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Winter 2005 Charmed

Once upon a time, charms were used to ward off enemies; a generation or two ago, they commemorated special events; and today, they’re just for fun and fashion—and they rake in dollars by the cartful.

From little girls to grandmas, females of all ages are scooping them up. “It’s people from all walks of life, ages 8-80 [who buy them],” says Timothy Downey, co-owner and VP of Casa D’Oro (Huntington Woods, MI), a charm bracelet manufacturer and wholesaler. And some of these ladies sport as many as four bracelets at a time. (Four bracelets times multiple charms per. Now it’s really interesting.) Plus all the charms dangling from handbags, laptop cases, phone covers, wallets, day planners and more—and it’s not just ladies only.

Why so popular? Downey says there’s just one reason: individuality. “Every [bracelet] is unique because the individual person builds it with charms representing items that are near and dear to them.” Numerous companies have numerous charms—Casa D’Oro alone offers more than 6,000 charms—making a one-of-a-kind collection on a bracelet a sure thing.

Whether you’re patriotic, sports crazy, a recent graduate, a shoe fanatic, a NASCAR fan, fashion diva, dog owner or Elvis worshipper, there’s a charm for it. Usually many charms for it. Put them on your wrist and it’s a conversation piece, a diversion, an amusement. Something personal but fun for everyone—friends, family and total strangers—to see every day. It’s fun and it’s contagious. In other words, it’s future customers.

A certain charm

There are several kinds of charms—kinds, not charms themselves (there are a bazillion charms). There’s the kind from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, usually 10k or 14k gold, the kind you had to take to a jeweler to attach to a 14k mutli-link charm bracelet. Some of those charms were tiny, some the size of a 50-cent coin, and many with at least a glimmer of a jewel—a diamond chip, the tiniest opal. They’re still very much in existence and back in fashion—but that’s not what the buzz is about.

Today’s buzz is about other kinds of charms and the bracelets they go on. Casa D’Oro specializes in Italian charm bracelets, the modular-link rage that swept Europe first and then the US. They’ve been around for a while, approximately seven or eight years, but don’t expect them to fade away anytime soon. “It’s not a fad, it’s a product category,” says Downey. Paul Sellon, owner of Cellini, Inc. (Warwick, RI), a manufacturer and importer that sells the classic style of charms, agrees: “It’s been around ten years and probably will be around for another ten years… It’s a long-term viable business,” he says. The category is an oasis of stability in a sea of changing whims and “next big things” for specialty retailers.

With magic price points and fast turns, sales can be phenomenal. Last year, kiosks stocked with Casa D’Oro charms made as much as $50,000 in sales for December, according to Downey. Paul Cappola, CEO of Unodomani (Oldsmar, FL), an Italian charms designer, reports a kiosk owner making sales of $24,000 in Reno in a single day, the Saturday before Christmas 2003.

Fill in the blanks

imageIf you dream about guaranteed repeat sales, dream no more: charms deliver. Once a customer buys a starter bracelet, the fun begins. A starter bracelet is filled with “blanks,” ready and waiting for future charm purchases. To tell their own story, customers make multiple purchases, one after another. And once they start, they find it hard to stop. “[They're] passionate about it because these are the things they love,” says Rick Jackson, owner of The Italia Collection (San Juan Bautista, CA). Another point he makes: “The charms are very collectible,” which adds another dimension to the repeat-sales profile: customers hunt for them, not unlike collectors on the trail of a limited edition.

The end result, of course, is more revenue in the retailer’s till. A buyer paying $15 a charm will have spent $285 by the time she completes her 19-link bracelet, notes Steve Wall, owner of Charm King, a wholesaler and manufacturer (Jacksonville, OR)—and that’s not including the bracelet itself. If she had to pay $285 out of the starting gate, chances are there wouldn’t be a sale. But spread over weeks and months, $15 a pop—often an impulse buy—is not only painless but great fun, and even a little addictive. “They’ll come back six to twelve times a year—they get hooked on it,” says Sellon.

Another bonus: the competition. This might sound crazy, but for this product, competition’s not such a bad thing. “It’s one industry where the manufacturers use the same basic technology, so they all interchange. It benefits most of us. Most importantly, it benefits the retailer,” says Downey. Any retailer can be part of a customer’s ongoing charm crusade as long as they sell the same type of charm, which is easy because, as noted, many of the best-selling lines are interchangeable.

To keep things interesting for buyers and lucrative for sellers, manufacturers dish up a steady stream of new charm designs, one after another, to keep pace with life at the moment and to keep customers coming back for the latest gotta-have-it charm. “We have thousands of charms, and we add 300-500 new styles a year to keep it fresh, viable and current,” says Sellon. “If you stay old and boring, it won’t be relevant to today’s people,” he says, and they won’t buy what’s old. He also recommends carrying three to five styles of starter bracelets so customers have a choice to start with.

Carrying a good variety is key. “To really do business with this, you have to make a commitment to it financially and stock some charms,” says Downey. “We’d rather see you carry ten different charms than ten of one charm. Variety is the spice of sales.” To show even more styles, Downey also recommends keeping an open catalog at the retailer’s location.

Another plus: This is one product category where specialty retailers aren’t constricted by space limitations. Because charms are so small, the average kiosk can hold 2,000-3,000 styles, says Downey. And if space does become a problem, point-of-purchase displays come in handy. “We have point-of-purchase displays that are extremely small and hold a large, large volume for kiosk owners who have limited space,” he says. Headers are available, as well, for announcing occasions and holidays like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc.

Mod link world

imageA retailer pursuing the charm market needs to know a few things first. “The whole industry has changed. It originally came out of Italy; now there are a number of spin-offs,” says Wall. With the many wholesalers in the game, retailers can shop the market and choose a number of best-selling styles.

The Italian charm bracelet or modular link bracelet, as it is sometimes called, is the best-known. The stretchable bracelet accommodates 18-20 interlocking links or charms. Although a range of sizes is available, starting as small as 5mm ankle bracelets, 90-95 percent of the business is generated on 9mm, says Downey. Casa D’Oro’s bracelet links are made of stainless steel, and the charms are cast in 18k gold, sterling, or metal alloy. The company has several manufacturing plants worldwide and, yes, some are in Italy.

Licensed images are particularly strong sellers. “We have over 150 licensed property categories,” says Downey, including Mary Engelbreit, Care Bears, Precious Moments, Coca-Cola, Campbell’s Soup, and Cabbage Patch Kids, to name just a few. Italia Collection’s licenses include TV classics like Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie and Archie. Jackson credits America’s nostalgia trend for many of the popular images on the company’s charms. “When you get older, you fondly look back at your childhood. It’s a fuzzy warm feeling when you see them.” Prices are competitive, he says.

imageAnd for something truly unique, Linx & More (West Hills, CA) have dreamed up three fun lines: charm chicks, charm dudes, and career chicks. These three-piece charms have heads, legs and torsos. Each chick has a name (like Sophie or Zoe), or occupation (like Nurse Chick or Taxi Mom), or sport (like soccer or baseball). There’s even Baby on Board chick, whose middle can be switched from pregnant mom to mom holding baby.

For the ultimate in customization, try laser charms. At Charm King, images (usually monochromatic) are laser-engraved on a charm blank and coated with a sealant to protect the image from normal wear and tear. “What we sell are a lot of localized charms, charms that are specific to the schools with their names or mascots,” says Wall. Retailers can research schools in their area, place their order, and carry the customized charms in their standing inventory. Customization also extends to photo charms—give them a photograph, they shrink it down and—voilà!—it’s a charm. “It’s extremely personal,” says Wall.

Debbie Spray, owner of Charm Bazaar (Roseville, CA), also manufactures laser charms, of which the “Personalize It” line is the strongest. Customers who want a name or date or special design on a charm—and many do—put in an order and come back to pick it up. Spray estimates retailers place 50-70 personalized orders a week during peak times like back-to-school and Christmas. Two of the most popular styles are stick figures of boys and girls with personalized names, and wedding rings with personalized wedding dates. Because they’re manufactured in the US, as are Charm King’s, turnaround is fast, usually 24-48 hours.

The newest development in custom charms comes from Roland DGA. Their METAZA MPX-60 Photo Impact Printer produces custom jewelry pieces, including charms. The process is a unique method that permanently imprints graphics and text directly onto charms. It’s easy to use and takes up little space, says David Olson, the company’s sales and marketing executive, so it’s fast becoming popular among cart and kiosk retailers.

Jingle-jangle

But back to the traditional charm bracelet: it’s still important. And the best part for retailers is that the bracelets hold as many as 40-50 charms. “Classic [charm bracelets] have been around for fifty years. They’re one of the strongest classifications,” says Sellon. At Cellini, charms are three-dimensional sterling silver cast. Unlike the modular style, these are the kind that dangle, move and even clink a little (or a lot: remember that funny scene in Auntie Mame?). For many, that jingle-jangle is the perfect sound.

Years ago, only gold mattered, but today’s charms are also crafted in silver and other white metals, and designs are updated. Right now, big sellers include ladies’ shoes (specifically high-heels), sandals and flip-flops; handbags (the kind we used to call “pocketbooks”); and cell phones. Other popular styles: bugs and butterflies, birds and sea creatures, hearts, palm trees and more. Clasps have been updated, as well: no more trips to the jeweler. “We created a coil link, like a key-chain ring. It’s made it a lot easier for customers,” says Sellon.

Unodomani, known for modular link bracelets, is now selling Italian sterling-silver bead bracelets to 90 percent of their cart retailers. Called “the next revolution in modular bracelets,” the beads screw into place. The charms are just as personal, reflecting a variety of hobbies and passions: sailboats, horseshoes, VWs, pigs, dolphins, billiard balls and more. “[They have] an upscale, sophisticated look that doesn’t exist in modular jewelry,” says Chris Gill, owner of Countryside Italian Charms (Clearwater, FL), and one of the first retailers to try this line. Unodomani’s bead line, called Biagi Italian Bead Bracelets, is interchangeable with Pandora and Chamilia beads. “That’s why Italian charms took off. They were standardized… That’s what we feel will happen with bead bracelets,” says Cappola.

imageMessage Connextion (Hallandale, FL) has introduced an envelope locket that’s worn on a leather strap. The flap of the envelope opens to reveal an uplifting message, or you can put in your own message, even a picture. “It’s pretty; it’s romantic. There isn’t anything like it in the market. It’s all the things women understand and men don’t,” says Barry Potter, co-owner. There are hundreds of styles, like hearts and initials, and 20 messages including Live in the Moment, My Dog Loves Me, Friends Forever, and Follow Your Dreams.

Specialty retailers may balk at the higher prices ($40 wholesale, $100 retail), but Potter says kiosks do just fine. “We spend an enormous amount on advertising,” says Potter. They appeared in August’s InStyle, September’s Vogue and November’s Harper’s Bazaar, which Potter credits for driving the business, and which retailers attest to: “People come in to request it,” says Andrew Koppel, owner of Maurice’s Jewelers (Miami, FL).

So charming

High style, high demand. Modest price points. Huge variety and constant streams of new designs. Personal, collectible, “addictive”—repeat business practically by definition. Bigger than Beanies, and no end in sight. Fad, no; trend, yes—long-term and lucrative. Now that’s charming.


Emily Lambert

Lambert, a senior writer for SRR, resides in Philadelphia. She can be reached at .

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