traditional jewelry stores can and should do the same.Personal appearances and trunk shows are now a common practice at all levels of retail. So is individual designer signage, cooperative advertising and specialty packaging. All marketing tools once left up to the retailer to do as he will - regardless of whether or not it worked with a designer's particular statement.

The world of fine craft has experienced a parallel growth - with more art and craft galleries showcasing handmade jewelry. Jewelry is now accepted as a contemporary artform. Jewelers are sought after craftsman who's handmade jewelry techniques have found countless new fans thanks to the galleries that showcases their work alongside other artforms like blown glass and sculpture.

Along with the jewelry and the craft worlds, the fashion world has played a part in the designer jewelry movement as well. Robert Lee Morris was one of the first jewelers to work alongside fashion designers. While Robert only began working in precious metals last year, - so to our industry he's just a babe - his signature silver, vermeil and brass designs brought him much fame -no one's jewelry has graced the cover of vogue and other magazines more than Roberts.

He has done his fair share for other designers as well, opening a gallery of wearable art called Art Wear in 1977 to showcase jewelry that was groundbreaking, daring and even sometimes defied the moniker of jewelry.

Not all designers work relates to fashion - that's the beauty of the personal quality of this movement. Many designers have slaved long and hard for years before their look came into vogue or earned a place in the market. For better or worse, most designers create what they think is beautiful or a statement whether it jives with current trends or not. That's often the defining question in evaluating whether a collection is a designer collection or just a well styled line. Designers do what they do and pray the whims of fate turn their way and consumers respond in kindwhile manufacturers don't have a loyalty to a technique or aesthetic - they make what they think will sell and if it makes a style statement along the way -well that's just gravy.

One of the big trends in our society today is a search for meaning in the things we do and own - remember I first mentioned that your success can be found going with a trend or counter to it - well, with big business, big technology and less personal contact thanks to ATMs, voice mail and cyber chats - the countertrend is an increased interest in personalization of products, services and experiences. The human touch connected to most designer jewelry is an enticing reason to purchase it.

And that's what happened in the 90s - a decade that started off with a recession and curtailed excess spending saw designer jewelryas a category weathered the storm well.

Consumers were willing to part with their money for something truly unusual. nother gold chain could wait, but a one-of-a-kind jewel still made a birthday or anniversary special even during a recession. As the economy got better those that were still left standing looked to those that had done well and another trend has emerged. Mass market manufacturers looking to designer manufacturers for inspiration. And sometimes direct, line for line, imitation.

In the past few years it has gotten harder to recognize certain design signatures, so many have been adopted in order to capitalize on a trend.

This may or may not be good news for you all here today - depending upon which side of the game you're on. It's a growing practice and it comes from all sides of the business. The lines of demarcation are blurring - between designer and manufacturer, wholesaler and retailer, true artistic talent and clever inspiration. This is the biggest challenge for the new millenium - negotiating the murky waters and then finding some clarity.

Designers put their heart and soul into their designs - they take each angle and curve personally. It can take years for a designer to develop a concept into a cohesive line of jewelry and an imitator just one season to copy it. In our brand conscious and celebrity focused world consumers have been trained to look for the sizzle but not necessarily to evaluate the steak. Designers have made good fodder for the media There 's more to talk about besides the jewelry. There's the artistic statement, the personal connection, a defining style and technique. Many have learned to walk the walk and talk the talk by reading interviews and consuming the image. They also saw that being a designer was a good marketing concept - and one that has already been road tested for them.

While most designers become incensed by this Paul Klecka, for one, isn't disturbed. Imitators underscore the value of good design says Paul. They cannot match it.They may usurp the look and bring it to a broader market but they can't offer the integrity of design or the follow-through. They can only follow behind. The designer customer is not the one that would buy the knockoff ; these customers are not swayed by a lower pricetag at the expense of authenticity. Again the search for meaning and the desire for human connection - even at a higher price.

Marketing is key in this business of selling the sizzle and the steak.Trade magazines have always written about designers but JQ magazine was the first to claim the movement as it's own. This magazine helped launch a generation of designers by giving them the attention they needed as both individuals and as a marketplace.And when Modern Jeweler Magazine added its editorial 2 cents to this conversation by launching Lustre Magazine two years ago, Editor Lorraine DePasque saw the blurry writing on the wall and added the term better brands to her editorial mission. Rather than drawing a line in the sand the focus is more inlcusive. JCK entered the fray as well but with a twist - they launched a mini-magazine called Luxury to speak to the high-end of the market. Another way to pay more attention to the designer marketplace without having to define it.

Design competitions are also a major part of the designers success story. They offer invaluable publicity and recognition. Designer Whitney Boin won so many early on that he never advertised or exhibited in more than one trade show but everyone knew his name -seemingly over night. In fact he felt competitions were so important to creating a successful career that he convinced his parents to invest his senior year's tuition in materials for his first Diamonds Today competition entry - and instead of a diploma he earned himself a DeBeers statuette and a business .

Here too we're seeing the blurring of the lines - a change of focus. Most jewelry design competitions are sponsored by commodity promoters like World Gold Council, Diamond Information Center and Platinum Guild -and while they first court the designers to rally their cause and create the buzz with competitions, promotions and advertising - eventually, it seems, they turn their attention to the masses. And the competitions become less about the design and more about the salability.

This trend is also, good or bad news depending on which side of the fence you're on. Designers may become disillusioned but retailers will be stocking "awardwinning" jewelry.

As further evidence that this is the decade of the designer - we've seen the birth of three designer organizations. The American Jewelry Design Council formed in 1993 as a not-for-profit arts organization fueled by two dozen designers who felt it was important to increase jewelry design's position and recognition as an artform. This group of notable names develops projects and exhibits and events that are designed to promote awareness of jewelry deisgn as something other than a commercial venture.

Conversely, the Contemporary Design Group was formed as a direct reaction to the lack of commercial prominence it's founding members were experiencing in the 80s. They created an advocacy association with the intent of its members gaining industry recognition by banding together.

Both these groups formed in the early 90s when the market was a simpler place. This year we see the birth of the International Jewelry Design Guild. that has formed with a mission to clarify the definition and strengthen the message of the designer movement. After years of fighting to open the door this group is now seeking some parameters for entry. It's a natural evolution. The lines are blurring ever more quickly.

Designer jewelry started its ride as a category so radically different from status quo that it made the sound of one hand clapping. Now there is so much noise you can't even see who's hands they are.

I've taken you through more than two decades to give you an understanding of who is making this noise and why. Lets now look at what will likely happen to the cacophony and see if we'll all still be dancing to the beat in the new millennium.

We've talked about promotion and advertising - designers learned that if they want the ultimate consumer to understand their message they were going to have to convey it to them theirselves. First designers created their own brochures and handouts, than logo plaques and then their own display units and packaging. All to covey a cohesive message.This is all done through the retail partner even though the cost falls flatly at the designers feet. And there's no way to be sure these things are being put to good use.

Next comes consumer advertising which can be done without the retailer's involvement - even as a way to create interest on the store owners part. Consumer advertising has grown exponentially over the past 5 years. The Nov. and Dec. issues of Town & Country magazine now resemble a jewelry catalog with page after page of institutional advertising from the manufacturers and tagged with key retailers. And the May issue has become just as big - presumably to capture the attention of retailers on their way to the summer trade shows. Thus making Town and Country the most expensive and widely read trade magazine in our business! Another blurred line. And anyone who doubts that should take note of all the JCK Show booth numbers seen in the ads. But these ads seem to work - many designers credit their consumer campaigns with driving previously reluctant retailers to their trade show booths.

Another way to market directly to the consumer is through the internet. Designers sites are being constructed faster than thematic hotels in Las Vegas. A website is a 24 hour, 7 day a week accessible marketing message designed by the designer to underscore their own sense and sensibility. The vast majority of designer's sites give the customer the chance to locate a retailer in their area and not the chance to buy direct.

Designers put up sites to control and promote the image they want to consumer to have. The trend will greatly continue.

The next logical step to this trend is e-commerce. Will designers start to sell direct now that they're speaking directly to their customers? Only time will tell really- if you'd have asked some designers just 18 months ago they'd have answered no way.....but ask again in 18 months and the answer could be starkly different. Ecommerce is on everyone's mind as more and more consumers - particularly the ones with disposable income - shop online and everyone hopes to benefit from it.

While designers like all manufacturers want to protect and honor their retail partners the chance to deal directly with the ultimate consumer is a powerful lure.

That lure is also being felt on the physical retail front as more designers open their own stores. In years passed designers have opened up their own retail galleries to sell their own designs locally. Now designers who have only sold their wares via wholesale channels are setting up shop too. Lagos was the first several years ago when he opened a store in his hometown of Philadelphia. It gave him a great testing ground for designs, promotions and new products. So he opened two more - in NYC and in Las Vegas.Interestingly enough, his local retail accounts did not experience a drop in business as some might fear. Conversely, opening his own store strengthened his position in the marketplace and helped increase those retailers' business with Lagos jewelry.

This has proven true time and again for designers and luxury brands who have opened up retail stores including Calvin Klein, Mac cosmetics and Movado. The namesake store can't offer the same shopping experience for the customer as the local jeweler can. IF the retailer markets his store as well as the designer markets his name then they can both succeed with the strength of the co-brand. Consumers are able to be loyal to a label as well as a store to buy that label from.

This fall David Yurman will open a flagship store in NYC and Robert has already had one for years. In just the past two years alone there have been many many designers opening retail establishments ranging from appointment only salons to full scale stores including Cornelis Hollander, Erica Courtney, Slane & Slane, Lee Marraccini, Susan Helmich, Michael Good, Kara Varian Baker, Timothy Grannis, Lillian Ball, and a 4th, 5th and 6th for Judith Ripka. Most sell their own designs exclusively but that line will blur in the new millenium as they begin to stock each others work as well.

Another thing to consider besides e-commerce is e-design. Virtual design is already here thanks to the Gemvision program that lets retailers work with their customers to create a custom design in less time than it takes to sign on to aol. DeBeers has just added this program to its website for consumers to design their own engagement ring on line. While they only choose between a preselected group of settings, metals and shapes how long will it take for it to become something more?Remember, everyone's a designer now.

If everyone can do it than it is no longer unique. And since the lure of the unique will always be there the challenge for true designers is to figure out how to differentiate themselves and their message from the pack. Fitting in was once the goal - designers didn't want to be considered business oddities but rather a part of the real world - but the goal will now have to become separating from the pack. If the term designer gets so misused than real designers will have to find a new word.

And that's another trend we see is a growing chasm between the big guys and the not-so-big guys. In the future there will be even more demarcation as investors and big businesses jump in to either back or swallow up designer owned businesses. For those really successful manufacturers out there, it might be easier to buy some designer talent than find it on your own. Consolidation has happened in a big way on the retail front who says it won't happen with manufacturers as well. We've already seen the strategic alliance between Fabrikant and Robert Lee Morris and what it's done for Robert's work and exposure. Who will be next?

Perhaps it will be the fashion designers. Product integration and vertical marketing are two more buzz words for the new millenium. Most fashion designers have long been hip to the fact that to become a BIG business you must diversify. So despite where their natural talents may lie, these designers are involved in all aspects of apparel, accessories, home accessories and more. Can fine jewlery be far behind? Versace and Chanel both have fine lines and there are several more rumored to debut soon. Will this mean the death of real jewelry designers or the increased focus on the entire deisgner jewelry movement -we'll have to wait and see.

And in the meantime, will fine jewelry designers cross over into their territory?

Henry Dunay has a very expensive signature perfume - something that has helped more younger customers relate to his work. So much so that it urged him to create a Dunay Boutique collection of more affordable jewelry for this market. Dunay, Lagos and David have all branched into the watch business with much success. Lisa Jenks, Stephen Dweck and Robert Lee Morris all have home accessories that are coveted by fashionable consumers. The distinction between designers is blurring - fashion, jewlery, accessories. The trend is called lifestyle fulfillment now.

I'm sure many jewelry designesr would echo Whitney Boin's sentiments on this....

Give me the chance and I'll design your world.

And lastly, this widening chasm between big business and small studios will also help more clearly define the marketplace so that those designers that don't want to become big employers and mass manufacturers - albeit very chic manufacturers - will settle into their place in our universe as bright but small stars. There can only be so many suns.

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·  A Brief History of American Jewelry Design (from 1997)