Japanese appetite grows for more independent European brands
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Earlier this year, the multi-brand store Dover Street Market in Ginza, Tokyo’s premier shopping district, hosted a trunk show of colourful enamel designs by Italian jewellery designer, Bea Bongiasca — and it received an enthusiastic response. “We sold 50 pieces in the first month and, after that, all the other stores started contacting me and it snowballed,” says the jeweller.
Bongiasca’s vibrant linear designs are now also carried by American concept store Ron Herman in its 13 locations across Japan, and she will return to Tokyo in December to stage a trunk show at the multi-brand store Shihara Lab.
Bongiasca’s kawaii aesthetic, she explains, resonates with the Japanese who adopted this “cuteness” style of non-threatening imagery for signage in the postwar era — and, from this, emerged the anime and cartoon Pop Culture that is a huge inspiration for her work.
Her jewellery, she believes, is gaining popularity because it is similarly colourful, playful, and fun. “We’ve planned many things for the market, and I think Japan will be the one that is going to grow the most,” she says.
She is not alone in benefiting from a flourishing appetite in Japan for independent European brands in the fine and demi-fine jewellery sectors. Otiumberg, founded seven years ago by sisters Christie and Rosanna Wollenberg, now has eight stockists in Japan — including multi-label stores United Arrows and Tomorrowland — and has seen online demand in that market for their solid gold huggie hoops and small gold vermeil earrings grow 200 per cent. Customers appear to appreciate the brand’s pared back aesthetic. The sisters are also about to launch on Line, a popular messaging App in Japan run by South Korea’s dominant internet search engine, Naver.
“I’ve learned Japanese people love championing new brands,” says Rosanna Wollenberg. “Our first encounter with the market was in 2021 when a United Arrows buyer visited our London showroom. Japanese buyers often travel to London and Paris where they scout international brands that they think will appeal to their customer base. We have a solid distribution among London luxury retailers, like Liberty and Matches Fashion.”
Pearl specialists Mikimoto and Tasaki are the biggest homegrown global brands in Japan but the retail landscape for jewellery is divided between small jewellers, concept stores, and department stores. Two of Japan’s largest department store operators, Isetan and Takashimaya, have a wide jewellery section, but limited space to showcase each brand. Concept stores like Dover Street Market, Tomorrowland, Beams and Ron Herman have jewellery areas and always try to make a difference with their selection of brands.
Mimi Hoppen, global jewellery director of Dover Street Market, says that visitors to the Ginza store are “probably slightly different to [those in] department stores or other shops in Japan as customers are usually looking for something a little unusual”. Although the Japanese customer has traditionally chosen small and dainty pieces, that is not the experience at DSM, where the trend is for big and bold with brands like Castro Smith, Bunney and Monies. “There is an appetite to discover new brands and designers, definitely with a quirky edge, even the delicate and fine brands that do well have a point of difference,” she adds.
Shihara Lab is another concept store with a rotating roster of jewellery brands. “I wanted to create a space to introduce jewellery brands that were less accessible in Japan, and host exhibitions and exclusive trunk shows to bring together a vibrant jewellery community,” says founder Yuta Ishihara. He has introduced Dutch designer Bibi Van Der Velden’s animal and mystical creature jewellery, Londoner Alice Cicolini’s intricate patterned enamels set with gemstones, and Francesca Villa’s storytelling pictorial jewellery from Italy. “Although social media has become a popular platform for people to discover jewellery, I still believe in the importance of people experiencing jewellery first hand as it is such a personal item,” Ishihara says.
He points out that, unlike in other parts of the world, Japanese consumers still prefer shopping in stores rather than online. And, while customers in Europe and the US tend to wear jewellery as part of their everyday lifestyle, those in Japan remain focused on the idea of jewellery for special occasions. “We hope we can introduce our customers to new jewellery brands and propose the idea of jewellery as an extension of their self-expression and less as decoration.”
Nevertheless, those special occasion purchases have propelled Japan to the world’s second largest jewellery market, trailing only the US, according to a recent report by American market research consultancy, Spherical Insights. Japan’s jewellery market size was valued at $9.62bn in 2022 and is expected to reach $28.25bn by 2032.
That rise in consumer spending could well be a product of Japan’s Nikkei index surging to a 33-year high in May of this year, supported by a recovering economy and an inflow of foreign investment. Wages have grown and this has increased confidence among consumers.
Bain & Company’s Luxury Report noted that luxury sales in Japan grew 18 per cent in 2022, catching up with its pre-Covid levels, helped by the return of tourism. The growing interest in jewellery could well boost the figures further for 2023.
Designers Sophie Bille Brahe, Robinson Pelham and Cece Jewellery all report growth in Japan. Robinson Pelham’s curated EarWish range of dainty stud earrings and charms was originally inspired by the Japanese custom of hanging little plaques expressing personal wishes in their temples.
Cece Jewellery is hosting trunk shows in the Aoyama area of Tokyo this month and is launching a special talismanic enamel design for her bespoke signet rings and pendants for that market, featuring the mythical rabbit and the moon from Japanese folklore.
Sophie Bille Brahe’s Scandi-style minimalist collections of pearls, including Japanese Akoya, and diamond designs are stocked by Isetan and other concept stores. “Luxury consumers are looking to exclusive fine jewellery brands now more than ever,” she says. “Customers are seeking something with a unique design, something with a point of difference from what’s already available at more established fine jewellery houses.”