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Melissa Harris
Melissa Harris

When the going gets tough the tough get creative

With consumers now cautious to spend, the Australian jewellery industry has fallen headfirst into a mire of narrow, conservative design and uninspiring retail spaces – Melissa Harris says an injection of emerging talent could be just the ticket.

When I returned to Sydney in 1995, after living in the US for 16 years and wholesaling my jewellery there for the last five, I was horrified by the first jewellery retail advert I came across. It read something like: “Buy $400 of gold jewellery and we’ll give you a mobile phone!” What a slap in the face.

Any sense of romance and occasion had been stripped away from the Australian jewellery market back then. A sense of preciousness had gone from it, and with it had gone exciting design.

There really wasn’t anywhere my work would fit in when I moved back. What I wanted was a high-end space with a large selection of very interesting modern jewellery – and what I found was a conservative market bent towards engagement and wedding bands; if you weren’t in the market for something with white gold and diamonds there just wasn’t anything (with the possible exception of Bruce Kaldor’s beautiful coloured gemstone jewellery at Rox).

So I decided to open a retail store where I could present my contemporary jewellery designs in a more unique way than existed at the time in Australia.

I wanted to offer the customer a shopping experience similar to that available at somewhere like Barneys in New York. A place where you could discover a variety of jewellery designers who used precious materials in exciting ways. Jewellery that was luxurious, exciting, organic, romantic and desirable. Jewellery that cradled memories and had stories to tell.

Things did get better in Australia, yet recently I think we’ve gone backwards. I have been feeling the effects of “the new normal” in retail, typified by a customer that is not as focused on spending, so I have been thinking about ways to re-engage consumers.

I still believe two issues, somewhat related, stifle the industry in Australia: the narrow (safe) focus of what is produced for the market; and the fact that the demographics of those in the industry are getting older.

Over the years we have seen the closure of independent galleries and stores such as Quadrivium, Makers Mark and, more recently, Pablo Fanque in Paddington, Sydney. These retail spaces were a welcome alternative to the more traditional jewellery emporiums. It’s possible that these businesses just weren’t listening to their customer – but I can’t help but think the industry could still benefit from a wider interpretation of the types of jewellery available to the consumer.

To once again capture the increasingly challenged attention of a more discerning public, there surely has to be more choice than mass-produced product that is seen time and time again? To concentrate too much on the wedding and engagement ring market only further narrows the experience of what jewellery can be; a celebration of milestones, an expression of hope, a shared secret.

The costume jewellery market has risen to the fore in recent years in direct response to women’s desire to express themselves, and the fine jewellery market has many more opportunities to explore this desire.

To combat an aging industry (the JAA’s most recent member survey showed 64 per cent were over the age of 45) we need to celebrate our emerging designers. Perhaps that includes showcasing their work in more traditional jewellery stores rather than galleries, exposing the consumer to a broader experience of what jewellery can be while also infusing the market with new energy.

It would also go a little way to encouraging younger jewellers to explore different ways to set up their own businesses. I get young designers walking into my store all the time and my impression is that it’s really hard for them to get their jewellery into stores. If this young talent isn’t afforded the opportunity to test the retail market, how can they be expected to learn what retail and supply really mean? There are deadlines that need to be considered, price points that need to be thought about, wearability of designs.

Granted, in countries like America the enormity of the market is different, and the breadth and depth of what is available is different to Australia. But that’s exactly why our relatively small market needs to be constantly challenging itself and educating its customer with interesting contemporary designs, thereby capturing the imagination and igniting a passionate audience for all that we have to offer.

Melissa Harris runs an eponymous store in Sydney.

Thursday, 24 May, 2018 06:15pm
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