Design for life: Secret behind fashion jewellery phenomenon
By Lorna Goodyer
Fashion jewellery has been taken to new extremes by high-end catwalk designers who charge a fortune for base metals and crystals. Lorna Goodyer asks why consumers will pay so much for so little
David Jones is a pretty swanky place, and its flagship store in Melbourne is the height of sophistication for well-heeled locals looking for a bit of luxury retail therapy. Needless to say, the accessories department reads like a who’s who of international designers, with labels like Jimmy Choo and Miu Miu fighting it out against Christian Louboutin’s famous killer heels.
The jewellery counters are no less impressive in their label adulation, with names like Gucci and Emporio Armani taking centre stage. Yet unlike in the fashion department, where superior tailoring and materials are de rigueur on the designer rails, couture brands seem to prefer base metals and precious metal plating when it comes to their jewellery collections. If a Chanel jacket is the fashion equivalent of a diamond ring in terms of quality, isn’t it odd that a piece of Chanel jewellery is the equivalent of, say, a Sports Girl blazer?
In Australia, consumers are swooping on these so-called designer jewellery pieces with an enthusiasm that seems recently lacking in the fine jewellery store. Those in the jewellery industry might be forgiven for asking what the attraction is – after all, the pricing of this designer jewellery is eerily similar to what one might have to shell out for a piece of jewellery using precious metals and precious gems, yet the ‘designer’ materials are nowhere near as superior.
Take luxury e-tailer Net-a-Porter’s jewellery department (which ships to Australia), for example. A plexiglass crystal necklace from Miu Miu will set you back £250 ($380), while shoppers can snap up a “gold-tone” and crystal Lanvin cuff for £451 ($684). Why is it these brands can get away with charging so much, I hear you ask?
In David Jones, the assistant on the jewellery counter of the Bourke Street Mall store one weekday evening is a proficient sales person. She has a competent sales manner and is eager to help, yet ask her which pieces in her jewellery cabinet are made of gold and sterling silver and her sales pitch falters. She doesn’t know. The only brand she knows for sure is Gucci, which has both a high-end 18ct gold jewellery offering that stretches into thousands of dollars, as well as a more reasonably priced fashion jewellery collection made of silver and base metals, which sells for hundreds of dollars. David Jones stocks the high-end collection. The fact that this department store sales assistant doesn’t know what materials are used in these designer jewellery lines suggests a potentially worrying shift in consumer attitudes to jewellery.
As Pam Danziger, US-based luxury retail expert and president of Unity Marketing, points out – designer costume jewellery is nothing new: “Didn’t Coco Chanel start the whole trend toward costume jewellery?” But what is new is this explosion of couture labels in the jewellery world and consumers’ perceptions of it. For example, did you know Roberto Cavalli, Lanvin, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, Guess and DKNY all have jewellery lines? Although these fashion houses specialise in high-end apparel, none have gone down the high-end jewellery route. Danziger says fashion, rather than materials, is what’s important for these brands: “Designers are really returning to their roots, offering fashion and style to their customers rather than venturing into the true high-ticket jewellery world. If fashion is key, look rather than material matter most.”
Danziger reveals that in the US, costume jewellery sales increased dramatically during 2006 to 2008, as the country spiralled into recession. New research from Unity Marketing shows that fine jewellery sales recovered somewhat between 2008 to 2010, but she believes this is a reflection of increasing prices rather than demand. In fact, one of the biggest trends Danziger has witnessed is an increase in the use of precious metal plating – a technique many designer fashion brands have employed in recent jewellery collections. “From 2008 to 2010 expenditures on women’s plated jewellery, either gold plate or platinum plate, more than doubled, while expenditure on fine gold jewellery was down some 18 per cent. I think the rapid increase in prices on these metals is certainly driving the jewellery shopper to alternatives, plated metals being an excellent choice,” she explains.
As far as Australian jewellery marketing consultant Ciara Fulcher is concerned, consumers are now making purchasing decisions based on perception rather than any traditional concept of true value. She says, “As a young woman, I have friends who think nothing of spending an inordinate amount of money on costume pieces yet baulk at the idea of spending less on a sterling silver alternative. One friend purchases several items from a well-known (pricey!) Australian fashion brand on a regular basis and handles her base metal bangles with such great care one would assume they were made of solid gold!”
It’s quite clear, therefore, that the issue isn’t one of price. Perhaps, as Danziger suggests, it is a question of fashion? When catwalk models are seen strutting down the runway in not just a label’s clothing but also draped in its latest jewellery offering, the message is obvious: this label can offer the cutting edge of fashion – and not just in apparel, but also jewellery.
According to Melissa Hoyer, style commentator and Grazia contributing editor, this jewellery’s popularity is linked to age, and an increasing fashion awareness. “Younger people don’t care if they spend $500 on Chanel earrings and it doesn’t have a real pearl in it. The ‘Baby Boomer’ wants a real pearl because they seek more quality than prestige,” she says. “Younger consumers aren’t as snobby about materials. They want a pair of earrings because they love it to death.”
At DKNY, which has a strong presence in the Australian fashion jewellery market, its designs are a mixture of classic and fashion-focused pieces predominantly made using stainless steel. “Every season we inject an amount of new product that takes its inspiration from DKNY’s point of view for the season or emerging jewellery trends from around the world,” says Ives Palmer, MD of Fossil Australia, which holds the licence for DKNY jewellery in Australia.
Hoyer believes designer fashion jewellery is popular because it taps into consumer aspirations. “If you can’t afford the dress, you go and buy the pair of earrings and the bangle,” she explains. And the importance of these global fashion brand names cannot be underestimated. “The name carries the cachet. They have already spent so many years establishing their brand, and jewellery is just an extension of that brand.”
For Hoyer, another reason why this jewellery has become popular is because of how consumers’ attitude to retail has changed in recent years. “The disposability of fashion has made these purchases easier. Women don’t fall in love with stuff as much as they used to – they’re buying more quantity and not as much quality,” she explains.
The appeal of this segment of the jewellery market must be good news for fashion houses’ bottom lines, but what about its affect on the rest of the jewellery industry? Hoyer is adamant there’s “room for both markets” – fine jewellers just need to market themselves in the right way. “The precious market needs to market itself as it’s about forever,” she advises, citing De Beers as a company with the right idea.
Danziger believes other jewellery companies should be taking notes from this sector, and laments an incident where she came up against one jeweller’s reluctance to learn from these companies’ successes: “I gave a speech at a major jewellery show a few years back. After my talk one of the attendees who produces high-end fine jewellery came up to me and said something to the effect, “I can’t get over that David Yurman. He sells $10 worth of silver for $300. The nerve!” – as if Yurman was doing something wrong. To me that says everything about the power of branding, limited and selective distribution, and distinctive design. Who wouldn’t want to sell something that costs $10 to make for $300? That is real marketing and branding success.”
As in the US, it isn’t just the global fashion houses garnering attention in the Australian costume jewellery market – just look at Samantha Wills, whose fashion jewellery pieces cost hundreds of dollars but don’t look a million miles away from what one might pick up in Diva. “Samantha Wills has been very clever at marketing her brand up there as a high-end jewellery label,” Hoyer admits.
Perhaps the question is, are other jewellers missing a trick?
Posted July 20, 2011