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The Fashionable Return of Fine Jewellery

Long considered an unmodern vestige of a more formal era, fine jewellery is seeing the beginnings of a fashionable resurgence. BoF reports.
Repossi | Source: Repossi
  • Hettie Judah

LONDON, United Kingdom — For those with the money to spend, fashion and fine jewellery were once keen bedfellows. Wallis Simpson's chic ensembles were offset by bespoke pieces from Cartier, light and elegant in design yet heavy with exceptional gemstones. In the 1930s, the socialite Daisy Fellowes — for whom Elsa Schiaparelli created her famous shocking pink gown — commissioned extraordinary modern works from Van Cleef & Arpels, including fringed diamond and emerald bracelets that could be joined together as a necklace.

But over the years, fine jewellery lost its connection to the world of contemporary fashion. By the 1970s, suites of gold jewellery set with gemstones were considered un-modern, redolent of a more formal era in which evening engagements called for women to wear a classic parure. No longer in step with the modes of modern life or dress, fine jewellery became the preserve of dusty European nobility or ageing sex symbols, clinging onto their sapphires as their own lustre dimmed.

Since the 1990s, the film and television awards season has provided a stage for actresses to parade in front of the cameras in wide-skirted, tight-bodiced dresses reminiscent of the Hollywood golden years, but the dazzling gemstones worn by stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Gina Lollobrigida did not return to favour alongside the frocks. Indeed, while the media picks over almost every nuance of every outfit, the borrowed jewels seen on the red carpet rarely attract similar attention.

In small but significant ways, however, recent seasons have seen fashion and fine jewellery coming into step again. On the red carpet, this has manifested itself in the multi-ringed ear cuffs in precious metal and diamonds that have started to complement the looks of stylish actresses like Emma Watson and Cate Blanchett. Importantly, the ear cuffs don't look like awkward accoutrements or product placement; they look like self-expression. Ear cuffs are now very much in vogue, but the pieces that have driven the trend are made by the Paris-based jewellery house Repossi, and come in rose, pink and black gold, often fully set with diamonds and with price tags in the high four figures to match their Place Vendôme provenance.

"I didn't want to wear jewellery that I felt bourgeois with — like pearls — I wanted to be more of a tomboy; I was attracted by different things," explains Gaia Repossi, who in 2006, aged 20 and still studying for her master's degree, became artistic director of the firm started by her great grandfather in the 1920s. In 2011, she launched the Berbère collection, aimed at girls like her who "didn't like jewellery, either because they didn't look smart with it, or because it was too ostentatious, or too bourgeois or just not modern enough for a conquering modern woman." The collection, which included the first version of the now iconic ear cuffs, as well as equally trend-setting multi-hooped rings, now encompasses more than 275 variations of these core designs, with, at the upper end, a four-hooped ring in gold, set with diamonds, which retails at Barneys New York for $18,415.

In 2013, the company sold around 10,000 pieces of jewellery (4,000 of these from the Berbère collection), growing total sales by 27 percent on the year before. And by the end of the year, Repossi had 81 points of sale worldwide, up from only 35 in 2011. What’s more, the list of celebrities pictured wearing pieces from Repossi could, at this point, double as a ranking of the 50 best-dressed people in the world.

There is a natural limit to the house’s growth, however, as Repossi pieces are currently made by hand, in the same ateliers operated by Gaia Repossi’s father and grandfather. “I’m very scared of producing on a scale that would make the product lose quality,” she explains. “It’s very hard to combine good design and craftsmanship with massive expansion.”

While Repossi’s sales figures, on the one hand, reflect the growth of a new market for fashionable fine jewellery, they also reflect an exceptional combination of audacity and integrity: a very young, strongly opinionated and modern creative director with the craftsmanship, commercial relationships and expertise of a long-established house at her disposal. But the impact of this combination is perhaps a sign of what a similar shakeup could achieve at other, larger, jewelry houses.

Few contemporary jewellers are better placed to observe the evolving relationship between high fashion and high jewellery than Shaun Leane. After classical training and an early career in Hatton Gardens, London's traditional jewellery district, Leane began to work closely with Alexander McQueen, creating high-impact catwalk pieces such as the leather and aluminium Spine corset from Spring/ Summer 1998. "Working with McQueen gave me a platform where there were no boundaries," Leane recalls. "Fashion is all about personality and style; why shouldn't jewellery be the same? Classic jewellery pieces were very much of one style in the old days — today it looks quite dated. If you're going to wear an amazing McQueen dress, you're going to want something that looks right with that."

The typical Shaun Leane customer spends $15,000 to $20,000 on a piece of jewellery, a level Leane also identifies as the upper end of what his customers feel comfortable wearing during the day. “Daytime jewellery used to be costume or silver jewellery — particularly in the US, my clients now feel very comfortable wearing pieces day to day.” With 69 points of sale worldwide, including Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and Harvey Nichols in Kuwait, between 2012 and 2013, the company saw a 23 percent increase in sales of its fine jewellery collections.

In the same period, sales of Shaun Leane’s bespoke rose even faster, by 38 percent, and it’s at this top end of the market that Leane sees the most exciting shifts. “There’s a real demand for unique individual pieces with a real personal touch,” he explains. “We’ve gone back to it all being about design and individuality. I do think that things are going more in that direction general. The only way the big houses are going to get their identities back is through design.”

The recent appointment of Francesca Amfitheatrof as design director of Tiffany and Company, the largest luxury jewellery retailer in the US, certainly suggests the start of a shift in this direction. A graduate of London's Central Saint Martin's and Royal College of Art, Amfitheatrof's background includes work in the fields of fine art and design, as well as the high fashion end of the jewellery industry. She has, in the past, created collections for Chanel, Fendi and Marni, while her eponymous jewellery line was stocked in influential stores like Colette. While Amfitheatrof's first collection for Tiffany has yet to drop, her appointment is nevertheless a clear sign of management's desire to contemporarise the company's offerings.

According to jeweller Annoushka Ducas, one of the most striking things about the recent shift in the jewellery market is that it’s fuelled largely by women who are purchasing expensive pieces for themselves. “Eight-five percent of my customers are women and most of the rest are buying under instruction from women,” she explains. “It has changed so much; women are now happy to spend quite a lot of money on an investment, rather than on a handbag that changes season on season.” Ducas was a co-founder of the successful high street jewellery chain Links of London, which she sold in 2006, before launching a line of fine jewellery line called Annoushka, which offers pieces ranging in price from about $660 to $50,000.

Ducas says her average customer now spends between $3,300 and $5,000. That kind of budget would buy a pair of drop earrings in rose gold set with diamonds and topaz, for example, or a fish-shaped pendant set with sapphire and brown and black diamonds: personal, often rather whimsical designs, destined for everyday wear.

Four years after its launch, Annoushka has two standalone stores, as well as concessions in London department stores Harrods, Liberty, Selfridges and Harvey Nichols. Like-for-like sales are growing at over 20 percent and the brand is anticipating sales of £8 million (about $13 million) for the year ending July 2014.

As with Repossi, part of the driving ethos of Annoushka is a desire to remove some of the pomp and reverence surrounding the sale and wearing of fine jewellery, while respecting traditional craftsmanship and quality. “Most people no longer have occasion to put jewellery in a drawer and wear in once a year,” says Ducas. While many of the Annoushka pieces are made in limited, numbered editions, she intends them to be adapted to the wearer’s everyday life; they’re there to dress up a pair of jeans, not just to accessorise a gown.

Interestingly, the emergence of a consumer prepared to spend four- or five-figure sums on contemporary fine jewellery is thanks, in part, to the dramatic rise in the price of other fashion products over the last five years. Indeed, as those dedicated to high fashion become acclimatised to spending thousands of dollars on a coat, handbag or pair of shoes, it has become less of a psychological leap to spend a similar sum on a piece of jewellery that will almost certainly last longer.

Influential retailer Dover Street Market has expanded its jewellery offering substantially since launching its first store, in London, ten years ago. "The main shift seems to be that people are especially appreciative of being able to see things based on merit of design and creation, and presented in a new and interesting way," says Dickon Bowden, vice president of Dover Street Market. "Dover Street Market [is the opposite of] the mostly staid and antiquated environments of traditional jewellery outlets." The retailer, which is about to launch an exclusive new line from Repossi, sell pieces priced anywhere from few hundred dollars to $83,000.

Shaun Leane notes that it was only quite recently that he realised how close the relationship between purchasing patterns for fine jewellery and other luxury accessories had become. He tells a story of a New York client whose husband had bought her a $60,000 crocodile Birkin bag who came to his London studio and admired a bracelet that he was wearing. “It came as a shock to me that the bag cost the same as the bracelet, which was made in 18 carat white gold with 10 carats of diamonds,” recalls Leane. “She said that she’d much rather have had the bracelet.”

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