Faux bling is making Karen Giberson a wee bit nervous this misty morning.
Giberson, president of the national Accessories Council, is headed from her home in Media to Manhattan’s Fashion Center to launch USA-Made, an ambitious project aimed at helping costume jewelry designers manufacture the bulk of their baubles in America.
“This can spark a lot of change in the industry,” Giberson said as she anxiously scrolled through Women’s Wear Daily’s morning news while riding the Amtrak Cafe Car. “If everyone could make a little bit more in the U.S., we can make a lot of difference.”
It seems like a no-brainer. The fashion industry increasingly seems to be pointing out the posh factor of buying things made here, especially during an election year where jobs on American soil is a debate hot-topic. Certainly, independent boutiques like to rave about local designers to their niche customers.
“This is an amazing opportunity for us,” said Jeanne Lawler Frank, president of Bridgeport-based watch label Options In Time. “And it’s a way to tell our customers we care about them ... that we care about jobs ... that we care about our country.”
But when it comes to specialty and department store chains that cater to larger audiences concerned just as much with affordability as with quality, it’s a harder sell. Even as designers realize that manufacturing products stateside can be more affordable, there are still few workers here who have certain jewelry-making skills, including creating detailed settings and working with semiprecious stones. That means American-made detailed designs will cost more than the same work done overseas. For example, jeweler-to-the-stars R.J. Graziano makes mixed metals and gold statement pieces ranging from $25 to $125 retail; similar-looking USA-Made products will cost between $75 and $250.
“Our customer is most interested in high-end products,” said Lincoln Moore, fashion director of women’s accessories at Saks Fifth Avenue, as he perused collections at the USA-Made show, including necklaces by design duo Tuleste and R.J. Graziano. “She wants good quality at a good value. She’s an aspirational shopper.”
Even for companies interested in blowing the made-in-America horn, they face a marketing challenge. Having already invested in jewelry made overseas, they would be forced to sell the American jewelry alongside the other pieces.
“By default,” said Giberson, “are you pointing out that things aren’t made here?”
Twenty-five years ago, roughly 80 percent of costume jewelry was made in America, Giberson said. The bulk of the plants were located in New England, especially Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Through the 1980s and 1990s, however, as businesses seeking cheaper labor built manufacturing plants in Asia, local costume jewelers weren’t able to pass down the skills of the trade. These days, Giberson said, 95 percent of costume jewelry is made in China.
“We just gave the business away,” Giberson said.
Within the last six months, the jewelry industry — much like the fashion industry at large — is starting to rebel against the increased cost of manufacturing overseas: Gas prices have made travel prohibitive, and Chinese jewelry manufacturers are raising minimums, making way more merchandise than stateside designers want or can sell. And designers, now more than ever, want to have a hand in all aspects of their creations.
In January, Giberson discussed these very issues with Sally Alex, president and CEO of fine sterling silver company Roman & Sunstone.
“Enough is enough,” Giberson said. “We started to try to figure out how to make goods in the USA again.”
Giberson sent an e-mail blast to the Council’s 160 member companies that umbrella thousands of brands. Many brands were interested in the idea, but they questioned how to do it. Giberson began researching manufacturers and came up with a list of nine. And then, like all good campaigns, the council came up with a blue and white logo (red in jewelry cases could mean a sale price, very un-chic) to make the jewelry instantly recognizable for customers.
Just before 9 a.m. on Manhattan’s West 38th Street, two dozen companies were setting up sparkling displays to present to half a dozen department stores and specialty store buyers their USA-Made collections. There were evil-eye beaded bracelets, dangling Swarovski crystal hoops and charm necklaces. John Wind, a Philadelphia-based jeweler, had charms that, when the breeze blew, sounded like wind chimes. I was pretty intrigued with a line of chunky cuffs and necklaces by Holy Baubles embossed with stars of David and The Virgin Mary, and a rose-gold ring by Tuleste.
“It’s too early to tell how much we’ll sell, but at this point, we are married to the idea of manufacturing in America,” said Satu Greenberg of Tuleste. “It just doesn’t make sense for us to go overseas anymore.”
Giberson’s hope is that buyers will carry a sampling of the collections during this year’s fall and holiday season, but so far, the USA-Made project has one commitment from evine.com, a soon-to-be-launched website powered by former Philadelphian and QVC and HSN exec Mark Bozak. (Former QVC host Kathy Levine will be the face of the brand.)
In addition to Saks Fifth Avenue’s Moore, buyers from Bloomingdale’s and Henri Bendel attended but had yet to commit.
“Reeducating the public is a challenge,” said Giberson, who hopes to expand USA-Made to pocketbooks and other accessories. “We are just at the beginning, but we can tell by the pulse of the country and the excitement that we will build momentum.”
Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or email@example.com, or on Twitter @ewellingtonphl. Read her blog, “Mirror Image,” at philly.com/mirrorimage.