Jewelers rediscover silver

New York Times, December 11, 2008

NEW YORK — NEW YORK: Gurhan Orhan, a famed Turkish jeweler, carries a rectangular sheet of 24-karat gold in his wallet like a business card. It is a symbol of his love for this purest form of the metal, which he has helped to popularize in the decade since he started selling Gurhan brand jewelry from his base in New York.

So strong is Orhan's connection to 24-karat that when he unveiled his first collection in sterling silver last year fans could have been forgiven for thinking he had betrayed his long time muse.

"Initially, I started making silver because I realized that when gold prices rose three times, that I had lost my low price points," Orhan said. "But people enjoyed it and started asking for diamonds on it. When you start using diamonds on silver, you're missing the point."

The irony is not lost on anyone in the fine jewelry industry. After watching gold and platinum prices climb to historic highs in the spring, and then slip - the latter by more than $1,300 - to virtual parity for the first time in a decade, a number of high-end designers have rediscovered silver. In that process, they have sparked a few emerging trends.

Orhan, for example, plates his silver with black rhodium to give it a gunmetal gray finish, one take on the blackened metal look that has loomed large this year. Other designers have experimented with scale, relying on silver's predictable affordability to liberate them from the constraints of price.

"My first choice is always to do something quite bold and big," said Stephen Webster, an award-winning British jeweler who recently launched his first women's silver collection, with prices starting at $250. "So rather than trying to chase down a piece of gold that I can hardly see, we decided we'd do it in a material that I could really work with."

After watching demand in the jewelry sector fall for four straight years, the silver industry is also taking notice. In May, the Silver Institute, a nonprofit association in Washington that promotes the interests of silver miners, traders and wholesalers, revived a jewelry marketing program that had been dormant for seven years. Its new tagline, "Savor Silver," will be the rallying cry for a promotional campaign starting this month, including a new consumer Web site, trade outreach program and designer collaborations.

"All the other metals had groups behind them and we saw a void, and a marketing opportunity," said Michael Barlerin, the program manager in New York for the marketing initiative.

One of the ideas Barlerin intends to push is that a woman can build a jewelry wardrobe with silver more readily than she can with gold.

"The person who wants to buy five or 10 bangles doesn't want to go crazy," echoed Rhonda Faber Green, a designer in Los Angeles, noting that her two-year-old silver collection includes a silver bangle that retails for about one-fifth the price of the corresponding bangle in 22-karat gold.

Green said she devoted a year to developing her signature knurled and hammered finish, an example of how distinctive surface treatments can help designers, be they newcomers or longtime aficionados of the metal, to differentiate their upscale products from the rinky-dink baubles that once defined the category.

At New York's Slane & Slane, silver jewelry with the matte look of an heirloom has been a trademark of the brand since the sisters Heath and Landon Slane founded it in 1995.

"We like it not to look brand new," Landon Slane said. "You look at flatware that's passed down and it has a warmth to it. Why do people pass down their flatware from generation to generation in velvet-lined boxes yet there is no place for silver jewelry? We want to give it that same acclaim."