Call it a sign of the times. Buyers for major multibrand retailers are heading to the Couture jewelry trade show this year — many of them for the first time since the pandemic — to source merchandise for what is considered a new era in jewelry collecting.
As a category, jewelry seems to be benefiting from current economic uncertainty and a consumer population that pivoted much of their fashion-specific discretionary income toward jewelry during the pandemic, effectively learning how to collect jewelry as a safe haven investment.
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Now buyers say they are looking to find jewelry that appeals to consumers’ emotional side — through color and personal touches — as well as their newfound savvy.
“Today’s customers are much more educated about jewelry and know what they are looking for before they buy. Inquiries about quality and the origin of jewelry are the most commonly asked questions that our digital stylists and associates receive,” said Marta Nowakowski, vice president for jewelry, gifts and home at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“With the increasing popularity of luxury resale businesses, people realize there is a new way to repurpose what they own. They want the best possible value for the price and care about the sustainability aspect of their purchases,” added Tatiana Birkelund, vice president and general business manager for beauty and jewelry at Neiman Marcus.
With that, buyers appear to have a loose wish list in mind when they hit the floor at Couture in Las Vegas this week — armed with data that points to a continued focus on necklaces and rings, with new attention being paid toward stackable bracelets. While everyday lifestyle pieces continue to sell, there is an emerging appetite for more avant-garde styles, too.
“I’m actually going on a complete hunt,” said Abby Huhtanen, newly instated director of fine jewelry at Moda Operandi. “In taking a look at the assortment, one of the areas I’m looking for something is jewelry that’s not so perfect. People really want to get a chance to feel the hand that made their jewelry — so adding texture or something without such high polish.” She added that she’s also on the lookout for new talents and unconventional shapes — particularly rings that could be interpreted as alternative engagement rings.
Huhtanen continued: “Our necklace business seems to be softening a bit, but our ring business is on fire. I do think that there is room for a larger earring as well but there is this story of returning to the hand — whether it’s on your wrist or a ring. We are happy to see fashion bringing gloves back and that brings more attention to the hand again.” A focus on suiting for fall is also sending Huhtanen on a search at Couture for brooches, which she is hoping to rebrand as “lapel dressing.”
Color continues to be a huge driving focus for emotional purchases. Huhtanen said this doesn’t necessarily have to mean colored gems. Silvia Furmanovich, for instance, is having success on the site with colorful designs made from wood marquetry.
“We are definitely seeing some interest close at the neckline with messy stacks; it can be with tennis necklaces and pendants or cleaner bold gold chains,” said Amy Lane, buyer for precious jewelry at Bergdorf Goodman. “Rings are also coming in strong which is a bit of a change. It’s been an earring story and now that’s changing which is interesting in itself — we are doing well with beautiful gemmy cocktail rings.”
She called out earrings by Irene Neuwirth, chains by Nikos Koulis, and bracelets by Verdura, Buccellati and Anita Ko as solid performers.
Nowakowski said of the time leading up to Couture: “We actually saw interest in fine jewelry grow during the pandemic, especially for personalized and sentimental pieces. With these trends in mind, we will definitely be looking for sentimental jewelry, limited edition pieces, unique designs and colorful items.”
At Saks, merchants are excited about growing business with Bea Bongiasca, Pomellato, Sauer 1941, Vhernier and Lauren Rubinski, while Sydney Evan, Anita Ko and Nikos Koulis are strong performers for Neiman’s.
Neiman’s also said, “Men’s fine jewelry is an exciting opportunity for growth as men continue to express themselves beyond traditional fashion. Marco Bicego launched their men’s line exclusively with Neiman Marcus this spring. Gold chains of all weights from designers like David Yurman and Roberto Coin are also popular with men and women.”
While large-scale stores attend this year’s show amid a greater consumer appetite for fine jewelry, they are doing so also in the face of considerable challenge. Gold and diamonds are seeing historic price volatility. There is also a greater appetite for buying fine jewelry online, particularly in a direct-to-consumer model, which is making legacy retailers like Saks and Neiman’s battle for eyes more than ever before.
But buyers say they have learned to adapt to online sales throughout the pandemic.
“In the past two years, Saks has introduced over 50 new brands on its e-commerce platform across fine jewelry, watches and fashion jewelry, prioritizing diverse and emerging designers. As our jewelry offering increases online, we are maintaining a heavy focus on virtual shopping experiences, including live shopping events on our digital events platform. Our jewelry customers are looking for an enhanced experience that goes beyond just purchasing jewelry. They also look to us for guidance on how to style certain pieces and expertise on the top trends of the season,” Nowakowski said.
“Because of the pandemic, customers prefer online shopping now more than ever before….We’ve seen growth in suburban markets, whereas before customers would travel to metropolitan cities to buy luxury items. We find innovative ways to engage with loyal customers and build new relationships. We’ve seen less price resistance to buying luxury online and our average transaction value has increased since the
beginning of the pandemic,” Birkelund said.
The new comfort with online commerce is, of course, a boon for digitally native Moda Operandi, which is now doubling down on its jewelry sales.
“We were already there, we are tried and trusted and it’s been really exciting and fun to take a look at where business is going. We know how many people are buying jewelry online — it’s in the millions. I don’t see it shifting, but it’s forced a lot of people in the industry to take a second look at their approach,” Huhtanen said.
Rising material costs are expected to be a front-and-center topic of conversation during buyer meetings at Couture.
Due to a ban on Russian imports, the cost of diamonds and melee are rising sharply — by some accounts up to 30 percent since the beginning of the year. Gold prices are hovering close to $2,000 an ounce. And that’s not to mention the rising costs of labor, shipping and rent.
According to Huhtanen, the jewelry industry has not seen this level of price instability in “modern history.”
With so many variables changing at once, it’s possible that vendors could incur a 10 to 20 percent expenditure increase in the course of a week — enough to put some on the fringe of bankruptcy.
In order to accommodate, Moda Operandi prefers “to have a real transparent conversation with our vendor community. We need them to stay in business — it’s difficult to go out and find original designers. We want to help nourish and build their businesses,” Huhtanen said.
She added: “We are having internal discussions and feel price increases are a big talking point. We want to know where they are positioned on pricing and increases — like all other retailers, we are putting edits together for fall and gift guides and want to make sure there is a nice appropriate range of products. It’s one of our top three talking points [for Couture].”
For Bergdorf Goodman, Lane said: “Watching brands get back into production post-pandemic, we were trying to anticipate and continue our support. Pricing is elastic for our customer to a certain degree — everyone needs to be aligned to make sure pricing is correct. The best thing we can do is look out for the best of the best where it appears and grab it. We are lucky at Couture to travel with our client coordinator who knows what our top clients are looking for.”
At Neiman’s, Birkelund said today’s inflationary climate is in some ways helping convert jewelry sales. “Gold and diamond jewelry has an inherent value, but our customers are aware of the rising prices of gold and gemstones and are motivated to invest now. Customers are buying timeless pieces that can be passed down to future generations or will sustain a high value over time,” she said.
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