It may have just been a convergence of circumstances, but Tiffany’s opening of both their Beirut boutique and their regional headquarters in Dubai within the same week was a pretty forthright statement of optimism in response to anyone doubting the regional market for luxury goods.
“It had been planned for several years and all of a sudden the circumstances aligned,” said a pleased Laurent Cathala, Tiffany’s vice president of emerging markets, at the boutique’s opening in downtown Beirut last month. Although present in the region for 15 years, the first boutique brings Tiffany’s signature diamond setting — the celebrated six-prong “Tiffany Setting” — to Beirut for the first time. Cathala said the appetite and spending power exists, and added that the company is enjoying double-digit growth across the region.
Tiffany’s new collection of vintage-inspired locks are a highly successful complement to the brand’s signature key collection and have already proved a hit in Lebanon, as have the iconic “atlas designs”, based on the Atlas clock that graces the entrance of Tiffany’s flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York. Their success has been aided, said Cathala, by the company’s penchant for history, a strong narrative and personality in jewelry.
Indeed, talk to any jeweller in Lebanon and they will say the same. Set against a backdrop of recovery from a financial crisis that dealt the global luxury sector a harsh blow, and high gold and gem prices that are almost double those of last year, savvy jewellers are looking to promote the value of jewelry by nurturing its deeper meaning.
Collaborations and one-off designs, alternative materials —stones, woods or old gems with a history — heritage references or pieces conveying a story create the preciousness associated with real luxury. The value is in the art.
A stalwart in Lebanon’s jewelry trade, designer Selim Mouzannar’s ‘Beirut’ collection has been one of his most successful lines to date, both in Lebanon and with international clients in London, Paris and Dubai.
Incorporating the distinct architectural elements of the city, with a hint of both melancholy and playfulness, the collection is a personal favorite for the 46-year-old designer.
“When I chose the name Beirut it was just out of personal affection, but in retrospect I realize part of the reason it worked was because the name attracted as much attention as the jewelry. Especially internationally, Beirut has a complex history and mystery that is attractive to people,” he explained. “People like to have a story behind a piece. [They] want jewelry that is not just a symbol of wealth or power — they want something they can fuse with, that they feel comfortable in, that helps inform their identity.”
Likewise, his recent collaboration with Lebanese interior designer and architect Nada Debs, which saw the designer’s organic, minimalist philosophy applied to finely crafted “leaf” bracelets and rings, gave fans of both designers reason for excitement.
“Collaborations put many energies together,” says Mouzannar. “It makes sense when you are in a bubble to expand your horizons.”
Architect Christian Nasr recently turned his attention to jewelry, applying his carefully honed architectural principles to new materials. His first line is geometric and minimalist, in yellow gold and onyx. Using his architectural approach, he says scale is examined with a sensibility that leads to “spatial volumetric forms.” His use of onyx, he said, was built on the recognition that people are looking for “stones with a story.”
For Pascal Mouawad, owner and artistic director of the eponymous iconic Lebanese brand (whose creations have been the choice adornment for the likes of Angelina Jolie, Heidi Klum and Jennifer Lopez), success has partly been in creating personalized, custom-made pieces that have helped shape his clients’ identities.
“We’re known for our ability to cater to specialized requests, and to oversee every aspect of the design and manufacture,” said Mouawad. “We’re fortunate to be a house that caters to a very niche clientele and many of our clients ask us to design pieces on a custom-made basis.”
The Middle East, and particularly the Gulf market, makes up the majority of Mouawad’s sales, with Lebanon representing a small but important market. The demand for gems in the region is increasing. “When the global financial crisis emerged, the luxury sector got hit hard and [the] jewelry market [was] affected the most,” said Mouawad. “In the last two years, demand has increased and now we are seeing a recovery… There is more consumer confidence, and demand for gems and jewelry is on the rise.”
While American and Asian markets are driven by a demand for classic tastes, he says local customers are looking for more ornate pieces that are bold or have an edgy, ‘fashion forward’ feel. And as if to illustrate the demand for luxury, the jeweler, who took the reigns of the family business last year, launched in February the world’s most expensive handbag. The “ridiculously extravagant” 1001 Nights Diamond Purse, handcrafted from 18 carat gold and encrusted with 4,517 diamonds, earned a place in the Guinness World Records with a price tag of $3.8million.
Co-owner of Tufenkjian jewelry, Gerard Tufenkjian, says his biggest markets are in the Gulf, where sales are still driven by jewelry investments and diamond sales haven’t slowed. At the high-end especially, high diamond prices have little effect on sales. “If you are going to spend $10,000 on an item, then you are probably also happy to spend $15,000,” Tufenkjiansaid. For these clients, that “something special” lies squarely in the price tag, but others say luxury is a personal experience.
Tiffany’s Cathala says his brand success lies in the fact that Tiffany’s is a “democratic luxury jeweller…We have something for any budget, for any occasion.”