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Jan 28, 2010
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Hit by crisis, million-dollar jewellers out to conquer world

Jan 28, 2010

PARIS, Jan 28, 2010 (AFP) - Hit by the crisis, a clutch of France's most exclusive million-dollar jewellers this week staged a joint bid to conquer lucrative markets in emerging nations, unveiling their biggest and best for the first time at Paris couture week.

Lotus ring by Van Cleef & Arpels

With crowds of international buyers and press in town for the twice-yearly "haute couture" shows, five venerable old houses clustered on one of the planet's flushest bits of real estate, Paris's Place Vendome, on Thursday 28 January opened their doors for a rare day in the spotlight.

"With globalisation, we need to speak with one voice," said Stanislas de Quercize, the head of Van Cleef & Arpels, of the joint move also involving Cartier, Chaumet, Boucheron, Mellerio dis Mellers, and newcomers Dior and Chanel.

At the company boutique, a diamond and pink sapphire necklace evocative of a Japanese garden that took more than 3,000 hours of work was selling at 430,000 euros.

Jewels, worn since time immemorial as lucky charms or to protect against evil, are a collector's favourite as well as an investment against troubled times, said de Quercize, citing a 1980 brooch that sold for 400,000 euros, ten times its original price, at auction in 2000.

At nearby Mellerio dits Mellers, the first of the great Paris jewellers with a history dating back to 1613, pieces ranged from 5,000 to 500,000 euros. "The very top start at 100,000 euros," said a spokesperson.

"What we do is comparable to haute couture," Olivier Mellerio, the 14th generation to run the firm, told AFP. "These are unique pieces setting off the highest quality stones."

The "girl's best friend" jewellery market is estimated to be worth between seven and 10 billion dollars (five and seven 7 billion euros), but 2009 saw a 12 percent slump, according to luxury sector specialist Joelle de Montgolfier, from Bain & Company consultants.

"We've been through other crises in the past, it'll be the fifth already since 1929!" de Quercize, whose firm was established in 1906 and is now part of the Richemont group, told AFP.

High-end jewellery, added Mellerio, "is on a roll in a world where purchasing power is on the rise in general, and where more and more people are on the market for top brands."

Thierry Fritsch, who heads 1780 firm Chaumet, part of LVMH, said "labels and stones are sure investments in times of crisis."

But with the top brands accounting for only 10 to 20 percent of total world jewellery sales, the old houses believe they can go out and conquer together rather than compete.

"When Chanel or Vuitton run advertising campaigns for their jewellery collections, it also helps Chaumet", Fritsch said in an interview.

With exports accounting for 50 to 80 percent of sales, emerging nations, notably China, are top of the pops for the big-name jewellers of Place Vendome.

New buyers from emerging nations are often younger than the European establishment clientele of yesteryear, but each market is distinct, with women increasingly buying jewellery in Japan while China remains a male-dominated market.

"A jewel," added de Montgolfier, "nowadays is no longer a reward from a man to a woman, but a present a woman offers herself when she is financially independent."by Claire Rosemberg and Dominique Ageorges

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