While many collections had such a debut during the Paris couture shows this summer, and Cartier showed a selection of Résonances pieces to clients then, the New York event was something of a strategic move, more concerned about the house’s future than a sale, even a large one, today.
The luxury market is changing. Analysts say it is expected to grow 5 percent this year, to an estimated 1.2 trillion euros, or $1.4 trillion — and, for the first time, shoppers born after 1980 are driving that increase. And while a 30-year-old might admire a diamond and emerald parure, it’s really not suitable for yoga class or coffee with friends.
“The selling of the dream is the real essence of how a luxury brand goes to market,” said Nick Pope, Deloitte’s lead analyst on fashion and luxury in Britain. “As part of that, they would, of course, be typically marketing aspects of that dream that are unattainable. You really want to build up your brand equity in the eyes of all the consumers, in recognition that only a few of them are really going to engage with you.”
So along with expanding into contemporary styles (as Chopard did, collaborating with Rihanna) and edgier materials (like Boucheron’s use of wood in its current high jewelry necklaces), major jewelry houses are making outreach an integral part of their global marketing plans.
In the Chelsea neighborhood of New York last month, on a block lined with art galleries, an exhibition inside a former garage displayed several dozen one-of-a-kind brooches created by Van Cleef & Arpels, valued, in total, at more than $10 million.
L’Arche de Noé, or Noah’s Ark, the French brand’s most recent showing of high jewelry in New York, showcased brooches made by hand in white and yellow gold and set with diamonds, emeralds and sapphires. The artist Robert Wilson created the space, using about 15 million LED lights to simulate the view from inside an ark, complete with virtual water undulating all around. In the background, music composed for the project by Arvo Part played in a loop, interspersed with sounds like thunder.
When L’Arche de Noé was shown in Paris last year, visitors typically had to wait around two hours to get in. (In Hong Kong, in March, the wait was usually about an hour.)
“Only a handful of those at the exhibition were high jewelry buyers,” said Nicolas Bos, chief executive and president of Van Cleef & Arpels. “What we loved about it was that the visitors could fully discover what high jewelry could be about — that it’s not only about big fancy stones for very, very wealthy millionaires but that it was really a work of precision and craftsmanship in touch with the heritage behind it.”
When Bulgari unveiled its renovated Fifth Avenue store in Midtown Manhattan in October, a group of 33 precious pieces designed for the event was placed just inside the entrance, drawing the attention of a stream of passers-by as well as plenty of selfie takers outside. The most expensive item was priced at over $500,000, about 250 times the cost of the plain gold B.zero1 rings farther inside the store.
Showing the high jewelry and the B.zero1 Collection, along with the house’s fragrances, eyewear and leather goods, helps Bulgari — and many other jewelry houses with similar ranges — to groom the young shopper of today to be the big-gem purchaser of tomorrow. “By showing the high jewelry, you create a very high image for your brand and you maintain desirability for the products that people can afford,” said Luca Solca, a luxury goods analyst at Exane BNP Paribas. And, “when people buy the accessibly priced products, they believe that they have been able to buy something from this magic brand that is so revered and loved by the royals and the jet set all over the world.”
“We have the symbols, like B.zero1, that are very strong in our case, but there is also the ultimate expression of the art of the magnificent Roman jewelry which cannot necessarily be expressed to a person by a B.zero1 ring,” said Jean-Christophe Babin, Bulgari’s chief executive. “The high jewelry is really the signifier of the vision — the signature of the craftsmanship as well — and this is what makes you different.” (Festa, the brand’s other recent high jewelry collection, also was shown in New York in October, but in a more traditional way: by appointment to invited guests in an unmarked space around the corner from the flagship, with a guard standing outside.)
High-end watchmakers are no less aware of the change that has been happening in the buying public. It was one of the motivations for Patek Philippe to stage a free exhibition in July near Grand Central Terminal of around 400 of its expensive timepieces, including current items and antiques such as a clock that sat on President John F. Kennedy’s desk in the White House. The brand has held similar shows in Dubai, Munich and London; an exhibit in Singapore is being planned. Nearly 28,000 people attended the Manhattan show during its 11-day run, which took three years to plan and execute.
“When you do a grand exhibition, it is to move the brand needle,” said Larry Pettinelli, president of Patek Philippe in the United States. “It is a branding opportunity that you want to develop not only something for the expert enthusiast — you want people who know nothing about the brand to also get engaged, so in that educational process you have to think differently about the marketing.”
As comments like those from Ms. Sutton, the Iowa visitor to the Cartier exhibition, indicate, the ability to convey the quality and craftsmanship of creations is one of the primary goals of public exhibitions. After all, houses hope, being impressed is something a future client won’t forget.
Both the Cartier and Patek Philippe shows had artisans working on jewelry and answering questions about their techniques and expertise. The watchmaker’s display also offered five virtual reality headsets, for watching a simulation of a watch movement. “We thought this was a good way to show people, ‘We are not an old, stodgy, stuck-in-the-mud kind of company,’ ” Mr. Pettinelli said.
Of course the business strategy of jewelry houses is focused on profit, but their other goal, supported by such exhibitions, is to create beautiful things.
“In the same way that you go to the [Museum of] Modern Art and you see a Marc Chagall or a Mark Rothko, not everyone can buy, but everyone can feel,” Cyrille Vigneron, Cartier’s chief executive, said one morning at the company flagship. “We don’t expect the exhibition to drive people here where they would have an impulse need to buy — probably not — but the fact that they can appreciate the beauty, I think that’s something important to share.”