As You Wish: Considering Bespoke Jewelry

Posted by beadsRfun on 9/28/2014

Bespoke. The word conjures images of Baroque drawing rooms, Rococo furnishings, and advertisements featuring six very important words, “By Royal Warrant of the Queen.”

The bespoke jewelry tradition dates back far beyond the current world monarchies, before even the upsurge in Europe of a middle class, to medieval times, when artisans of all varieties were kept afloat only by securing lucrative patronages. In contemporary times, true patronage is rare and the idea evolved to one of being able to claim that a member of the Royal family purchased your work. The term bespoke, conceived as a marketing tool, was coined by men’s clothiers eager to tout their sales to nobility.

Worldwide, bespoke has evolved even further, now taking on the colloquial meaning of a piece of art especially designed for a customer. Like the portraitists and couturiers of old, it’s beginning to seem like everyone has a bespoke line or department. Consider the enormous impact of celebrity-endorsed perfumes and colognes; each scent is created with that particular person’s public persona in mind.

After the shock wave of the financial collapse of 2008 rippled through the luxury goods markets, jewelry designers scrambled to keep their heads above the red ink in “the new normal.” Designers who typically sold to high-end department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue found themselves unable to move pieces designed with precious gems, and particularly with gold, if they could afford to purchase the metal in the first place.

“[T]he price of gold was astronomical, and people just weren’t buying jewelry,” designer Kara Ross shared with the New York Times last year, referring to the 75% decrease overall in luxury goods sales following the financial collapse and the beginning of The Great Recession.

Ross, and many other high to mid-range jewelry designers capitalized instead on their various costume jewelry lines. A piece of costume jewelry, usually made of a less precious nickel-based alloy, plated with a precious metal like gold or silver, and set with semi-precious stones or crystals, can be mass-produced for a fraction of the cost of a singularly-designed necklace, bracelet, or ring. If a designer has a costume jewelry brand, chances are quite good that the majority of his or her income comes from this mass-produced line.

So, why then turn to customization? Like all artists, the medium determines the message, and fine jewelry designers naturally wish to work with 24 karat gold and sterling silver, not to mention the thrill of the chase that is the hunt for the perfect gem. Designers typically will travel the globe in search of just the right stone which will either anchor or inspire a new one-of-a-kind piece. To make the odyssey of creating such works of art worth the effort, someone has to foot the bill.

Enter the new wave of the bespoke movement. By creating customized works to clients’ exact specifications, designers like New York’s Temple St. Clair can charge $350,000 or more for a single necklace. The client can enjoy the experience of patronage and of working hand-in-glove with an artist to create a piece that (usually) has been made to commemorate a specific event or milestone. The bespoke pieces also serve to add luster to a designer’s costume jewelry line as well, as word of mouth spreads.

Bespoke items are becoming accepted at various price points as consumers search for ways to emulate the imprimatur of luxury goods. For a small designer, or a new one just starting out, the creation of a bespoke department, where custom orders are the only traffic, may just be a way to create a brand with particular cachet right out of the gate, or to burnish and grow a fledgling reputation. The ease with which customers can communicate with designers allows even the smallest jewelry concern to enter the bespoke market. Those who hop on the new wave of personalization in design will likely enjoy a greater portion of the resurgence in jewelry sales, which are estimated to reach $80.6 billion in the next three years.

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