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Summer 2004
Faux, Fun and Fabulous

Baubles, bangles, bright shiny beads. The song may be old, but today’s costume jewelry is all new—and never more in vogue. From oversized faux gems to enamel pins to dainty charms, costume or “fashion” jewelry is big. American buyers are choosing fun, colorful, trendy pieces—lots of them—over the more costly real thing. They may be cutting back spending in some areas, but not costume jewelry: sales are expected to achieve near double-digit growth this year.

What’s going on? Why now? For one thing, faux designs are better than ever—better made, and better looking. And obviously, much more affordable than precious metals, fine gemstones, and upscale design—which means women can buy more of it. They don’t have to buy a $4,000 necklace when they can get one that looks similar for $8, says Ramona Mennillo, sales manager for Mi’Linea (Deerfield Beach, FL). Mennillo says costume jewelry generally consists of trendy pieces or copies of fine jewelry, but retails for much less than pieces made of precious metals like 14k gold or even sterling silver. So it won’t be solid gold and the gems won’t be real, but today’s costume jewelry is chic. It’s also “something that’s fun, a reflection of who you are right now,” says Susan Sheehan, jewelry designer and owner of Susansimages (West Chester, PA).

No matter how you look at it, the fact is, it’s in demand. Although fine jewelry was the darling of the industry a few years ago, sales of costume and better-grade “bridge” jewelry are heating up: approximately $7.6 billion in 2003, an increase of 7 percent over 2002, according to Accessories magazine.

Another signal that costume jewelry is hot: major department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s are shifting their focus and their floor space to accommodate more costume-jewelry inventory, says designer Vanessa Constanti of Bijoux Luck, Inc. (Portland, OR). “There’s a big demand for it,” she says.

A key reason for the industry’s move from fine jewelry to costume is the economy. Unwilling to make a major investment in high-end accessories, customers are indulging in less expensive pieces to follow the trends and brighten their spirits. “You can update your whole wardrobe with jewelry,” says Sheila Block, executive director of the Accessories Council, an industry organization. Rather than pay hundreds or thousands for jewelry with real sizzle, many shoppers will pay $20 or $30 for costume jewelry with upscale styling and materials that look real.

Fabulous faux

imageWith an average retail price of $35, Bijoux Luck jewelry fits within the general price range for costume jewelry. But because of this company’s materials and production techniques, it’s closer to “bridge” jewelry, a step up from costume-grade pieces. “We do costume jewelry, but we use nicer materials. We use the best faux you can buy,” says Constanti. That means glass rather than plastic, pearls that are hand-knotted, and other classic production techniques. “There’s no mass production feel,” she says.

It’s the little extras that make their products a cut above, she says. For example, the length of a necklace, where a necklace “falls” on the neckline, matters to the customer, she says. And preferences (and necklines) differ. So all Bijoux Luck necklaces are adjustable, so they appeal to a broad spectrum of customers. Incorporating quality features and materials like semi-precious stones and hand-dyed leather means giving good value with good-looking pieces.

The typical Bijoux Luck customer is a 25- to 45-year-old woman who spends an average of $500 a year on jewelry and watches. “Men tend to buy classic jewelry, because it’s safe,” Constanti says, whereas when women buy for themselves, “they’ll buy things that are more interesting.” Plus, women have more wardrobe choices they want to accessorize.

Carolyn Forsman’s jewelry is another fashionable line that’s more interesting than the typical run. Forsman is president and designer of functional yet attractive and often whimsical jewelry, which she markets as Carolyn Forsman Conversation Piece Jewelry (New York, NY). What began as a line of beaded barrettes for children and young women 25 years ago has grown to a wide variety of bracelets, necklaces, charms, rings, key chains and pins as well as her signature barrettes.

imageBeaded bracelets, clever “newspaper” pins, trendy flip-flop necklaces and more, this is a large assortment that’s reasonably priced: from rubber-band bracelets retailing at $1 and barrettes at $6 to crystal ribbon necklaces at $35, the top of her line. “Most of our pieces retail for $4 to $12,” she says.

What makes these pieces popular but not faddish is that, for Forsman, design is more important than trends. “The line is affected by pop culture, [but] we’re not a fad company,” she says. She has always had a design element that makes the pieces sophisticated, affordable and aesthetically pleasing rather than gaudy or cheap. Her customers are “everyone” with a certain degree of sophisticated taste. “We’re more defined by a taste level, [a desire for] clean design, than an age range.” And that translates to customers ranging in age from 8-12 to 50-60.

“The jewelry is inexpensive, but it’s not junk jewelry,” she says. And it lasts. Forsman has met mothers who had Carolyn Forsman barrettes as girls and are now handing them down to their daughters, a clear sign that the barrettes are durable. And collectable, she says.

For customers who want something with a more traditional feel, Forever Roses Jewelry (Ft. Worth, TX) is a popular choice. The company grows miniature flowers in its own greenhouse and then encapsulates them by hand in sterling silver pendants, necklaces, earrings, brooches and bracelets. Red roses are the most popular, says owner Rachel Shnitzer, but the company cultivates more than 24 varieties of mini flowers for its jewelry. Retail prices range from $14.95 to $68.95 for bracelets. Forever Roses also sells religious jewelry, such as crosses and Stars of David.

The typical buyer is a woman, although men often buy these pieces for their wives and daughters, Shnitzer says. While Forever Roses jewelry is sold mainly in gift shops and boutiques, the company currently sells to cart retailers in California, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon and Florida, and will be increasing the number of carts and kiosks it sells through.

Just as Forever Roses miniaturizes flowers for its jewelry, Susansimages’ Sheehan miniaturizes photographic images and applies them to polymer clay to create colorful pendants. What started as a special piece for her mother-in-law, who was battling cancer, has grown to a line of nine designs, each with an inspirational message on the back. For Sheehan’s mother-in-law, “I am quiet courage,” her own mantra, was on the reverse of a richly hued pendant with a purple iris in the center. Images on other pendants include a young girl, a sailboat, and flowers, with phrases such as “I am beautiful,” “Chase your dreams” and “Friendship is acceptance.” The jewelry appeals because “[customers] can identify with it—it’s not just a pretty piece,” she says. The pendants are reasonably priced ($28 on a leather cord, $35 for beaded), and durable enough to be worn every day.

Sheehan began seeing arts-and-crafts necklaces in upscale women’s catalogs about a year ago, and the look has been trending upward ever since. Susansimages’ style is selling well, reflecting the increased popularity of “art” pieces as accessories. She finds that women in their 30s-50s are attracted to the beaded pendants; teens and 20-somethings prefer the leather corded pendants, perhaps because they’re trendier.

License to sell

At one end of the costume-jewelry spectrum are the hand-crafted pieces; at the other end are mass-produced pieces featuring licensed brands and characters. That’s where Friends Incorporated has made its mark.

imageHeather Gallo, graphic designer and product developer with Friends Incorporated (Glastonbury, CT) says that when the company started in 1996, its products were classic pins and bookmarks. But over time, the company has gotten into designing and producing more trendy pieces such charm bracelets, beaded bracelets, necklaces, pins and rings, and ventured into licensing last summer. Now the company also produces Disney and Barbie accessories, as well as pieces under the Urban Vocab, Groovy Girls, and David and Goliath brands.

Friends has found that “jewelry seems to be a very hot category” on carts and kiosks, which are an especially strong market for the company’s Italian charms, says Gallo. (The company currently does business with approximately 150 carts nationwide.) Where jewelry stores are often a year behind the up-and-coming looks, the advantage of carts and kiosks is that “they can jump on trends faster,” she says—which is why Friends is looking to increase the number of carts they sell through.

At retail price points ranging from $1 (charms) to $10 (watches) to $16 (pre-made bracelets), Friends Incorporated appears to be onto something: Gallo says sales doubled in 2003, and are expected to double again in 2004.

For him

Although women are traditionally the primary buyers of costume jewelry, and while men do buy quality watches, rings and sometimes chains and bracelets for themselves, they’ve been a minuscule share of the costume-jewelry market. However, there are signs that costume jewelry for men is catching on. Perhaps on the heels of the so-called metrosexual revolution, men are turning to fashion jewelry designed for them.

One company that specializes in serving the male market is The Jewelry Works (St. Louis, MO). An estimated 50 percent of the company’s product line is designed solely for men. Owner Robert Rubin says sales of his jewelry for men are up more than 40 percent over the past two years.

The Jewelry Works offers more than 50 different styles, available in gold or silver. Customers range from teenagers to 60- and 70-year-old men and women, all of whom appreciate affordable jewelry that looks just as nice as the “good stuff” they might see in fine-jewelry stores.

“The kind of jewelry I sell doesn’t go in and out of fashion,” says Rubin. Most men usually buy a necklace and a matching bracelet for themselves, which together retail for $42. Rubin’s Roberto Classics line has a single price point for necklaces ($24) and one for bracelets ($18), which he finds makes the decision to purchase easier: customers don’t have to factor price into their selection. And the company offers a lifetime guarantee: they’ll replace broken or damaged merchandise at no charge (except shipping), a common practice among high-end jewelers but rare for a costume jewelry company.

The Jewelry Works is moving into more carts and kiosks. “We think we’ve found an untapped market,” says Rubin. Since costume jewelry for men is hard to find, carts and kiosks selling it have a distinct advantage over their mall-based competitors. But in some ways, such as with his displays, Rubin tries to emulate fine jewelry stores. Although his jewelry is often an impulse sale, “we try to present the jewelry [in ways] you’d find in a fine jewelry store.” But without the sticker shock.

On display

Presentation is everything in costume jewelry sales. “You can increase sales in the hundreds of percent just by your approach to merchandising,” says Gallo. “The main thing is having [the jewelry] displayed properly,” says Mennello.

Constanti emphasizes lighting as a display element. “It’s always important, but especially with jewelry.” So are mirrors, which are not only essential to selling jewelry, but catch the buyer’s eye no matter what the product. And she advises keeping the cart or kiosk uncluttered.

But inventory is equally important. By responding quickly to trends—swapping products that aren’t moving fast for products that are hot—cart and kiosk retailers can capitalize on current demand. “Try to keep the display looking generous,” says Constanti. “Show customers they have choices. ” She recommends having a broad array of a particular style, and a wide range of price points. That said, she says carts and kiosks that focus on one type of jewelry, such as sterling silver, are often more successful: “Specialized works better.”

Costume jewelry has come into its own. Today, with sophisticated designs and good materials, these accessories offer buyers a wide range of looks—glam, fun, traditional, and more. High style without high cost: costume jewelry is looking good.


Marcia Layton Turner

MarciaLaytonTurner.com -- Turner writes frequently for business publications. Her work has appeared in Business Week, Business 2.0, MyBusiness and numerous trade magazines. She is also the author of Emeril! (John Wiley & Sons, 2004).

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