Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Industry on its head

Sorry to have been absent for quite so long, but this is show season, and I have been traveling the world to "see what's new." It has been a difficult, perhaps strange, tour that ends with the Hong Kong show that begins tomorrow. Thus far I have been to Vicenza Fair, the JA Show, the New York International Gift Fair, and the Bangkok Fair. I walked every hall of every show. 

I say difficult because the shows were not very productive from my point of view (I am working on merchandising fashion jewelry for a client). It has been strange because too much of the industry seems stranded in no-man's land. At every show I saw similar patterns. In a nutshell:

  • Many vendors have shifted entirely out of gold, no surprise, and mostly went into silver, though bronze and steel are no longer unusual. Most of these companies have not made the transition well, essentially translating their gold designs into new materials. They probably know it since they appear a bit in shock at how badly it is going. Too often, they force the issue on particular pieces or lines, expending a level of labor that makes the resulting products far too expensive for the category. That's just old habits. 
  • Those companies that have been in silver for a number of years also had problems. Many are too used to silver jewelry being low end (I could say junk) and fail to see that silver has assumed the mantle of good quality mid-priced lines that gold has been forced out of. Some vendors are inviting problems by using as low as .5 micron plating, silver posts on earrings (too soft), and both over-sized and under-sized designs in mis-placed efforts to save money or impress buyers. 
  • Gold jewelry, as it survives, is a mess. In searching through all the shows, a slim handful showed the innovation and understanding necessary to survive the huge paradigm shift we are experiencing.   Many companies persist in showing the same old styles, now wildly over-priced because the companies have not changed how they use and mark up gold.  Others continue to cater to Middle East and Russian markets with ornate, traditional styling.  Some stick to 18 karat gold, but lighten the mounting to the point of absurdity.  Might as well just make it in 10 karat. 
  • Color is widely used now as a relatively easy way to enlarge a piece. But how many times do we need to see the same bezel set color-by-yard necklaces? Too many "me too" companies here displaying mind-numbing repetitiveness. Still, here is where we find elegant collections that please the senses. 
  •  The use of diamonds, still the most important stone by far, works at the extremes, and is in trouble in the middle. I want to explore this more fully in another blog, perhaps after seeing what Hong Kong has to offer. 
The shows I visited so far are, unfortunately, a sad testament to the state of the manufacturing business. They were all too quiet, with only an occasional vendor expressing satisfaction.  There was a distinct lack of energy.  Many vendors openly admit they have no idea what to do next.  We are seeing a sad decline in innovation, partly because owners are unnerved by the changes - including geo-political and economic uncertainty - and partly from a reluctance to risk capital.  The pie is now smaller, with some companies taking bigger slices. It will take some years, but the transformation of the industry is under way.