With gold prices now consistently trading at well over US$1000 an ounce the appeal of silver at less than US$20 an ounce is immediately obvious – from a financial perspective at least.
But according to many in the Australian jewellery industry affordability isn’t the only factor driving the white metal’s sales in local stores.
Indeed many wholesalers (and retailers) argue that silver jewellery is no longer viewed as a cheap alternative to gold jewellery but as a precious metal in its own right.
Jo Tory, the managing director of Najo, is one such wholesaler.
“I love silver,” she states emphatically. “I love it as a metal. I love its colour. I love the way it can be used to create interesting designs without costing a fortune.”
It was this love of silver that helped Tory establish one of Australia’s first high-end silver jewellery wholesaling businesses 20 years ago despite a less than enthusiastic response from many retailers.
“At the time a lot of jewellery retailers were reluctant to sell silver,” she recalls, adding that much of this reluctance was borne from the fact that a lot of the then available silver was “quite cheap and light jewellery”.
“A lot of retailers viewed silver jewellery as a ‘market-type’ product. They didn’t view it as real art or real jewellery.
“Therefore when selling my jewellery I would have to educate them about the properties of silver and the workmanship involved in each piece.”
Today, Tory is happy to report that most retailers understand the “real value of silver jewellery” and Najo, with an extensive collection of contemporary designs retailing for $30 to $1800, is enjoying silver’s growing popularity.
“Silver is definitely more popular now that when we first launched on the market,” she says while stressing that the rising gold price is just one of several likely reasons behind the trend.
“A lot of people just prefer the look and feel of silver.
“Contrary to popular belief it is not just a young-person’s metal – some of our most loyal customers are in their seventies.
“Silver’s affordability makes it a very versatile metal that can be made into designs to appeal to a wide market,” she explains.
“It can be crafted into an heirloom that can be handed down through the generations or it can be made into a very fashion-driven piece.”
Although Najo has “many classic pieces” in its collection, Tory says the company has become increasingly fashion-driven in recent years.
“We follow trends and look at colours to make sure that what we are doing is right up to the minute,” she says.
“The price of silver means that we can take the design risks that most gold jewellery wholesalers can’t – and it means that our end customers can be more experimental in what they buy too.”
Duraflex Group Australia (DGA) is another well-established wholesaler which has been selling silver jewellery to Australian retailers for over 15 years.
Originally a watchband supplier, the company expanded into the silver market in 1995.
DGA managing director Philip Edwards says the company decided to focus on silver jewellery as an extension to the watchband business due to its price point and the fact that silver jewellery “is generally sold for its value as a fashion item rather than its weight, unlike gold jewellery which traditionally has been sold on a per gram basis”.
“We realised that retailers need products that gives their customers achievable and affordable jewellery and silver gives them that,” he says.
The company extended its silver jewellery range in 2006 with the addition of the Thomas Sabo brand – “an extremely fashion-conscious brand very much positioned at the higher-end of the sterling silver market”.
According to Edwards, silver jewellery’s success in the local jewellery market is due to fashion and affordability.
“Branded silver jewellery is an extension of this success and highlights that silver jewellery will be in the market for a long time to come,” he says.
“Consumers no longer look to only buying lifelong heirlooms in jewellery stores.
“Whilst there will always be a place for ever lasting jewellery more and more consumers want pieces that are fashionable now and therefore don’t consider it the end of the world if they only wear a piece a couple of times while it is in fashion. They are happy to move onto the next piece of fashion jewellery.”
Another wholesaler which has been successfully selling silver jewellery to Australian retailers for over 20 years is Pastiche.
Company spokesperson Laurian Ryan says the company, whose current silver jewellery range features “bold, modern designs and classically sleek pieces” as well as the Lovelinks and Petite Lovelinks personalised bead/charm jewellery collections, was also built on a “strong personal love for silver”.
Ryan believes silver jewellery has always been popular but now there is “an even greater interest in the metal due to its affordability and an increasing consumer appreciation of its quality and beauty”.
“The economy remains a key factor influencing the sales of silver,” she says. “As gold prices rise, silver becomes an increasingly appealing alternative. However, growing consumer appreciation of silver jewellery is not focussed on its value for money, but its quality and beauty as a material in its own right.
“Another factor driving silver sales is a close link to fashion jewellery which highlights its versatility and relevance in many tiers of the industry.”
Another wholesaler enjoying the recent surge in silver jewellery’s popularity is Arthur Pike from Cashelle.
Pike readily admits that his company, which was established in 1974, virtually ignored the silver jewellery market until around 10 years ago when he noticed a change in consumer buying patterns.
“We used to just concentrate on selling pearl- and nine-carat gold jewellery,” he explains, “but as more younger buyers entered the market and silver became more fashionable we had to adapt as we noticed quite a bit of resistance to our gold range”.
The company slowly introduced silver jewellery into its stock – today the company stocks a “general” silver jewellery range as well as “silver ball necklets and bracelets” and Minca silver charms.
Pike attributes much of the success of his own silver jewellery sales and that of others in the industry to Pandora which launched its personalised silver jewellery range locally in 2005.
“Pandora has done a wonderful thing for the silver market,” he enthuses.
“They have opened the door for a lot of silver suppliers and retailers.
“The success of Pandora’s beads and bracelets introduced a lot of women (particularly older women) to silver jewellery for the first time – and when those women bought their silver beaded bracelet they had to find other silver jewellery to match.”
Despite silver’s recent assent to the role as an equal, rather than “poor cousin” to gold, for many consumers, Pike believes that silver jewellery still remains more popular with younger consumers than their older counterparts.
“Silver jewellery can, and is, worn by people from 16 to 60 but there are some people, particularly older people, who will always be ‘gold people’ and will only ever buy gold jewellery,” he says.
“However most people who look at gold jewellery (especially white gold jewellery) and see a price tag of $5000 and then see a similar piece made in silver for $900 will choose to buy the less expensive option.”
He says that this affordability means that silver jewellery can be a good seller for jewellery retailers all year round as people can afford to make spontaneous purchases for themselves or loved ones.
In fact, Pike is so convinced of silver’s increasing role in the fine jewellery market that he confidently predicts that silver will continue to expand its share of the fine jewellery market.
“I have just returned from the Vicenza gold fair and noticed that a lot gold manufacturers were selling silver jewellery. The manufacturers have obviously noticed a downturn in their gold sales so they have started manufacturing silver jewellery – not white gold jewellery.
“There probably isn’t any negative as far as silver trade is concerned,” he adds. “It’s just a matter of creating and stocking items fashionable enough for women to want to buy them.”
Craig Symons from Osjag is also convinced that silver jewellery is playing as increasingly important role in the fine jewellery market.
Although a relative newcomer to the silver jewellery market, Symons believes that the white metal has become as socially acceptable as gold.
Established in 1990, Osjag stocked mostly gold jewellery until it introduced Breuning silver jewellery two and a half years ago and followed this with the launch of Bastian and bruno banana silver jewellery last August.
Symons says that the Breuning and Bastian ranges (with retail prices ranging from $160 up to $1500) are both targeted at the medium- to upper-end of the silver market while bruno banana, “which is every bit in good terms of quality”, targets the young market with retail prices below $189.
Readily acknowledging that the high price of gold was one of the key factors behind the decision to import the silver jewellery ranges, Symons says the company is “trying to appeal to some jewellers who have traditionally carried gold and diamonds only but who can see the potential for lower unit priced sales while not compromising their quality”.
“We have always had some silver in our ranges but we’ve never really had a branded collection before but when the GFC hit I was offered the opportunity to take on Breuning and I saw that as a good way of strengthening our silver ranges.
“We had a good response to the Breuning range so we decided to import Bastian and bruno banani from Germany as well so all of a sudden we went from one relatively small range of sterling silver jewellery to three reasonably large ranges.”
Silver jewellery now accounts for around 20 percent of the company’s product turnover and Symons’ expects this to “grow further” in the coming months as the brands establish themselves locally.
“There’s no doubt that when we took our silver jewellery ranges on silver was already on a tremendous growth path fuelled by the introduction of silver beaded jewellery like Pandora,” he says, “but companies like Najo and Pastiche were already there and doing well.
“There’s also no doubt that the price-points that can be achieved with silver means it matches what a lot of consumers are looking for now particularly after all the financial woes and the price of gold having gone up
“There is also no doubt that silver has become socially as acceptable as gold.
I think this is partly due to the popularity of white metals (including white gold) before silver became so freely available in so many qualities and designs – it was quite easy for women to transition from white gold to silver.”
“Women also like silver because they can get a huge big look for $500 to $1000.”
Another wholesaler who has recently recognised the potential of the silver market is K & A Jewellery.
After 40 years in the trade, the manufacturer/wholesaler has moved from merely “dabbling” in silver to manufacturing the Isabella branded range of “fine quality silver jewellery” priced to sell from around $59 to $1000 at retail.
Managing director Joe Kahane says that the “obvious success” of Pandora and other bead/charm bracelets in the market enabled him to recognise a new opportunity in the market.
“The introduction of Pandora definitely led to increased demand for silver jewellery however I realised that people now want more top-end silver jewellery rather than just beads…
“I thought there was room in the market for someone to make fine silver jewellery of a similar quality to fine gold jewellery so we began making fine jewellery and components using silver rather than gold.”
“When I go into a store and they say they’ve already got a brand like Pandora I say ‘that’s great’ because our jewellery will complement it.
“People don’t just want to buy silver beads, they want to buy other items of silver jewellery as well.
“I believe that the silver trend has got longevity especially when you look at the skyrocketing price of gold.
“Consumers can buy a very impressive piece of jewellery for $300 or $400 retail when a similar item in a similar weight in gold would cost them many thousands.”
Peter Burgess from B Luscious is also enjoying silver’s soaring popularity.
The company, which began importing silver from Mexico around 12 years ago, extended its product range with Silverado charm/bead jewellery a few years ago and his since expanded its collection to include Starborn Creations (handmade one-of-a-kind gemstone jewellery), Message in a Bottle (sterling silver and diamond charm range), Story TAles (sterling silver and semi-precious stone jewellery) and Verado (clip-on charms).
“There has always been a large market for silver jewellery in Australia however the silver ranges available today are thriving – and not only due to the affordability factor,” he says.
“You cannot just blame the rise in the cost of gold for the high demand for silver jewellery.
“Gold has become a high end commodity, but silver had already made its mark on the jewellery industry with the introduction of bead and charm ranges.
“We now see jewellery designers and manufactures being more creative with silver jewellery.
“The result is some amazing jewellery pieces which in the past would probably have been produced in gold.
“In the past it was common to hear a consumer say ‘I only wear gold’, but with the focus on fashion and jewellery trends silver appears to be the metal of choice for the Australian consumer.
He concludes that silver will always be in high demand from this generation to the next as it has in every generation “from the baby brooch to the first signet ring”.
Indeed Osjag’s Craig Symons suggests that any retailers considering stocking silver should ask themselves: “Has the price of gold affected your sales?”
If the answer is “yes”, he says they should then ask themselves: “Would it be worthwhile introducing a quality range of silver that wouldn’t compromise your quality?”
* Pictured top to bottom is jewellery from Cashelle, Najo and Osjag