Luxury meets Austerity

Luxury goods are evolving (beautifully) to suit lean economic times, says Ernst Malmsten of London-based jeweller, Lara Bohinc.

The other day I read a blog that made me think about luxury. It was on the Financial Times website surrounded by bleak articles on the global economic meltdown. In the age of austerity, the blog said, the UK luxury sector was set to double in value by 2017. Yes, double.

To read the piece, you’d think the Eurozone was blooming and London’s streets were awash with bling. The more I thought about it, though, I realised something significant has changed for those of us who trade in opulence. While high-end goods remain popular, the nature of luxury has evolved to suit these tougher economic times.

When it comes to buying jewellery, for example, our customers don’t care about carats or price tags. For them, luxury means ‘unique’. They want interesting designs, new materials and innovative ways of using traditional precious metals and stones. Limited edition pieces are more popular than ever, and growing numbers of people want one-off creations made especially for them.

The demand for uniqueness is particularly strong among independently affluent professional women who want luxury items that reflect their own individuality. Unless they come from Switzerland where modesty and humility are added to the water supply, and jewellery is expected to match the polite national mood. Sadly, we haven’t found a way to make Alpine felt sparkle. Yet.

Although unique designs are definitely a hallmark of ‘new luxury’, people are not prepared to spend money on jewellery that might go out of fashion in a year or two. Economic uncertainty means customers want to invest in timeless pieces they can enjoy for decades and, perhaps, pass on to their daughters. The days of ‘Wear Today, Gone Tomorrow’ are over. Modern luxury is a long-term commodity.

Design isn’t the only area transformed by the spirit of global belt-tightening. The materials we use are also changing. Gold, emblem of wealth for centuries, is being replaced by silver, a less ostentatious and less pricey but equally attractive metal. And while there will always be people who can’t resist diamonds, we’re working with gemstones like rubies and sapphires to create the more unusual items our customers want. Why settle for brilliant white when there’s a whole spectrum of gems to express your personality?

As designers experiment more, I wonder if our customers will do the same. One day, will we be asked to transform last season’s emerald bracelet into earrings and a brooch? Recycling touches every aspect of modern life so maybe it will soon become the vogue in Vogue.

In a strange way, I think the age of austerity will result in a golden age of luxury – albeit one without the gold. The demand for less extravagant jewellery means designers can’t simply rely on lumps of gold and giant diamonds to make a statement. Jewellers must be more creative, daring and ingenious than ever before. Today, the ultimate symbol of luxury is 24-carat imagination.