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Articles from STERLING SILVER JEWELLERY (863 Articles), GOLD JEWELLERY (681 Articles), PLATINUM JEWELLERY (51 Articles)










Renee Blackwell
Renee Blackwell

White metals are all the rage

As gold prices continue to rocket, other pale precious metals are having their turn to shine. Carla Caruso discovers how the market is swaying demand and design.
Something’s happening in jewellery stores. Five years ago, consumers couldn’t get enough of the industry’s white metal magic. Those with little cash to spare headed straight for silver, while those with deep pockets made a beeline for white gold, and those with even deeper pockets splurged on platinum.

But then the Global Financial Crisis hit and trade went topsy turvy: at first consumers chased price, but as the downturn continued they began to seek value instead; the rules of what they perceived as ‘precious’ changed.

So how has this affected consumers’ love affair with white precious metals?

The economic downturn has certainly encouraged consumers to be more discerning – weighing up both the price and longevity of a piece before putting their hands in their pockets.

But the rising price of gold – topping US$1,300 an ounce in mid-October – has perhaps played an even greater role in kick-starting more interest in other precious metals, with customers seeking maximum bang for their buck.

Nicola Cerrone, of high-end Sydney manufacturing retailer Cerrone Jewellers, says platinum has been one beneficiary of the rising price of gold: “White gold, especially in the last 10 years, has become very popular. [But] due to the strong gold prices at present, more people are using platinum as it’s becoming more accessible in comparison to the price of gold.”

James Courage, chief executive of the London-based Platinum Guild International – an organisation dedicated to inspiring a passion for the hypoallergenic luxury metal – confirms that platinum has become more accessible.

“The main change has been the reduction in platinum’s premium over gold, which today lies between 25 and 30 per cent, compared with over 100 per cent in recent years,” he explains. “Platinum jewellery manufacturers have reacted to the opportunity by producing more ‘entry level’ bridal rings.” Entry-level prices are classed as under $5,000, according to Courage.

Despite its price premium, platinum is a natural winner for consumers seeking maximum value from their jewellery purchase and retailers should be selling it as such: the metal’s durability makes it suitable for everyday wear and will mean the piece lasts longer.

Courage claims he’s had manufacturers in India,China and Europe speak of increasing interest in platinum enquiries from Australia.

This is good news for Australian design too. Courage says, “Platinum specialists love to create in the precious metal as it is ductile and enables the creation of delicate pieces.”

At the BaselWorld international watch and jewellery show in Switzerland earlier this year, Platinum Guild International saw the emerging design trend as a shift towards more structured, engineered designs – such as perforated, tubular and chain styles – which it said would enable the creation of “strong, yet intricate” jewellery.

Palladium – a lustrous, silvery-white precious metal that is a relative newcomer to the market – has also had a surge of interest. This is largely due to gold price hikes, but it has unique advantages over other white precious metals that are exciting some jewellers.

Unlike white gold, which comprises yellow gold and white-blending metals, it doesn’t have to be rhodium-plated once a year to maintain its lustrous appearance. So says Michael Sobbi, the director of Sydney's Linda & Co Designer Jewellers.

“Nothing’s more horrible than when you see a ring that looks yellow or brown after a couple of years,” he says. “Palladium doesn’t change colour. It’s a white metal, yet it’s the same price as 9-carat white gold. It’s like platinum, but without the price.”

While it’s still a niche market, it’s been steadily growing in the past year, according to Sobbi. “At the moment we’re doing about 30 per cent [of our jewellery in palladium], which is quite high. We’re just trying to push it as much as we can.” He adds, “When you explain to customers that good white gold uses palladium, not nickel, it’s not hard for them to make the decision.”

The retailer sells the palladium pieces for about 20 per cent less than what its white gold items retail for, though the gross profit margin is higher. “Once our suppliers, like Chemgold and Peter W Beck, who do our castings, gave us the go-ahead that palladium was in, we pushed it because these guys obviously have a strong background,” Sobbi enthuses.

So impressed is he with this metal that he believes it could even replace white gold altogether. “I don’t think white gold will exist in our shop in about five years,” he predicts.

Phillip Davison, the owner of Brisbane retailer Sayang’s Touch, says 18-carat white gold remains the most popular choice – particularly for bridal couples – but agrees that the need for constant rhodium plating is becoming a deterrent.

When the plating starts to wear off at the base of an engagement ring, many customers seek a change, according to Davison. “A lot of the time they are converting – depending on how their budget is. They are either getting their engagement ring remade in platinum and then having their wedding band to match or sometimes they’re just going with a whole palladium set.”

While white gold has been very popular for about five years, Davison says that in the past three years he’s also seen a surge of interest in palladium. With the economic downturn, he says, customers are wanting more for their dollar. “That’s why I think palladium has arisen, because it’s a cheaper alternative – it costs the same as 9-carat white gold, you still get the nice whiteness, and it doesn’t need rhodium plating, so it’s without the after-service,” he explains.

Is gold irreplaceable?
Even so, gold remains king for many, including Stephen Brown, the general manager of wholesaler RJ Scanlan & Co, which has three jewellery collections, aimed primarily at men – Dora, Soho and Teno Yukon. “By far, the biggest portion of our sales is in 9-carat white gold or 9-carat two-tone and, although palladium sales are growing, they are still dwarfed by gold sales.”

In tough times, there is a perception among retailers that consumers want to go downmarket, according to Brown. However, he says, “We have found – over many downturns – that what happens is consumers want to spend their money wisely. This means that retailers need to be able to justify and explain the value equation to consumers. We believe quality, combined with good sales staff, is the way to go.”

Indeed, if Brown is to be believed, retailers may find consumers' increasing demand for value and quality re-opens the door to higher priced sales that have fallen by the wayside thanks to the rise of quick-selling cash cows such as charms – providing the right level of quality and service is there to back up the product.

So, has the rise of other white precious metals taken the shine off silver? The World Silver Institute 2010 report states world silver jewellery demand dropped to an eleven-year low in 2009 – with factors including the economic downturn and silver price hikes cited as possible reasons for the decline. Yet many believe it is clawing its way back.

According to Sunshine Coast designer Renee Blackwell, who has a self-titled, hand-crafted jewellery line incorporating ethnic beads, gemstones and antique and vintage buttons, it’s the increased cost of gold that’s helping. “It seems the higher the price of gold goes, the better our silver sales,” she says.

Blackwell has started mixing silver with copper, bronze and brass. “I love the results,” she says, “It’s interesting and unique and a finished look most jewellery designers are not using as yet, especially in the world of one-of-a-kind pieces. Best of all, my customers seem to enjoy the unusual and interesting combinations.”

There’s also a silver lining for Bunny Bedi, the director of Melbourne silver jewellery wholesaler Made In Earth Creations. Like Blackwell, he specialises in unusual stones matched with silver and, conversely, he says it’s the rising price of silver rather than the rising price of gold that has aided his business recently.

“Our sales have been steady in the past year,” Bedi says. “Since the silver price went up, silver has become a metal that has become sought after and a lot of jewellers have started stocking it.”

And silver prices have certainly reached new peaks this year, hitting a 30-year high in mid-October. Since 2005, the precious metal has tripled in value from just under US$7 ($7.07) an ounce to approximately US$22 an ounce. And silver may climb 20% or more in the coming year, according to a recent report from Deutsche Bank.

Like Bedi, Natasha Ree, the Australian agent for Finland-founded Lapponia Jewelry, says consumers’ perception of silver has shifted because of its cost. “Silver is perceived as being a more precious metal now that its value has risen. I think the escalating gold price may inadvertently contribute to silver’s popularity. Silver is no longer the ‘poor cousin’ of gold.”

Lapponia – which also deals in gold and platinum – teams its pieces with organic gemstones and carved rock crystal, and the brand claims to have found a way around silver’s tarnish problem, which can be offputting for consumers looking for a high-quality metal.

 “Lapponia has a unique, patented, silver finish that is unlike any other silver product on the market,” Ree explains. “It does not tarnish or oxidise, which is often the downside of silver jewellery. It allows years of wear, without needing to be cleaned or polished. It is applied in a special chamber at an atomic level.”

Also combating the tarnish problem is Australian-made, hand-crafted, silver brand Pendants Australia, whose latest Oceania range features exotic flower pendants inspired by the Pacific islands. Managing director Duncan Michaelis says, “Pendants Australia does not plate our products – each piece is simply solid sterling silver. Our jewellery is highly polished in a four-part process to help prevent tarnish.”

Although the price of silver has been trending up in the past two years, Michaelis says it has only just made up ground on the 2008 high. “We believe that with the steady increase in the cost of gold, there will be a continued trend towards the white metal as jewellers look to maintain their list of new designs, without the excessive price of using gold.”

And cost is certainly an important consideration for designers and manufacturers. The cheaper price makes silver a more flexible metal to work with than, say, gold – because designers can be more experimental with lower risk.

This means innovative, quality design is actually easier to attain in silver than it is using more valuable precious metals, according to Michaelis. “The much lower cost of silver than gold frees us up to be more daring with our designs and less concerned as to whether a pendant will weigh too much and blow out our costs. We can add the quality of weight to designs without charging our clients a fortune,” he explains.

Kate Sutherland from Adelaide retailer Matthew’s Manufacturing Jeweller, who was a finalist in the silver design category at the 2010 JAA Australian Jewellery Awards, is equally enthusiastic about designing using this lower-cost precious metal. “I really like the reflection that you get from silver, because you’ve got the white and also the ‘shadow’ kind of reflection. It’s relatively soft and I think it’s just a really versatile metal,” she says.

Her shortlisted award entry was a striking neckpiece, called Pavonine, where she teamed the white metal with yellow gold, amethyst and labradorite – showing that silver doesn’t have to be exclusive to more cost-conscious designs.

Brown is also adamant that quality design isn’t exclusive to high priced materials such as gold. “I think good design is not connected to high priced metal,” he says, citing a German brand that RJ Scanlan carries called Sueno, as an example of marrying quality with price: “Although it’s ‘only’ silver, the quality and design makes it an appealing product.”

Laurian Ryan from Pastiche, a brand most well-known for its charm and bead collections, believes the lower cost of silver is no barrier to quality design – in fact, she says it has specific advantages for a fashion brand like Pastiche. “Designers can definitely achieve more innovative designs using more affordable materials. You are able to refresh the range more often and maintain a level of bold design for statement pieces, as well as classic pieces,” she says.

Ultimately, the metal that designers choose to work with, and retailers choose to stock, will come down to the most precious thing of all: value. Whether that be in terms of quality, price or design; if the Global Financial Crisis has taught us anything, it’s that consumers’ quest for value is stronger than ever before.

Trend tip
"There is a huge craze in white metals that is here to stay for the foreseeable future. However, for those who still prefer yellow gold, we are seeing it mixed up and worn strung together with white metals and other materials."
Eryn Behan, Ginger Trend Consulting

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