Really big tickets are ringing the bell for accessories in ’97

Fine jewelry and watches are selling well during the holiday season of 1997. People are spending five figures to buy these luxuries. Cartier is selling jeweled watches and white metals while Harry Winston is selling diamond watches. People are investing for the long term in the late 1990s contrary to the jewelry purchases of the 1980s which were flashy and gaudy.

There are luxury goods, and there are luxury goods.

Those spending serious money — at least five figures per item — during the holidays are turning to fine jewelry and watches.

Though often loathe to discuss the specifics of their sales receipts, fine jewelers and watchmakers were nearly dizzy relating tales of holiday shopping this year.

Wall Street’s record levels have a lot to do with the bustle in stores, but merchants were quick to point out that buying patterns are different from those in the free-spending, gaudy Eighties.

Anthony D’Ambrosio, executive vice president of watch retailer Tourneau, said investing for the long term describes the mood this season.

“In the Eighties, people bought very flashy, gaudy looks, which went out of style quickly, and consumers didn’t care what the brand name was or how the watch worked,” said D’Ambrosio. “Now we see more investing in traditional watches that will become future heirlooms, and buyers are more interested in quality [brand] names with a history.”

This doesn’t mean shoppers are avoiding larger pieces loaded with stones, but in general the heavily laden items have a vintage rather than showy, ultracontemporary look.

Corporate gift departments are getting a boost this year.

Raffi Davoudlarian, manager of Piaget’s Fifth Avenue boutique, said both the numbers of gifts per company and the average prices have risen this year.

“Generally, executives come in and buy three or four watches at a time, beginning at roughly $8,900,” he said. “And it’s not all from the financial community. We’ve worked with real estate and printing firms, and even a car dealership. In good times, companies want to thank people.”

Here, a roundup of some of the top items selling at some of the top names in jewelry and watches.

Cartier

“As of now, we’re trending 30 percent ahead of last year around the country,” said Simon Critchell, president and chief executive officer of Cartier Inc.

Standout categories are jeweled watches and white metals.

“White gold is really happening — it’s not just hearsay,” he said. People desire the lustrous metal, he added, because it’s more discreet than yellow gold.

As the healthy economy chugs along, particularly in New York, Critchell noted, “people are feeling relatively confident and happy” and seem more willing to spend.

Best-selling items include the Panther 1925 watch with diamond-encrusted panther figure detailing and alligator band, at $27,100; the Tank Obus watch with diamond-encrusted white gold case and alligator strap, at $17,200; the Benoit watch with gold bracelet, at $63,500, and the Panther watch with diamond detail, at $18,600.

Van Cleef & Arpels

“There are really two economies that are affecting us this year,” said a Van Cleef & Arpels spokeswoman. “Wall Street here and Hollywood.”

On both coasts, she said, the trend is to larger and more gem-laden pieces. She said even engagement rings are getting bigger — and more expensive.

“We’ve been selling first-time engagement rings of two to three carats instead of the usual one carat.”

Two key holiday areas at Van Cleef are watches from the new Roma collection, retailing from $2,200 to $12,000, and pieces from a Van Cleef signature collection, Clover.

“It’s very traditional Van Cleef & Arpels emblems and comes in a variety of styles, sizes and prices from $1,000 to $14,000.”

At least one customer will be particularly delighted when she receives a $2 million diamond and ruby parure — necklace, bracelet and earrings — that a man purchased for her at the Beverly Hills store.

Harry Winston

“The last two months have been extraordinary,” said Nancy Bothamley, director of sales at Harry Winston. “On both coasts, it’s diamond watches that are most popular.”

Unlike watches of the past, with mere diamond accents, Bothamley said the pieces selling this year are entirely covered in diamonds, from the face to the bezel to the strap. Prices start at $75,000.

Diamonds are driving jewelry business, she said, especially pieces featuring a signature setting that enhances the brilliance of the gems by angling the stones against each other in a three-dimensional wreath effect.

Bracelets and earrings with the setting start at around $125,000, and necklaces start at $800,000.

“Our engagement ring business has doubled since November, led by classic settings [of center diamonds] flanked by two baguettes,” Bothamley said. “Couples are going for larger stones, and we’ve seen an increase in demand for colored diamonds, in hues such as fancy yellow, cognac, champagne and orange.”

Chopard

“The level of an average sale has definitely risen,” said William Fuhrmann, president of Chopard’s North American division. “Those sales of roughly $20,000 have now been notched up to the $50,000 to $150,000 range very easily. People who have money are being freer with it this year. They may be equally as wealthy, but [this year] they aren’t repressing their emotion about buying luxury products.”

Topping the list at Chopard’s store here are women’s diamond watches, from $50,000 to $200,000, such as the Imperiale mini, which Fuhrmann referred to as “a little ice cube,” and Happy Sport models.

Bulgari

At Bulgari, Massimo Piombimi, East Coast operations manager, said sales have increased about 20 percent, while the amount of an average sale has remained stable.

“It’s a very good period for us,” he said. “The U.S. is a booming country compared to the others where we have stores.”

The bestseller is the XL collection of yellow and white gold rings with semiprecious stones, ranging in price from $1,500 to $4,500. These rings represent the “democratization of the Bulgari brand,” Piombimi said. “We want to give the impression that Bulgari is not only the brand for important items, but for fashionable and trendy items. Even a younger person with less money in his pocket can buy something at Bulgari.”

Other hot items have been the white gold Parentesi line of interlocking metal pieces, some with pave diamonds. It opens with earrings at $8,300 and reaches $13,600 for a necklace.

Piaget

“In the past, large pieces were purchased by Middle Eastern or Asian customers, but today it’s Americans,” said Raffi Davoudlarian, manager of the year-old store. “Over $100,000 isn’t off-putting to Americans anymore. They seem to be more educated about the value of such items now.”

In that category, Davoudlarian said a particularly strong seller has been Piaget’s heart-shaped Coeur Ruban watches, which feature diamond faces and silk straps, for roughly $135,000.

“I wish I had more pieces available, because at this pace, we won’t be able to satisfy demand for them,” Davoudlarian said.

“Our more traditional watches are still selling, as well, but many customers are gravitating toward styles that include more diamonds and colored stones. Our new Protocole line, introduced this spring, has also been selling well in white gold and diamonds. Those prices range from $13,000 to $20,000.”

Tourneau

In spite of adversities such as flooding in California and the traffic disruption on Madison Avenue here, Anthony D’Ambrosio, executive vice president of Tourneau, said, “We are showing substantial growth this season.”

As reported, stretches of Madison Avenue, including the block between 54th and 55th Streets, has been closed on and off to pedestrian and vehicular traffic since Dec. 7 due to falling bricks from the facade of 540 Madison Avenue, and the surrounding area has felt the disruption.

Tourneau has a unit at 52nd Street and Madison, which has remained open, but has had less traffic.

Its other Madison Avenue units at 57th and 59th Streets have not been effected.

D’Ambrosio attributed the growth to both an increase of new customers as well as better educated consumers who have developed an appreciation of fine watches “as both status symbols and required accessories in life.”

“We’re also seeing existing customers returning to buy different watches for different aspects of their lifestyles, as the concept of watch wardrobing takes hold.”

D’Ambrosio pointed to a return to classic and traditional watches and continued demand for sportwatches as two major trends.

H. Stern

“Many people made a lot of money this year and wanted to treat themselves to the finer things in life — luxury jewelry being one of the top items on their list,” said Andrea Menezes, director of marketing at H. Stern.

The company’s Justine rings have been the number-one item, and the bestseller has been the $950 white gold style studded with a large crystal and a small diamond.

At the other end of the spectrum, one of the more expensive purchases was a $680,000 13-carat canary diamond ring with princess-cut diamonds on either side.

Asprey

At Asprey, senior vice president Colleen Caslin said store traffic is up dramatically, but buyers are still thoughtful about their purchases.

“It’s not just like a quick fix, where they have to have it,” she said. “People are looking for classic items that will be long-lasting.”

She said attention has turned to fine jewelry and added that floral motifs, pearls and colored gems were strong.

Bestsellers include the $19,500 Daisy necklace in white gold with blue topaz and diamonds, a style that actress Claire Danes wore to the last Academy Awards, and a $16,575 pearl necklace with a magnolia-shaped pendant encrusted with yellow sapphires and a diamond.

Tiffany

The firm declined to comment on specifics of holiday sales, but shoppers at the flagship store here last Thursday were purchasing such items as Elsa Peretti’s sterling silver mesh earrings topped with a freshwater pearl for $190.

The engagement ring counters were quite busy and couples mostly focused on Tiffany solitaire settings and matching wedding bands, some with diamond accents. One couple purchased an engagement ring for $13,010 and a matching band for $11,400.

The counters featuring wedding bands were particularly crowded. There purchases ranged from $725 for a simple gold band to $5,175 for the Schlumberger 16-stone ring in 18-karat gold and diamonds.

Tiffany’s recent advertising has featured Peretti’s 18-karat gold Round motif in earrings and necklace, from $625 to $1,150; Paloma Picasso’s 18-karat gold and colored stone Forever X rings and earrings, from $1,250 to $2,850, and the “1837” hallmark collection in sterling silver rings and bracelets, at $95 to $250.

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