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Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Jewelry Industry is Better Prepared to Handle a Downturn

The opening day crowd during the 2011 JCK Las Vegas tradeshow held at Mandalay Bay. Photo credit: Anthony DeMarco

Not since 2009 has the global economy and the jewelry industry’s place in it been so unstable. This comes as the international jewelry industry descends on Las Vegas for a series of tradeshows beginning Monday (led by JCK Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay and The Couture Show at the Wynn Las Vegas) where retailers will purchase their inventory for the all-important holiday season. It’s one of the largest jewelry trade events on the global calendar and it will be a real test on whether the U.S. jewelry industry can withstand the latest onslaught of mixed economic news.

I think the jewelry industry will prevail. The industry itself has done little to exacerbate the fragile global economic situation. In fact, it has performed admirably during these difficult economic times—outside of the diamond industry with its mishandling of the Zimbabwe human rights issue and now diamond grading scandals at two labs

After the contraction of the U.S. jewelry industry in 2009, it has been posting mostly positive numbers and showing consistent, incremental growth. Unlike the banking industry, it has learned from its mistakes. The jewelry industry is not as leveraged as it was in 2008. It is doing better at using the Internet and social media instead of treating it as the enemy. Creativity has taken over as well. As the cost of materials increased, designers and manufacturers have created objects of adornment using more color, a variety of materials and high-quality craftsmanship. The jewelry industry as a whole is a smarter and more humble industry than it was prior to 2008.

However, it must get past an economic situation that is again rising to a boil led by two factors that just won’t go away: Wall Street’s reckless behavior and its defiant stance against any regulation; and the Euro crisis.

The Facebook IPO debacle managed by Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase’s $2 billion-plus trading loss by taking large positions in credit default swaps show that Wall Street has learned nothing from the 2008 financial crisis that nearly took down the world economy.

Meanwhile, the end of the Euro or at least a serious contraction of the European Union now seems a possibility. Greece is on the brink of outright rejecting the monetary union and other countries are saddled with outrageous debt that member countries seem unable or unwilling to resolve. There are an endless number of theories as to what will happen if the Union disbands or shrinks, which tells me that no one really knows what will happen. But everyone in Europe seems to be scared.

The jewelry industry has its own challenges and victories, some of which were revealed this week. Among them:

* Tiffany & Co., the luxury retailer jeweler that has performed like a juggernaut throughout this recession, downgraded its outlook Thursday based on a softening of sales in the U.S. and abroad.

* Meanwhile, it’s the mid-market jewelers that are showing resiliency. Signet Jewelers, the largest specialty retail jeweler in the U.S. and U.K., whose brands include Kay and Jared, reported modest growth in the first quarter Thursday (sales up 1.4 and comps up 1.2 percent). Zale Corp., the long-struggling North American specialty retail jeweler, showed significant growth in its first quarter report Wednesday (8 percent increase in sales and comps).

* Online jewelry and diamond retailer, Blue Nile, reported a 3.6 percent first quarter increase in sales. However, lower markups led to a 9.7 percent decline in gross profits.

* The Swiss watch industry, which appeared invincible throughout the recession, is reporting that its phenomenal growth is slowing to just robust levels. Watch exports increased 9 percent in April, down from 16.1 percent for the first four months of the year, according to the Swiss Federal Customs Office.

* However, the large luxury conglomerates are still poised for strong growth throughout the world. For example, LVMH reported that its Watch & Jewellery division sales increased by 141 percent increase, year-over-year, to $826.6 million. This is misleading as LVMH acquired Italian luxury jewelry house, Bulgari, in March 2011. Excluding the Bulgari acquisition, sales increased 17 percent. Richemont, reported that jewelry and watch sales rose 32 percent for the year, with overall sales in the Americas up 26 percent.

Despite the uncertainty, I expect to see a positive environment and exciting new jewelry designs at the tradeshows. Most importantly, I anticipate business to be strong. Unlike 2008, the industry is better prepared today to meet these challenges.