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Luxury on the low

02 december 2009

With inconspicuous consumption the new imperative for the stylish, jewelry designers keep diamonds, metals subtle.

At the JA New York Summer Show in July, German Seferbekov, the Russian jewelry designer behind Kabirksi and Co., displayed a collection of deluxe yet provocative creations made all the more intriguing by his trademark image, a cockroach, according to National Jeweler.

The insect appears in the designer's ads and on his Web site, where an animated roach crawls across a screen bearing Seferbekov's scribbled pseudonym, G. Kabirski, and pauses to mark the period and dot the two "i's" with diamonds before scurrying away.

The collection and the edgy, if uncomfortable, imagery Kabirski uses to promote it aptly embodies the gothic-punk undertones of this fall's jewelry collections. Whereas some seasons are marked by designers' love for nature and romance, fall 2009's overriding ethos is a hard, 80s-inspired edginess with just the tiniest concessions to the conventional definition of elegance.

Designers of diamond jewelry, in particular, have gotten the memo. Take one of Kabirski's more unusual necklaces: From afar, it looks like a collar carved from mammoth ivory or white agate. In reality, it's made from the spine of a cobra--lightweight, sandpaper-like and remarkably skeletal. A sprinkling of tiny bezel-set diamonds in shades of champagne adds a surprisingly luxe touch.

The designer's dark attitude is echoed in the oxidized silver and diamond jewels that have captivated fine-jewelry buyers lately.

Helena Krodel, director of media and special events at the Jewelry Information Center, calls the pairing of stones with blackened metal the  "biggest and only" trend of the season.

"Everything is black-black metal, black diamonds--even flowers I'm seeing set with black gemstones," Krodel says. "No one wants to be perceived as a conspicuous consumer. They want new things, but they want them to look aged."

From newcomers such as Irit Design in Los Angeles, which uses diamonds to accent bangles and tangled necklaces of blackened sterling silver chains, to familiar names such as Todd Reed, who uses rough diamonds with oxidized silver and 18-karat gold, the wealth of jewelers setting serious stones into silver reflects both the new focus on affordability and a less regimented understanding of luxury.

"It's another way of looking back at the past," says Jamie Cadwell, account director at the Diamond Information Center. "Before the 20th century, diamonds were set into gold backed with sterling silver. Now it's a way for people to create things without being cost-prohibitive."

So urgent is the incentive to offer jewelry that beats consumers' strict price expectations that fine jewelers are even turning to industrial materials. At the JA New York Summer Show, Patricia Tschetter of Tschetter Studio showcased a new collection of steel jewelry inspired by wrought-iron patterns. Diamonds set in steel are her next project.

"I really like steel because it's lightweight, tough and cheap," Tschetter says. "It looks fabulous with gold, and you can blacken it or leave it natural."

The economy has altered not only the materials designers use to set their diamonds, but the stones themselves, says Cadwell, pointing to the rough stones and off-colors now in vogue.

Gray diamonds, for one, are about to get a major promotional push via Rio Tinto's new "Silver Mist" collection, sourced from its Argyle mine. Once relegated to the heap of diamonds too cheap to market to fine jewelers, the silvery stones fit fashion's current obsession with gray.

"Gray is perfect for all the soft materials coming in and lends a softness to all the punky studs," Sharon Graubard, senior vice president of trend analysis at Stylesight, said at a fall/winter accessory trends Webinar.

With gray taking a starring role as "the perfect neutral," diamonds in flat or sliced styles, which tend to be piqued and grayish, are also getting a boost. Initially used by Indian jewelers in traditional 22-karat gold settings, they were gradually appropriated by high-end jewelers such as Karen Bizer--a New York designer who flatters their organic shapes with delicate lines of pave--and Tous, a Spanish jewelry brand that  framed diamond slices in white gold and diamond pavé for its recent "Flat Diamond Fine Jewelry" collection.

"What will cutters come up with next?" asks Cadwell. "There's this emerging crop of people pushing the envelope on what fine jewelry should be. It's been happening in fashion for a long time and it's high time it happened in jewelry, too."