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Indelible impressions

The phenomenon of branding in recent years has irrevocably changed Australian jewellery retailing. NICK LORD chats with a few of the key players.

The influx of brands into the Australian jewellery retail environment in the past five years is not at all unexpected, and yet the reactions of surprise and general unpreparedness from ma-and-pa stores must be a source of some bewilderment to other industries where branding is well ensconced.

After all, jewellery branding is little more than a natural extension of the same marketing and manufacturing strategies that have existed for decades in other fashion-related industries, such as clothing and make-up. Even in jewellery itself, brands are nothing new – Cartier, Bulgari and Chopard are just a few of the world’s leading high-fashion labels that have been churning out branded jewellery for decades, while luxury retailers such as Tiffany & Co and Harry Winston have been offering the experience of extravagance to entire generations of affluent consumers.

Despite this rich history, independent jewellers across the country remained largely resistant to branded jewellery until the charm explosion of 2008-09. With its modern reinvention of the charm bracelet, Danish company Pandora Jewelry dragged the industry, kicking and screaming, into the branding age with keen onlookers observing that Pandora’s aggressive marketing strategies were as responsible as its unique product for propelling the group to sales stardom.

Early efforts by suppliers and retailers alike to claw a piece of Pandora’s pie were elementary at best but, as knowledge of the science of branding grows, the industry is now seeing some spectacular results in Australia.

Josh Zarb, director of retail buying group Leading Edge, pinpoints promotion as paramount to the popularity of brands. “Branded jewellery in Australia has become so popular so quickly because of the consumer’s willingness to respond to products promoted by intelligent and aggressive marketing strategies adopted by brands that have the support of an international marketing program,” he says.

Today, brands in jewellery are everywhere, pervasive and omnipresent, woven into the fabric of the retail jewellery experience. Stores overflow with promotional merchandise – their point-of-sale (POS) counters hide beneath promotional hooplah; their windows suffocate behind posters and stickers; their aisles act as pathways to towering cabinets that espouse aspirational lifestyle messages about who they would like us to be. And yet more brands are bursting onto the market with every passing day, leaving one to wonder if stores aren’t reaching breaking point.

Duraflex is the distributor of Thomas Sabo sterling silver jewellery and charms, Bonnard stainless steel jewellery and a fist-full of watch brands. The group also develops and markets its own house brands, including Argenta sterling silver jewellery, Opula freshwater pearls, Sashima shell-based pearls and Mirelle gold-plated jewellery.  Managing director Phil Edwards dismisses the suggestion that there are too many brands, citing the watch sector as a perfect example of how a market can find and sustain equilibrium with a large number of entrants. On the contrary, he stresses that Australia is very much a branding infant with much to learn.

“There’s no question that Australian jewellery is a beginner in the world of branding. Watch brands have been around for years, and there are hundreds of them,” Edwards says. “The jewellery industry is only just starting to wake up to what consumers want.”

If anything, it is only the beads and charms sector that is showing signs of approaching a growth zenith, according to Edwards, and thus giving a skewed impression that the entire market for branded jewellery is approaching saturation when it actually isn’t.

“What has happened with charms is rather incredible,” he continues. “Still now, there is no sign of any decrease and Thomas Sabo continues to enjoy month-by-month growth. We feel charms have a long way to go yet, but one wonders if the current growth figures are sustainable, especially with the number of copycat brands entering the market.”

Edwards is quick to point out that he believes Thomas Sabo is less affected by copycat brands than other charm companies because its unique design makes it difficult to imitate and because, ultimately, the core of Thomas Sabo’s business is not actually charms.

“A lot of people in Australia aren’t aware that Thomas Sabo is a 25-year-old traditional jewellery company that added charms for a bit of fun,” he explains, adding that diversity is key to avoiding any future waning in the popularity of branded charm jewellery. “The Thomas Sabo Charm Club has been enormously successful and continues to educate jewellers and consumers about Thomas Sabo jewellery but it is not the only line we have.”

Melinda Beneke is a head sales rep with Oro Collections, a company whose folio of Italian brands includes Nomination stainless steel and silver jewellery, Giada stainless steel men’s jewellery, Tedora silver beads and, most recently, Kameleon interchangeable jewellery.

Beneke believes the growth in branded jewellery in Australia has been so rapid because the market is being driven from both sides: by the consumer and by the retailer. “Consumers enjoy wearing branded products – whether it be jewellery, clothes, shoes or otherwise – because it shows they are keeping with the fashion,” she says, “but many retailers are also looking for branded jewellery to compliment their own pieces.”

Fashion jewellery brands have had the most initial success with branding because they are more closely aligned to other fashion sectors such as clothing, according to Beneke.

Fashion jewellery manufacturers, like Oro Collections’ Nomination, can offer product at “a competitive price and focus on new concepts to capture the consumers’ creativity for their wardrobe,” she says, adding that a depressed economic climate has helped fuel demand for stock positioned at lower price-points: “The economic climate and (rising) gold prices have not helped the jewellery industry. People are looking at spending less but still wanting to keep up with the fashion trends.”

Another company that has realized this and adjusted its product line accordingly has been Georgini, a group that is experiencing success with its silver and cubic zirconia jewellery collection, High Shine.

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“This season, we made the decision to focus on items with a lower price-point,” says manager Marissa Gouras, “because everyone wants affordability. For us, it was as simple as designing with a price point in mind. Customers love inexpensive items as gifts.”

Oro Collections is also aware of the need for companies to react to shifting trends. Hinting at a possible saturation in the charm and beads market, Beneke cites Kameleon jewellery as one way that Oro is thinking ahead of the pack. “When the beads and charms slow down, we already have Kameleon to step into its shoes; Kameleon is a new concept to Australia with interchangeable jewellery,” she explains.

Of course, while charms and beads are going strong, suppliers will continue to work to breathe longevity into the sector, and one way for brands to do this is by exercising restraint over distribution. Many suppliers offer their products to just one stockist per region in a bid to build relationships of exclusivity with retailers and to stave off saturation.

“We have been very conscious of the possibility of saturation in charms, and have worked hard to ensure the brand has a long life ahead,” Edwards says of the Duraflex-distributed Thomas Sabo. “We do this by selecting appropriate stockists – only one per region, small town or shopping centre. We believe it’s the key way to avoid saturation,” he continues, specifying, “Of course, regions aren’t as simply defined geographically and must always be assessed on an individual case-by-case basis.”

Jill Nash, director of branded pearl line Lust Pearls, is another who strongly advocates restricted supply as a way to honour the brand.

“Lust Peals offers exclusive trading areas,” Nash says. “We only ever allocate one stockist to an area, and absolutely only one to a shopping centre. You will also never find Lust Pearls in a chain store – Lust Pearls is offered at a fine jewellery price-point and you simply can’t have more than one jeweller per region.”

The benefit to retailers is instant, according to Ross Paterson, director, Paterson Fine Jewellery. “In most cases, branded product is not sold to competing shops, so there is an advantage that the product will bring consumers into a shop that they normally wouldn’t visit,” says Paterson.

Product exclusivity is not an issue that brands take lightly as the value of their brand depends upon it. Perhaps the best example of its importance can be seen in the tremendous secrecy that branded jewellery manufacturers now place upon their new product releases. When questioned about their forthcoming lines, all of the distributors either wouldn’t disclose what product was coming or didn’t yet know.

Jo Tory, director of gold and silver jewellery brand Najo, was perhaps most forthcoming, offering, “Natural forms and motifs are woven throughout the new Najo Collection, due to be released this August. Consistent with the current fashions of eclectic pieces layered to create the Boho look, we have translated traditional design into a contemporary range of silver jewellery.”

Thomas Sabo was more secretive, not even informing its own distributor of forthcoming lines until they happen. “Thomas Sabo launches new product every six months,” Edwards says, “New charms, jewels and watches, but I don’t even know what’s coming next.”

What suppliers do know is that new product lines often bring new retail offerings to help brands further establish that crucial point of difference.

“We already supply retailers with the full package but we’re still always looking for ways we can further promote the brand within the stores,” Gouras says. “For example, we’re just about to release a gift-with-purchase promotion in which we have selected a small number of gift options that retailers can use to encourage sales.”

One can’t help but view the trend of product secrecy as an example of how the branded jewellery industry continues to learn from other industries – in this case, computer and consumer electronics giant Apple, a company who is unrelenting in its efforts to stop the market getting even a glimpse of a new product prior to its launch.

As brands move to protect their intellectual property in the hope of not tipping off their competitors, it is the consumer who ultimately wins. Particularly in Australia, a country where jewellery trends have historically lagged behind Europe and America, consumers are now reaping the benefits of truly global product launches.

“The day new product hits the international Thomas Sabo website, we get enquiries. So there can no longer be any delay between what is available overseas and is available in Australia,” Edwards says. “Today’s consumers are conditioned to expect immediacy; if you can’t offer it, they’re not going to be interested.”

Product is just one part of the overall brand offering and brands flex their control muscles further with the inclusion of now ubiquitous marketing material plastered all over the stores of any stockists. Posters, brochures, POS display stands, lit cabinets and packaging have long been automatic inclusions for retailers who sign on with a brand, all part of a concerted effort to promote a consistent brand identity across all stores, but controlling consistency across stockists is emerging as the next great challenge for brands.

Already, brands are moving to introduce flagship brand boutiques in a bid to reinforce their brand identity and to give them greater control over the way their brand is portrayed at retail level. Whether this strategy will expand to see the emergence of an army of brand boutiques will probably be determined by how well retailers pass the message along.

After all, according to Tory, it’s all about identity: “The public is not ignorant. If you brand, it has to be identifying something and that is a design ethic or a lifestyle ethic that relates to a target audience. There are a lot of companies slapping logos on jewellery and calling it a brand but ultimately that just becomes a collection of jewellery that has a name only, and not an identity. In the end, the product branding must underpin the jewellery.”

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