Costume Jewelry's Golden Age

New York Times, November 23, 2009

For all its dizzying variety, jewelry tends to be categorized on the basis of one simple test: real or fake?

That is, either fine jewelry composed of genuine, precious materials - notably diamonds, platinum and 18-karat gold - rendered in classic, if predictable, styles designed to transcend the whims of fashion; or faux, costume, jewelry - fun, affordable, and à la mode, but scorned by serious connoisseurs for its disposability. Throughout history, never the twain did meet.

Then the boom years, from the mid-1990s onward, with their soaring demand for luxury goods, kicked off a process of cross-pollination. Fine jewelers began to mimic their counterparts in fashion, introducing semiprecious materials in trendy, price-point-focused designs intended to appeal to women buying their own jewelry. Fashion brands, meanwhile, began to covet the profit-making power of fine jewelry. Before long, the genres and their respective acolytes had fused.

“The other day we had a meeting and a woman in the office had an armload of bangles,” Ed Bucciarelli, chief executive and president of Henri Bendel, the venerable New York retailer, said. “Thirty percent were real and 70 percent were costume. They co-existed beautifully and that didn’t seem strange to anyone.”

The mashup of materials fine and faux takes its cues, of course, from Coco Chanel, the legendary couturière who dared to pair enormous fake pearls with high fashion 80 years ago, but it has taken on a new resonance in today’s battered marketplace.

“We’ve coasted through the recession because of the desire for our product now,” said Vicki Beamon, one half of Erickson Beamon, the fashion jewelry collection she launched in 1983 with her fellow designer Karen Erickson. “We do fine jewelry as well and for the minute, we’re putting that on the back burner - it’s really seeing a slump. As long as we’re having such a great time with designer fashion jewelry, we’ll put our focus on that.”

Erickson and Beamon are not the only ones beating a hasty retreat from the fine category. Constrained by the skyrocketing price of gold, which rose above $1,000 an ounce in October and appears lodged there, fine jewelers are migrating to the other side in numbers that would scarcely have seemed believable a few years ago.

They include Me&Ro, Stephen Dweck and the Italian design duo Faraone Mennella, all of whom recently introduced affordable lines of silver and gold-plated brass, sold through television shopping programs in order to add price diversity to their top-end businesses. Their less optimistic colleagues have abandoned the fine category altogether.

In 2008, for example, Janis Savitt left M+J Savitt, the diamond jewelry business that she started with her sisters 30 years ago in New York, to launch her own costume line, Janis by Janis Savitt, a collection of brass, steel and aluminum pieces that retail from $75 to $2,000.

“There’s a market for fine jewelry if it’s really something special,” Ms. Savitt said. “All the in-between is not happening. Commercial diamond jewelry is finished.”

Not to worry. Statement jewelry has conspicuously arrived to fill the void. Through sheer scale, the season’s most coveted pieces - tangled up necklaces of fabric, stones, chains, crystal and pearls (fake, of course) paired with stacks of bangles, all staged in Brobdingnagian proportions - eclipse any discussion of intrinsic value.

“You can have your signature ring or your signature necklace and you can wear it every day,” said Sharon Graubard, senior vice president of trend analysis at StyleSight, an online trend consultancy. “You can’t wear the same sweater every day.”

Ms. Graubard is spot-on about the interplay between fashion and accessories. According to the Luxury Goods Worldwide market study, released by Bain & Co. in October, women are trading down on fashion-forward outfits but staying true to accessories.

“They allow luxury shoppers to purchase items at a lower price but still remain loyal to their preferred brands,” Claudia D’Arpizio, the author of the study, said.