What’s Selling in The Southeast?

April is, indeed, the cruelest month, say jewelry retailers in the Southeast. But that’s hardly news. What is news is that reports of the demise of jewelry sales in this region have been greatly exaggerated. While business isn’t exactly going gangbusters in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the regional favorites are still selling.

national jeweler spoke to a handful of retailers in the Southeast to find out what’s selling and what’s not in their area. Surprise, surprise: diamonds, David Yurman and Rolex are these jewelers’ best friends.

The cornerstone of most businesses in the Southeast is diamond jewelry, primarily in the engagement ring category. Preferences run overwhelmingly toward the round brilliant cut, with the princess cut coming in a distant second. Fancy cuts, such as pear and heart shapes, sell very occasionally. And, according to more than a few jewelers, the marquise cut is well on its way out. But that’s where the agreements end.

Jewelers are all over the place on qualities and price points, with sales ranging from clarity-enhanced stones in the thousand dollar tier all the way up to six figures for colorless, faintly flawed rocks sold in the region’s big-money bastions, such as Palm Beach. Yet it is clear that De Beers’ marketing efforts have paid off everywhere.

“Diamond is my main business,” says Todd Condon of Condon Jewelers in Jensen Beach, Fla. “I concentrate on the basics. If that’s not the No. 1 reason people come to my store, I don’t know what is.”

Diamond earrings and diamond pendants are also strong regional sellers, with the round-brilliant cut again taking the lead. As for the sizes that sell, weights start at a half-carat and go up from there, typically reaching a ceiling of about 1 1/2 carets, although several jewelers said, in mildly surprised tones, that they recently scored some big diamond sales up to four carats in total weight.

“In engagement ring price points, our niche is $5,000 to $10,000. But right now, I’m working on a 4-carat piece that’s $70,000 and one that’s $20,000,” says Bonn Simon of Facets Jewelers in Virginia Beach, Va. “Now that’s unusual.”

Colored-stone sales, on the other hand, have been in a slump for the past several years, say Southeast jewelers almost unanimously. When prospective customers walk into a store, they’re not seeking color and, if they are, it’s more often than not going to be blue sapphire. The vast array of offbeat color on today’s market-from flame-colore citrine to violet-infused tanzanite–rarely penetrates this more conservative arena, where diamond sales eclipse almost every other jewelry category.

“Our colored stone sales have been weak for a few years,” says Simon. “We have a big inventory of color, both loose and mounted. But I guess it’s question of priorities. I think color is a harder sale for most salespeople. It’s easier to follow the typical diamond, gold, two-tone route.”

Pearls have also seen better days, with many people reporting “so-so” sales since before Christmastime. Among the jewelers who carry Chinese freshwaters, they report that the market seems to have swallowed up the akoya pearl, leaving the saltwater action to the bigger and pricier South Sea and Tahitian pearls.

“I think the freshwaters have jumpstarted the [pearl] market,” says Condon. “Now, I am selling three freshwaters to every one saltwater. I have increased my pearl business 25% to 30% since getting into freshwaters.”

Reports indicate the South Sea and Tahitian gems are selling in earrings or pendants, but rarely as necklaces, largely due to price. “A 12 mm South Sea pearl necklace doesn’t sell like a 7 1/2 mm akoya necklace did,” says Simon.

On the metals front, the leader in sales–by dollar value and often by unit–is platinum, which has helped stave off the yellow gold revival, at least for the time being.

“In bridal, right now, it’s platinum solitaires and three-stone rings,” says Tim Haney of Haney Jewelry Co. in Calhoun, Ga.

The platinum craze has made white-metal lovers out of women in the non-bridal category, too, showing strong gains in earrings and pendants. Many jewelers say this is typical of this sector of the country, where the fashion world’s trends take a good year or two to sink in.

“We do well with pendants and earrings in platinum and have been doing well for the last four years,” says Brenda Philemon of Garibaldi & Bruns in Charlotte, N.C. “We have not seen yellow gold make its comeback.”

But what has become firmly entrenched in the Southeast jewelry scene is designer jewelry with a name. David Yurman and Lagos are two designer collections that have found their niche in this part of the country. According to many jewelers, their designs boast the right amount of name recognition to draw customers into the store, not to mention that the pieces bear the signature qualities that define a successful brand.

“We do well with Yurman’s complete line,” says Philemon. “I’ve been in the business 25 years and he’s the most recognized name in the jewelry industry that I’ve ever seen.”

Of course, there are so regional favorites to contend with even within the Southeast, with Florida buying tastes running to bigger and flashier pieces, for example. These region within-a-region preferences play out in each individual store, forcing jewelers to constantly fine-tune their merchandise mix so that it appeals to their customers’ sense of fashion.

“We’re on the East Coast and are very influenced by the Northeast, New Jersey, New Yorkers,” says Condon, whose Jensen Beach location is firmly planted on U.S. 1, the panhandle’s main thoroughfare. “It’s a lot more show — pretty but big. It’s got to be big. They called my original selection ‘baby jewelry.’ I had to clearance out all of that stuff.”

Another stronghold in Florida is marine-inspired jewelry, continues Condon. Whale pendants, sand dollar earnings and turtle bracelets, among dozens of other sea-life designs created in 14-karat gold, are finding favor in Florida’s coastal communities at the moment.

Condon says his two strongest up-and-coming lines are the Wyland Gold collection (an offshoot venture Wyland, the ubiquitous marine-life artist whose paintings and sculptures are found in galleries, museums and gift shop from Hawaii to the Florida Keys) and Guy Harvey Gold, a collection put together by a local artist who recently expanded his thriving sea-life T-shirt business into gold jewelry. Harvey now produces pieces like golden manatees with emerald eyes, shell bracelets, game-fish pendants and assorted charms that retail from $800 to $900.

“The sea-life category has been great for us,” says Condon. “About two years ago, we really started to concentrate on it. We can’t keep it in the store. And it’s gold, so there’s a good markup.”

In the watch category, Southeast retailers report varying degrees of success, describing sales as brisk, sluggish and everything in between. For some retailers, watches are a pillar of the business, as with Facets Jewelers, where Rolex is king. For other retailers, watches are a drain on resources, presenting far more headaches than profits. But there doesn’t seem to be any real pattern to suggest who falls into which classification.

“We have three watch lines and they’ve been down for the last year,” says Haney. “All the Swiss, they’re reluctant to get on the ball and do design work. They’ve dropped the cookie on that.”

Most of the stores that national jeweler spoke with sold just a handful of watch lines: Gucci, Movado and Rolex had several mentions. Garibaldi & Bruns, however, was the exception with 11 watch lines, all of them Swiss except for Seiko.

Merchandising in the Southeast means different things to different jewelers. Some retailers sponsor high-end trunk shows, such as Facets’ upcoming presentation on diamond cutting by the store’s cutter. Others focus more on external advertising, offering promotions designed to increase store traffic and drum up sales, while still others devote their energy to in-store displays, changing their showcases more often than they change their flower arrangements.

Despite these efforts, jewelers in the region like their counterparts across the country by and large have seen a slight cooling at the cash register in the first half of 2001. Customers are more careful about their purchases these days. They are approaching the goods in the windows and beneath the counters like students, giving careful consideration to each and every piece of jewelry, rather than impulsively snatching up the biggest and brightest centerpieces after a cursory once-over. They are educating themselves more than ever before, waltzing into stores demanding lab reports and grading certificates, sometimes to their jeweler’s chagrin.

“A lot of people want a certified diamond,” says Condon. “They don’t even know what it is, but they want it.”

The upshot of all of this is that many jewelers have pulled the reigns in on their buying. They are reluctant to stockpile because that’s what got so many of them into trouble during the holiday season. Caution, it seems, is the prevailing attitude on both sides of the jewelry counter.

But, somewhat unexpectedly, this standoffishness has not translated into mass pessimism. Most jewelers say they are prepared to ride out the economic turbulence, focusing on offering their customers top-quality jewelry at fair price points, an approach that is generally described as recession-proof.

“Last Christmas was our best Christmas in 56 years,” says Haney, striking a different chord than most of his fellow retailers. “The message that came through was better quality. Platinum over gold, better quality diamonds, Ceylon sapphires, South Sea pearls. We watched our buying and listened to our customers more than ever.”

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