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Fine Time to Bring Back Fine Jewelry

Fashion: Not since the 1980s have people been this eager to both buy and show off dazzling brooches, necklaces and the like, O.C. store owners say. This season's galas and black-tie affairs are sure to sparkle.


When the Orange County Performing Arts Center stages its $500-per-plate 10th-anniversary gala Sunday, many women will wear their biggest diamonds, grandest sapphires and fattest emeralds.

"All of the important stuff will be trotted out," says Catherine Thyen, gala chairwoman.

Dazzling displays of fine jewelry are expected not only at the center gala but also at a host of ritzy black-tie affairs slated for Orange County this fall, including the South Coast Repertory's Embassy Ball on Sept. 28 and the Bowers Museum's La Fiesta 60th-anniversary gala Oct. 5.

"Our clients have been shopping for these events," says Bob Vaziri, director of Bvlgari in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. "You'll see a lot of gorgeous jewelry if the gala is big enough." Not since the 1980s have people been this eager to both buy and show off fine jewelry, local jewelers say.

Vaziri, for one, sees an end to an era of austerity that coincided with the statewide recession and county bankruptcy. During the early '90s, even those who could afford expensive jewelry left their finer pieces in their safety deposit boxes when attending a ball out of deference to those whose fortunes had soured.

"In New York and Texas, fine jewelry never went out, but in California somehow the trend was more subdued," Vaziri says. "People weren't wearing necklaces as much in the past four to five years. They had the recession on their minds.

"It's not that they couldn't afford fine jewelry, but when they knew the state, or the county, wasn't doing well, they didn't want to wear it. Now women are wearing more necklaces and brooches--the larger statement pieces."

Signs that fine jewelry has regained its luster can be seen at South Coast Plaza, where upscale jewelers such as Tiffany & Co., Fred Joaillier, Cartier and Tourneau have set up shop. Tourneau, a watch retailer, just added a line of fine jewelry. Fred Joaillier is expanding.

Chanel recently opened Chanel Joaillerie, a fine jewelry boutique.

"In the roaring '80s, when it came to social life, you had to be seen in fine jewelry. In the '90s, less jewelry was featured," says Gordon Roberts, executive director of fine jewelry and watches for Chanel. "That forced fine jewelers to rethink their approach. Now we're seeing a revived interest in jewelry in the late '90s."

Economic downturns traditionally lead to renewed creativity in fine jewelry design, says Roberts, because jewelers realize they have to work harder and offer new designs to attract buyers. During the 1930s, for instance, the Depression inspired jewelers to introduce Art Deco designs.

Today jewelry designers have chosen simplicity as their mantra, leading to a "paring down to design essentials rather than highly elaborate pieces," Roberts says.

That doesn't mean that the pieces aren't dazzling. Any additional design element, for instance, would only detract from the brilliance of the large diamond starbursts featured on Chanel's Soleil necklace ($375,000).

"Middle of the road and boring doesn't sell," Roberts says.

The Chanel Joaillerie collection features more than 400 pieces made of 18-karat gold or platinum and set with diamonds, pearls or colored gemstones. Many designs were inspired by the diamond and platinum jewelry created in 1932 by Coco Chanel, who once said she wanted to cover women in constellations.

Among the grander pieces: the Starry Night necklace, with diamond stars set on five strands of channel-set blue sapphires ($650,000) and the Comet bracelet, a diamond and platinum cuff that wraps the wrist in a pair of shooting stars ($170,000).

Not only diamonds but colored gemstones such as peridot, amethyst and rubies are proving popular with buyers, Vaziri says.

"People want a different look," Vaziri says.

Ball-goers who want to stand out in a crowd can opt for a bold piece such as Bvlgari's 18-karat gold necklace set with seven cabachon emeralds weighing more than 38 carats and offset by sapphires, rubies and baguette diamonds. The one-of-a-kind necklace, which features seven octagonal shapes fastened by a hidden clasp, took 16 months to make by hand and costs $675,000. The matching earrings are $280,000.

While fine jewelry has returned to favor, today's designs are still demure compared to the glitzy, "Dynasty"-style pieces of the '80s.

"We're not seeing as many huge displays," says Andrew Moore, manager of Stuart Moore jewelers in Fashion Island Newport Beach. Moore's father started the store 20 years ago.

"A lot of the older pieces were big gala-type of jewelry," Moore says. "Today people want a more conservative look. They're buying a smaller diamond and a lot of platinum. They don't want big, gold and gaudy."

To avoid looking like a Joan Collins wannabe, gala-goers should wear the bolder pieces in moderation.

"During the 'Dynasty' days you had the clothes, the big hair and the big jewelry," Roberts says. "Now everything's pared down. One or two exquisite pieces of jewelry can set the whole look off."

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