Going for Gold: A gold focus
Gold has certainly been the metal dominating the headlines. Retail Jeweller takes a look at what’s going on with the prices, how that is affecting the industry and what is happening in the ethical sector a year on from the launch of the Fairtrade Fairmined mark
It has adorned kings and is used as a standard for global currency. It takes its name from the Old English word for yellow, ‘geolu’, and Spandau Ballet wrote a song about it. Yes, we’re talking about gold.
The yellow metal is certainly on many people’s minds in the industry at the moment, what with the price behaving like a ride at Alton Towers. We’re referring, of course, to a ride that climbs to a steep peak before the inevitable drop.
After a period of considerable growth, particularly throughout August and September 2011, gold prices peaked in September at $1,895/oz before a price decline that left it to close the year at $1,531/oz. In the World Gold Council’s Gold Demand Trends report for 2011 it noted that the average gold price for the year was $1,571.52/oz, which was about 28% higher than the 2010 equivalent.
Although time will tell what 2012 will bring for gold prices, Thomson Reuter GFMS has forecast that the average price of gold in the first half of 2012 will be $1,640, rising to $1,840 in the second half.
Despite the volatility of 2011, the metal remained in high demand, with the World Gold Council reporting that volume grew 0.4% during 2011 to 4,067.1 tonnes, worth an estimated $205.5bn.
While investment was acknowledged by the World Gold Council as the main driver of growth, jewellery and technology were described as resilient in the face of higher gold prices. A World Gold Council spokesperson said: “Jewellery and technology demand for gold weakened slightly in 2011, although both sectors could be considered relatively robust in the context of high double-digit increases in annual average gold prices in almost all currencies of the market that we monitor.”
The World Gold Council’s report for 2011 reveals that global jewellery demand, on a full-year basis, was 1,962.9 tonnes, which was 3% below 2010. The value of the annual demand grew by 25% to $99.2bn, a new record. The World Gold Council described 2011 as a year of two halves, with a strong first half, 9% up on the same period in 2010, mostly thanks to demand in India and China.
In the second half demand was down 13% on the same period in 2010, largely due to price volatility putting some consumers off.
In the UK specifically, the World Gold Council report says gold jewellery demand in the fourth quarter fell 19% year-on-year to 11.2 tonnes, worth £386.7m. On an annual basis, demand volume was 22.6 tonnes, which was 17% below 2010, but the 2011 demand value of £712.3m was 2.2% up on the previous year.
Investment is likely to continue to boost the gold market throughout this year. The World Gold Council highlights Europe as a key focus in the investment sector, with the ongoing economic uncertainty in countries such as Greece and Italy encouraging investment demand.
The healthy plight of gold is also benefiting from the recent commitment shown by central banks to bolster their gold reserves. The World Gold Council states that the reserves held by central banks have increased by more than 500 tonnes over the last two years. This is largely driven by reluctance to rely on some foreign currencies and the desire “to capitalise on gold’s role as a means of preserving national wealth and promoting financial market stability”.
For those working within the jewellery industry the market influences have not gone unnoticed. “I think from a market perspective gold has again become a currency in its own right,” says Sarah Bond, creative director of jewellery brand Saretta. “There are many reasons for this, but I believe a current example would be a lack of faith in international currencies, equity markets and low bond yields. The position of gold in the international financial markets has direct effect on our industry given its relevance both in terms of cost and consumer perception.”
Always undulating, the gold landscape of 2012 is likely to be impacted by factors including growing mine production and falling recycled gold supply. It is also likely to be affected by the levels of demand in India and China, which were strong in 2011, although the World Gold Council suggests that potential economic slow down in China and the increasing maturity of the market may cause a deceleration of recent growth rates.
Although the tumultuous nature of the 2011 market provoked dramatic reaction in the consumer press, industry insiders have a more positive take on the current state of play. “In value terms the market is as strong as it has ever been and has proved surprisingly resilient in these tough times,” says Michael Allchin, chief executive and assay master of the Birmingham Assay Office.
Encouragingly, the jewellery industry has diversified in a process of adaptation that is still ongoing. For instance, although Allchin reports that the high gold price has caused a slump in the women’s self-purchase market, other materials are experiencing their time in the sun.
“This is absolutely not doom and gloom for the jewellery industry, it’s just different,” says Allchin. “There’s always demand for fine jewellery for the bridal market and for special gifts for loved ones on birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas. We are seeing many jewellers embracing high-quality fashion jewellery at price points up to £200 for that self-purchase market.”
As an example, Allchin highlights the popularity of brands such as Tresor Paris among upmarket traditional jewellery retailers, with products made from materials such as crystal tied with cord.
“It might not contain a molecule of precious metal but can sit comfortably alongside gold and silver offerings,” he says. “Vive la difference. It’s a big new opportunity and the only part of the jewellery market that’s growing.”
Adapt to survive
There is little doubt that consumers are aware of heightened gold prices. However, according to Robinson Pelham director Zoe Benyon, customers have had time to accept the market influences and their new take on gold as an investment can in fact serve to tighten the bond with their jeweller of choice. “The consumer has had some time to adjust over the previous two years and so we are now dealing with a more informed consumer who understands that the price rise is out of our hands and again is able to trust the jeweller,” says Benyon. “Some consumers are buying gold-heavy jewellery as an investment and their only requirement is that the weight and the purity are high. The fact they can wear it is a bonus.”
The purchase of gold as an investment is benefiting brands and, rather than turning their backs on the precious metal, consumers are simply opting for savvy purchases. “We are still seeing gold purchases being made,” confirms CW Sellors sales manager Andrew Mills. “People simply consider their purchases more carefully rather than making snap decisions.”
The weight of gold being bought is one of the details being more thoroughly considered. Although some jewellers report that they are still receiving commissions in 18ct gold, a knock-on effect of the high gold prices has been an increase in demand for lighter-weight pieces of jewellery and, in general, a move away from 18ct gold. As a result, 9ct gold has become more fashionable as a lighter alternative. It’s a change in demand that both UK retailers and designers recognise and are adapting to.
Alex Monroe of the eponymous brand says that people are asking for 9ct or 14ct gold rather than 18ct. “The delicacy of lots of our designs also helps keep the metal price relatively good,” he adds.
On the retail side of the business, Alex Monroe is also accommodating the market. “Our new shop in London Bridge has a wide range of prices to suit any purse,” says Monroe. “But the 18ct pieces we make are very fine and delicate so weight isn’t too much of an issue.”
Other designers have adapted by making smaller pieces. “I have lowered my entry price point so that the price range of my best-selling pieces is now £65 to £240,” says designer Jessica de Lotz.
“I achieve this by making smaller and lighter items while maintaining all the concepts that are true to my brand - time, heritage and narrative.” As well as making smaller pieces, the use of negative space and lattice designs have also helped designers keep weights and costs down.
High street trends
Retailers too are also making the necessary adjustments. “[The huge price rises and the volatility of the gold price] combined with a weak euro has meant that many UK retailers are looking less at the traditional Italian 18ct gold market and turning towards branded silver jewellery and manufacturers in the
Far East,” says Company of Master Jewellers (CMJ) chief executive Willie Hamilton. “The majority of independent retailers within the CMJ are reporting that sales of 18ct gold have been down over the past year.”
While some jewellers are reporting that customers are opting for lighter pieces, Hamilton points out that the popularity of 9ct gold also appears to be slowing. However, he adds: “While 9ct gold is on the wane at the moment, this is also due to a consumer shift away from traditional volume sales of 9ct gold everyday jewellery, such as crosses and St Christopher’s, signet rings and gate bracelets, which are all now deemed to be unfashionable and unattractive.”
For those seeking an alternative to 9ct gold, silver purchases have become more viable. Richard Slack, managing director of four-store retailer Clive Ranger, says: “I would say gold jewellery has gone out of fashion, which has been partly driven by price. Silver has come in to fill the void for those price points up to £500 and even up to £1,000, and white gold is still more popular than yellow.”
However, with silver prices also rocketing in 2011, other alternatives have come to the forefront. Fashion jewellery has increased in significance for the consumer and the retailer. “In terms of jewellery sales, while 18ct gold sales are down, retailers are increasing their silver offering and making more sales with branded fashion jewellery,” says Hamilton. “Bridal and diamond jewellery sales are also very stable and [those markets are experiencing] increasing sales of palladium wedding rings as an alternative to platinum or gold.”
This is something also confirmed by The Houlden Group. In March, the buying group appointed Ashley Pugh as its brand development adviser with the sole purpose of advising its members on the successful introduction of fashion jewellery brands.
“The high price of gold is undoubtedly affecting everyone, from the consumer, who is trading in their gold pieces and buying more affordable silver jewellery,
to the retailer, who needs to respond to consumer demand and stock jewellery collections that attract buyers,” says Stuart Laing, chief executive of The Houlden Group and owner of retailer Laings of Glasgow. “Consequently, some Houlden Group members such as Laings, Jamieson & Carry and Michael Jones are now stocking high-end silver jewellery and designer pieces, as well as some fashion brands.
“It has also been noted that some manufacturers that traditionally supply gold are introducing silver into their ranges and even silver with gold plate to give it the look of gold.”
Despite reports of the 18ct and even 9ct gold markets suffering, Hamilton points out that the high gold price has also helped retailers, with many benefiting from being able to scrap old gold stock as well as offering a trusted place for customers to sell their gold.
He adds: “The beauty of being a small business means you can adapt to market changes quickly and many of our independent retailers have turned their businesses around by offering old gold sales in a discreet, professional and trusted environment, which has worked very well for them.”
Simon Johnson, co-owner of West London retailer Marmalade Jewellery, says: “We are seeing a lot more customers offsetting their old gold against new or remodeled jewellery.
Our buying cash for scrap has also probably doubled.”
While Robert Ogden, director of retailer Ogden of Harrogate, has also noted the increase in customers selling or part-exchanging gold, he also believes that suppliers should be endeavouring to support retailers. “I’m sure most retailers, us included, are already reducing their margins on gold to keep it at an attractive price, but suppliers will need to stay realistic and absorb some of the price rises themselves,” he says.
“We have already experienced the difficulties in persuading a customer that the same pair of silver cufflinks have leapt in price by almost 50% in two years, and this simply wouldn’t work for gold, with its higher value.”
Less is more
Although the high cost of gold may be deterring consumers from buying the real deal, the yellow metal look is still popular and consequently jewellers are having to get creative. Saretta previously produced a huge amount of gold jewellery for private customers and for shops, but now most of its pieces are made in recycled silver with gold plate. “The desire for the yellow gold colour has not diminished, in fact for the past five months I would say that most of what our stockists have sold from Saretta collections was 18ct vermeil,” explains Bond. “The look is the same, just the price point is more customer friendly. We are still making 9ct and 18ct gold pieces, but these are mainly engagement and wedding bands and other investment pieces.”
Vermeil is making a significant mark on the industry at present, with designers and brands maximising on the desirable look that it can create at more affordable prices. “Vermeil is another way of creating a gold look at the price of silver and more and more designers and brands are designing pieces in yellow or rose gold vermeil,” says Hamilton.
Monica Vinader is one brand that has long been advocating the use of vermeil in jewellery design. “I think customers do understand the intrinsic value of gold and many are still willing to pay the higher prices for gold jewellery, because it really is an investment,” says Monica Vinader from the eponymous brand. “However, silver and vermeil jewellery, when well executed, really does offer a luxurious experience for customers with smaller budgets. The challenge for brands and designers is to create and make silver jewellery with the same passion, design, craft, quality and attention to detail that they would apply to gold pieces.”
Designers are opting for vermeil and plating as a means of achieving the luxury gold look that consumers still want. “I use high-quality, durable 24ct gold micro-plating and rose gold micro-plating and this, to all intents and purposes, has the appearance and luxurious feel of gold,” says designer Claire English. “At [London retailer] Kabiri in Marylebone and on the Kings Road they only offer my vermeil pieces as their customers respond to the solid, weighty feel of silver and the superficial appearance of rich golds.”
Plating is also proving popular among de Lotz’s customers. The designer has seen a rise in the sales of her silver-plated wax seal pieces. However, she confirms that customers still want the look of gold shades. “I am rarely asked to make a piece in only polished silver, so plating is the best option,” she says. “It makes the piece look more expensive and ultimately reassures the customer that their money has gone that bit further. Every year, I have seen more interest in the antique look of rose gold plate.”
And it’s not just the jewellery industry that has seen more interest in rose gold.
At this year’s BaselWorld trade show in March, luxury Swiss watch brand Breitling announced it would no longer be using yellow gold in its watches and would be switching entirely to rose gold because its male customers in particular were showing a preference for it over yellow, while brands such as Patek Philippe favoured rose gold bezels and bracelets in its novelties.
“It’s the ever-younger market and, subsequently, the ever-techier designs of the watches themselves that have caused rose gold to become a booming trend,” says watch writer and industry expert Alex Doak. “Rubber, ceramic, carbon fibre, black PVD, all of these modern, cool materials look great with rose gold, but not with yellow gold. The resulting trend towards rose has trickled down to the more traditional end of the market, to the point where there’s barely a yellow gold watch to be seen at Patek Philippe, A Lange & Söhne or Vacheron Constantin.”
This is a trend also driven by consumer demand. “As for watches, I think the game-changer has been the introduction of the Rolex Everose alloy [which contains 2% platinum to look the rose gold colour],” says John Robinson, managing director of jewellery and watch retailer David M Robinson, which has branches in locations including Liverpool and Manchester. “Some customers have been put off by yellow gold in watches, so the choice of rose has been a welcome alternative.”
However, Doak thinks that although rose gold is prevalent at the moment there will be a shift back to yellow.
“All trends are short-lived and the inevitable switch back to yellow is imminent,” he says. “But only on the classical watches. And, let’s all hope and pray, not as bicolour.”
Although bicolour may be one option for watch brands looking to incorporate the yellow metal into their timepieces, for jewellery brands that are using gold creativity takes other forms.
At Links of London, chief executive David Riddiford explains that rather than using too much plating or negative space, they have been very selective in the gold pieces that they create. “Going forward we look to continue to build our gold offer, at both the entry level and high end,” says Riddiford. “With our heritage in using weave techniques, as seen in our woven bracelet and friendship bracelet designs, we can look at inventive ways to still offer those affordable price points by integrating new materials. Conversely, we can push higher end with bespoke stone cuts and diamond settings for those utilising gold as an investment.”
Other brands that focus on high end are also suggesting that there is still a customer out there who is buying, despite high prices. “The considerable increase in the price of gold over the past couple of years has clearly affected the gold jewellery market but I believe it has had far more of an impact at the lower end, rather than the luxury end, where Vendorafa is positioned,” says Ben Williams, business development manager for Vendorafa.
“Although high prices have undoubtedly created challenges for manufacturers and retailers, the upside is that they have also brought gold well and truly into the public’s consciousness and increased interest in it as a precious metal and as an investment.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Sonia Menezes, brand manager for Welsh gold jewellery brand Clogau Gold.
“We have noticed our yellow and rose gold pieces are becoming increasingly popular,” she says. “Pieces priced between £600 and £800 are where we see the highest volume. Most of our diamond and gem-set jewellery is more than £1,000 and, while we don’t see the same volume figures in all of these collections, sales are sufficient evidence that consumers are happy to invest in our high-end collections.”
Retailers are also stating that as long as the offering is special enough and fairly priced, consumers are still buying gold. “In terms of sales, the rising prices have increased the allure of gold, and as long as our retail prices are fair the customers are still buying it, even if metals such as palladium or even silver are often requested in its place,” says Ogden.
And some designers are finding that too. Jewellery designer Ana de Costa has recently made the decision to focus on her high-end designs despite the rising metal prices.
“The price of gold does cause me to wince. However, because of the market and clients I am selling to, this is not an issue,” says de Costa. “I have not made any concessions with my designs but what I have made a point of doing is renegotiating all my prices and terms with my suppliers. I feel that, in the current climate, designers like me have more negotiating power because there are not many people producing new fine jewellery pieces and commissions on a large scale.”
One of the sectors of the industry that could be benefiting from the gold price hike is gemstones, with some brands seeing this as an opportunity to use more stones in pieces, therefore cutting down the amount of gold used. At CW Sellors, Mills says that the high prices have opened doors for the brand to work with British gemstones. “These complement yellow and rose gold especially well,” he says.
As well as observing an increased use of 14ct gold, Tateossian chief executive Robert Tateossian has also noticed a trend for larger gemstones. “Brands have introduced pieces using bigger stones, such as amethyst, to compensate for the smaller amount of gold being used,” says Tateossian.
He adds: “Our Opera collection is a line of 14ct gold combined with gorgeous stones such as amethyst, blue topaz and labradorite. It gives the consumer the feeling of volume without the weight.”
And it’s not just gemstones that are adding bulk. Leather, silks and ceramics are popular in designs where solid gold is too expensive.
“Style-wise I think it’s becoming more acceptable to have mixed materials in fine jewellery,” says Marmalade Jewellery’s Johnson.
Consuming with a conscience
One of the biggest developments in the gold market in recent years has been the rise of ethical versions of the metal, culminating in the launch of fully certified Fairtrade and Fairmined gold on Valentine’s Day 2011.
A result of a partnership between Fairtrade International and the Alliance for Responsible Mining, the idea was to provide gold that was guaranteed a Fairtrade minimum price, with money from its sale being reinvested in the community the mine supported and its mining operations, in order to ensure safe working practices, which respected the environment as well as the miners.
Twenty businesses and designers in the UK have so far signed up to be the first to make jewellery using the gold.
“I am broadly pleased with year one [of Fairtrade and Fairmined gold]. In year one, £7m of certified gold was bought, 85% by jewellers,” says Greg Valerio, founder of ethical jewellery brand Cred Jewellery and co-founder of Fair Jewellery Action, a human rights and environmental justice organisation within the jewellery sector. “£70,000 worth of premiums have been paid to miners and more than 50 jewellers are registered in the system across three countries, and four mining groups have been certified as well as more than 500 products registered for the dual stamp. We have come of age as a movement because we have academics and social commentators offering opinions on our progress and problems, as well as the corporate sector wanting to align with our initiative.”
Harriet Kelsall, owner of Harriet Kelsall Bespoke Jewellery, which has studios in Cambridge and Hertfordshire, is one of the 20 businesses to receive the gold. For her the decision to take it on was a combination of customer demand as well as it being something she wanted to support.
“I’ve always been passionate about ethics and have taken little steps that have added up to something that has helped to make things move in the right direction,” she explains.
Despite the progress, there is still a slight disconnect between the consumer and what is happening in the ethical and Fairtrade arena.
A Dispatches programme on gold and its supply chain that was aired on Channel 4 last year was a prime example of how even a major television channel couldn’t quite grasp the subtleties of the issue, which means that the consumer could definitely experience confusion when trying to buy ethically.
“People do know the vocabulary and some have heard that Fairtrade gold exists. However, even people who think they know about it often don’t actually know all of the implications of Fairtrade and what this really means for the communities as well as the individuals,” says Kelsall. “People will often know it is something about getting a fair price but don’t realise about the licence fee helping the communities, environment and also about the really interesting and important sustainability issue for our planet as a whole.”
The other interesting element of the ethical jewellery market is the types of brands getting involved. Finnish jewellery brand Lapponia has this year redesigned its supply chain to guarantee the use of 100% recycled gold in its jewellery production. Together with its sister company Kalevala Jewellery, it launched
a two-year project to investigate ethical alternatives for sourcing gold and found that recycled gold was, for them, the most ethical and ecologically sustainable solution.
Last year saw the launch of Chavin Jewellery, a brand that has ethical and social responsibility in its DNA. Although the gold is not Fairtrade certified, it is sourced from responsibly run mines in Peru, and Chavin also works with the charity SOS Children to reinvest money from the brand into improving the lives of Peruvian families and communities.
However, Simon Ogilvie-Harris, managing director of Chavin, has found that although consumers are becoming more clued up about ethical jewellery, there are factors that prevent them from purchasing.
“There is a broadening attitude towards ethics and an increasing level of interest but it is still very much price-driven,” he says. “We are yet to reach the tipping point where consumers will naturally pay a little more for ethically or socially responsible practices.”
However, as the profile of Fairtrade and Fairmined gold grows and more mines become certified there is the possibility that consumers will see the value in paying more for it, in the same way they now do with Fairtrade coffee.
Valerio has just returned from Belgium where The Jewellers Trade Association and the Catapa campaign group are exploring how to launch Fairtrade gold there, while the US, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland are all looking into registering with the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation so they can source from certified mines.
“I am currently involved with two mining groups in Kenya and Sierra Leone, with another two on the way,” says Valerio. “I will be working on a national marketing campaign to trigger consumer demand here in the UK. We have the best gold story in the world and 2012/13 will be the focus for letting every consumer know to ask for Fairtrade gold.”
Kelsall thinks getting good designers working with the metal will also help raise its profile and desirability among consumers. “Stylish designs in all sorts of different areas can be made from Fairtrade fabrics, gold and much more,” she says.
Despite gold prices causing a butterfly effect throughout the industry one thing seems to be certain, whether its ethical, plate or coloured, consumers still can’t resist the allure of the yellow metal.
As the Latin proverb says, ‘Even the just may sin with an open chest of gold before them’.
It’s a kind of magic
On December 15 2011, Hublot’s then chief executive Jean-Claude Biver revealed the alloy he and Professor Andreas Mortensen of the Mechanical Metallurgy Laboratory of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne had been working on for the past three years. Called Magic Gold, it is an 18ct gold alloy that is harder than tempered steel.
“Gold is always fascinating and has not changed since the Egyptians,” says Biver. “It was a challenge to create something interesting from it and that was a revolution in the luxury industry.”
About CHF5m (£3.5m) later and the result is something that will revolutionise the making of gold watches, or Hublot gold watches in any case, seeing as
the brand is retaining exclusivity for the next 20 years.
The problem with wearing a watch made from gold is sooner or later, because of the metal’s softness, it will need to be polished, which is one of the main reasons 24ct gold is never used for watch cases.
In order to make this alloy, lab technicians have combined liquid gold with boron carbide, a powder that is pressed to make ceramic. Some 75% of the composite metal is gold, which has allowed it to be viable for the 18ct hallmark as certified by the Central Office for Precious Metals in Bern, though because of its hardness, stamping it would not actually be possible.
To give an idea of how hard it is, 24ct gold is between 25 and 50 on the Vickers scale, with 18ct coming in somewhere around 350 to 400. Magic Gold registers at about 1,000, which is impressive when you think that diamond, the hardest substance known, is 10,000 Vickers.
Hublot launched its first watch using the composite - the Big Bang Ferrari - at BaselWorld this year and the plans are for the brand to use the process to create unscratchable watches made from other metal alloys such as palladium, platinum and even silver.