NZ jewellery's dazzling success
In the decade since Karen Walker made her runaway girl necklace, fashion jewellery in New Zealand has exploded - and is being coveted by everyone from Lorde to Kate Middleton. Michelle Duff reports.
When Boh Runga was asked to pitch her first jewellery range, she went on a reconnaissance mission. No high street store was safe. She had one chance to convince New Zealand Mint she had what it took to design a collection that they would want to make, that was fresh, fun and a little different.
Clothing stores at the time, back in 2007, weren't carrying a lot of quality jewellery, and the ranges that caught her eye in jewellery stores often came with a hefty price tag.
"I love fashion jewellery and I love fashion, but I wanted to make something with a little more longevity," Runga says. "I wanted to make something that I would be happy to wear, that my friends would be happy to wear. It needed to be accessible, and a fun thing to gift."
Her pitch to the head honchos at NZ Mint - which turned into her first collection, Birdland - was for a pretty, silvery take on kiwiana. It ranged in price from $79 for a fantail clip-on charm, to $229 for a kakapo bracelet.
"I'm not in the fashion industry, I was a musician and had a bit of a celebrity profile. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to sell jack-shit," Runga says. "It could have been a shocking failure, and I didn't want that. I wanted to make something that people would actually like and come back to buy."
Around the same time as Runga, husband and wife team Claire Hammon and Greg Fromont were setting up their jewellery brand, Meadowlark. They started by taking their "polite goth," jewellery - edgy, geometric shapes in sterling silver and gold - around to fashion boutiques such as Wellington's Superette and Good as Gold.
"We went and showed it to all the shops. I think we hit them all at the right time - there wasn't a lot of jewellery around and shops were all ready to give it a go," Fromont says. "We thought we could do something good and there was nothing there. A lot of the time I would come up against stores that didn't have a display, because they didn't sell jewellery. It was quite an issue."
Not so any more. Unbeknown to them, Runga and Meadowlark were cresting a wave of fine fashion jewellery that has crashed into stores nationwide, and changed the way New Zealanders are buying and wearing accessories.
In 2003, designer Karen Walker debuted her first jewellery range, an iconic series which includes the now ubiquitous runaway girl. At the time, Walker said she wanted to create a playful collection for everyday use. "Much of the jewellery available today feels stale and lacks modern references or any hint of rock'n'roll - I'm going to change that, because I believe tradition and craft doesn't have to be boring."
Today, every second city girl is wearing a Karen Walker necklace.
Two years ago the designer went further, launching a higher-end range - Karen Walker Diamond - with $22,000 diamond rings catering to the end of the market usually reserved for traditional fine jewellers.
Seven years and seven collections in, Boh Runga jewellery is now stocked by more than 50 design, jewellery and fashion stores in New Zealand and Australia, and does a swift online trade.
Meadowlark is still expanding, moving into a new studio in Auckland's Kingsland last year and hiring a full complement of staff to manufacture their designs.
So what brought on this desire for all that sparkles, and what can we expect next?
If international trends are anything to go by, jewellery is increasingly about the brand. A global report by consultants McKinsey & Company found designer branded jewellery currently accounts for around 20 per cent of sales, a figure that has doubled since 2003. This is predicted to double again over the next five years.
McKinsey researchers identified three consumers driving the growth of branded jewellery. There's the "new money" shopper, who buys a Gucci watch to show off her wealth (in contrast to "old money", who wears estate jewellery). There's the first-time jewellery shopper, who might buy a Chanel necklace because the brand elicits a swanky lifestyle; and then there's the young man or woman who aligns with a brand as a means of self-expression.
The authors predicted the biggest growth in branded jewellery was likely to come not from established jewellery brands, but jewellery off-shoots put out by established clothing brands or leather goods. In New Zealand, think the likes of Huffer, Moochi and Mi Piaci.
And the previously clear-cut boundaries between fine jewellery (typically characterised by the use of precious metals and stones) and fashion jewellery (plated alloys and crystal stones) were blurring. Fine jewellers were increasingly offering affordable ranges, while fashion designers were stepping into the precious-metal arena.
And more than ever before, people are buying jewellery for themselves - rather than passively waiting for it to be gifted.
"Consumer appetite for jewellery, which was dampened by the global recession, now appears more voracious than ever," the authors concluded.
In New Zealand, some players have seen it coming. Walker & Hall, one of the country's oldest jewellers, has re-invented itself around branded jewellery, with a focus on Kiwi designers.
Silvermoon, which once sold jewellery from mall kiosks, has now opened stores that stock popular, affordable jewellery such as Pandora, Swarovski, and local brands Kagi and Boh Runga.
Meanwhile, New Zealand brands are increasingly gaining global fame.
Wellington jewellers Tory & Ko have been bombarded with international requests since Kate Middleton accepted some of their jewellery, including blue topaz, gold and silver bow earrings. (Note: accepted. She hasn't actually been spotted wearing any yet.) Lorde wore Meadowlark's eyeball and bone bracelets on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, while New York fashionista Nicole Miller has been an ambassador for Nick Von K since a chance meeting with designer Nick Von Klarwill at fashion week.
Von Klarwill, who has designed jewellery for more than two decades, was designing for Ricochet when the fashion house was sold in 2010. He used $40,000 in savings to launch his own range, a dark, esoteric collection that juxtaposes precious metals with organic materials like mother-of-pearl and mammoth tusks.
Knowing the fashion industry, what worked and what didn't, was of great help, he says. Miller's blessing was a huge push for the brand, and boutiques jumped on it. "That was a real stroke of luck that gave it a real stamp of approval, and all the local boutiques bought into that as well," Von Klarwill says. "Was it because awareness of fashion is growing in New Zealand? Perhaps."
Establishing a viable brand is a minefield of having the right stockists and identity, he says. But in the end, it will only be successful if the product is good quality and can stand on its own.
"I've talked to some of the old-school [jewellers] and some of them are really hating the fashion brands, because ‘the jewellery is cheap and it all falls apart', and I'm like ‘yeah but your designs are crap', just diamond rings we've all seen for a million years.
"They think the value of what they're doing is being swept away by young upstarts that don't know all that much, but the truth is people want something new and different."
And many young jewellers are not coming to jewellery-making through a conventional route. Wellington's Juliet Ramson started Found Jewellery two years ago, after completing an industrial design degree at Massey University. At home with her first child, she found herself wondering how she could use all the native wood and brass handles from her old villa, which was being renovated. "I just sort of started cutting them up and
recasting them, mainly for myself and then I started showing them to other people and they really liked them."
In the beginning, her jewellery was stocked by art galleries, but after showing at 2013 Wellington Fashion Week with My Boyfriend's Back, Ramson realised she needed to reposition herself in the market. "That gave me a whole new angle. I pulled a lot of stuff out of the galleries, and re-focused on high-end fashion."
Nationwide, 205 more people are working in the jewellery industry now than in 2011. New Zealand Retailers Association figures show at least 16 new stores have opened in the same time.
Training institutions have had to adapt. Until a couple of years ago, Manukau Institute of Technology had no design component to its jewellery course at all. Students would learn age-old manufacturing skills, many with the hope of being hired as an apprentice to a fine jeweller. There they might buff rings for years before being allowed to experiment with their own work. But faculty of arts dean Grant Thompson says students are now interested in learning creative design that isn't so fussy and technique-driven. "With the traditional jewellery, it was all about ‘if you can get as many techniques into one piece of jewellery as you can, that's a good piece', and people started to get a bit turned off."
The polytechnic was also being approached by local high schools, who said there weren't enough technology subjects being offered for girls. So it redesigned its course, offering more design components and lessons in branding and marketing. It's now so popular that Manakau is adding a second intake halfway through this year.
Thompson says that while designers such as Octavia Cook have been pushing boundaries with contemporary creations for years, the current climate is more conducive to it. "I think it's probably a changing population, and the Asian population are really interested in jewellery - it's a nice portable form of wealth. And as New Zealanders have become richer, there are more people with disposable income."
The Pacific Island culture, with its history of body decoration and tattoo, also spills over into a love of jewellery, he says. "I think it's all part of that. I think there's just a general interest at the moment of decoration, and body adornment. It's a way of buying into a look and a feel and a story."
At Peter Minturn Goldsmith School in Auckland, young jewellers have had a 100 per cent employment rate in the past three years. It's a turnaround for an industry that was once thought to be a dying art, killed off by multinational companies pumping out rows of same-same jewellery cast in moulds offshore.
Now, students are taught how important it is to find a niche, to create a brand that they can market themselves around.
Despite the rise in affordable, fine jewellery pieces, jeweller Chris Minturn says there will always be a demand for high-end, bespoke jewellery - the kind his father designed for Rachel Hunter, Elton John and Princess Anne. "Pandora - the hype behind that is huge, but you're not buying it as a family heirloom that your great-grandchild would wear. If you buy a Pandora bracelet in NZ you can buy it in Australia you can buy it in London you can buy it in the States, there's nothing cultural there."
That might be true. But if Lorde, while not quite a royal, is happy to flaunt a $425 Meadowlark bracelet, at least us mere mortals can get closer to affording it.