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15 december 2009

It's been a trying year for the Italian jewelry industry, where unfavorable exchange rates and fickle gold prices have thrown cold water on efforts to maintain the heat in the intercontinental love affair between Italy and U.S. jewelers.

But Italians have a new champion for their products in Carlo Angelo Bocchi, the newly appointed trade commissioner of the Italian Trade Commission (ITC), who took the helm at the ITC's U.S. office in Los Angeles on July 27, and has been energetically attending trade shows and looking for fresh partnerships with U.S. retailers ever since.

Bocchi previously worked for the Hong Kong office of the ITC, where he became familiar with the jewelry industry, and he also held a similar position in Tokyo.

That experience is certainly called for these days. For Italian jewelry manufacturers, this has been the worst year since 1929, Bocchi said. Given that reality, Bocchi said his primary goal is to help already-established Italian jewelry companies maintain and grow their businesses in the United States. After all, the U.S. market - where quality-conscious jewelers continue to covet the "Made in Italy" label - remains the largest customer base for Italian jewelry manufacturers, commanding 30 percent to 35 percent of the Italian jewelry export market.

"We think, as a trade commission, we need to help all the companies that are already established in the market," Bocchi said in an interview at the JA New York Special Delivery Show in New York, where the Italians - including companies such as Andreoli, J. Jewels, Imma and Zydo - occupied their own pavilion and held a strong presence. "We are worried that if we don't help these companies, they won't be able to come [to trade shows] anymore...We want to work with the companies to stay alive."

For countries such as Italy, where the currency is the euro, the weak U.S. dollar has been a problem, with Italian goods pricier for American jewelers than they have been historically. (As of Oct. 26, 2009, when Bocchi spoke to National Jeweler at the Special Delivery show, one euro was the equivalent of about $1.50, whereas just two weeks earlier one euro was equal to about $1.30.)

Bocchi points out that it's important for American jewelers to realize that the higher prices are not due to Italian manufacturers suddenly hiking up their prices, but to reasons beyond their control.

"We are not creating inflation, this is a result of the exchange rate only," Bocchi said, adding that manufacturers have actually done their best to cut costs.

For retailers unsure of why to buy Italian, especially in these difficult times, Bocchi cites the country's reputation for both the best hand-crafted jewelry and the use of state-of-the-art machinery for machine-made pieces. Then, of course, there's the beauty of its gold jewelry.

"Look at the quality of the gold - this is fine gold, white, yellow and rose gold," Bocchi said.

In addition, Italian manufacturers produce at least two or three collections per year, meaning for the Italian jewelry customer, there is always something new.

In the future, in addition to attending jewelry fairs, Bocchi would like to develop more partnerships with U.S. retailers. One example of this is already happening at 11 Ben Bridge Jeweler stores this holiday season. A dozen Italian jewelry companies that have never been brought together before will be united in a special Italian jewelry display for three months, from Oct. 1 through Dec. 31, 2009.

If Bocchi has his way, the Seattle-based chain won't be the only jeweler to devote such space to Italian merchandise.

"We would like to come in further along the chain, not only through exhibitions in New York and Las Vegas, but by working with private American chains as a way to complement our strategy," Bocchi said. "We don't want to leave the fairs, but the public is also a [marketing] target."