Statement Jewelry Fights Back

Back when J.Lo-style rocks started to lose their luster, many wondered what could possibly replace the dazzling allure of bling. Any remaining uncertainty was quashed on the autumn/winter ’08 and spring/summer ’09 runways, which were filled with equally showy statement jewelry. Whether inspired by nature or architecture, remote tribes or futuristic imaginings, each piece brought with it a swagger just as potent as turn-of-the-milennium ice.

So what’s behind this sudden jewelry fetish, which has already begun translating to the streets? Some insiders chalk it up to a trend toward minimalism in clothing itself. “As fashion becomes more simple and relaxed, it becomes a canvas for jewelry,” says designer Nina Stotler, of graceful, yet industrial line Von Kottwitz.

“I think a lot of shows would be rather boring without great jewelry and accessories,” adds Valery Demure, promoter of avant-garde accessory designers such as Ligia Dias and Florian Ladstaetter. “If you think of Vivienne Westwood’s s/s ’09 Red Label show, you recall the giant earrings, while Lanvin’s presentation is remembered for the oversized, 1930′s-inspired jewelry made of grosgrain, pearls and crystals.”

Others, such as fine jewelry designer Azature, believe the trend is making up for a devaluation of designer apparel at the hands of high-street copycats. “You can find replicas of designer clothing everywhere from H&M to Zara, which causes the originals to lose their exclusivity,” laments the designer, who has created a signature black diamond for his line of futuristic, unisex pieces.

“Outrageous dress has become commonplace with the rise of designer rip-offs. So what better way to speak of your own creativity than by wearing a fab piece that none of your friends would have the guts to wear?” adds Nathalie Kabiri, founder of preeminent London jewelry boutique Kabiri.

Although Saks named jewelry one of its strongest sellers for Q2 2008, and LVMH reported that its watch and jewelry category has shown the strongest growth so far this year, other reports show that the economic pall may cause this boom to be short lived. According to an American Express and Harrison Group study, planned spending on jewelry is down 15% from last year—the biggest drop of any luxury category. But fine jewelry brands, at least, are expecting their bubble to remain intact. “My diffusion line, AZ, has suffered a little—mostly because retailers are suffering,” says Azature. “But the private client who’s buying a six carat black diamond considers it an investment—probably the best one you can make in a recession. Diamonds increase in value, which isn’t true of a dress or a car.”

“This has been our strongest season ever,” agrees Bea Valdes, a designer known for dramatic, fantastical pieces made from semi-precious stones, beads, vintage crystals and other non-traditional materials. “I believe it’s because jewelry has a value beyond just one season. With every piece I design, I ask myself: ‘Will this still be enchanting 50 years from now?’”

Even many fashion jewelry brands are continuing to fare well, as long as they’re blessed with a one-of-a-kind, artisanal touch. “We haven’t felt the effects of the current climate directly and we feel jewelry, especially hand-crafted lines, will remain essential,” says Stotler, whose collections incorporate everything from crystals to chains and hardware. “Our clients consider our pieces wearable art—an investment that sets them apart from the crowd.”

“Our customers are still spending, but they want something unusual, whether that is a costume jewelry line that’s exclusive to us or a £20,000 pair of Ana de Costa tanzanite earrings,” adds Kabiri. “They also want full accreditation on any purchase—the biography of the designer, carats, ethical status. They want to know its value will be kept and they are not spending on something disposable.”

Although smaller jewelry labels may be preparing for a slowdown, most insiders agree their creativity is driving the current jewelry trend, giving them the power to make it through to the other side. “People want joy and comfort in times of dire straits, and creative expression is essential for our existence,” says Demure. Adds Valdes: “With the velocity of everything around us, statement jewelry straddles the poles of momentum and permanence. It’s our contemporary talisman.”

—Erin Magner

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