What is and isn’t fine jewellery?

The distinction between fine and fashion jewellery remains one of the industry’s most compelling and polarising debates. But JEFF SALTON investigates if the debate is even worth having?

If BaselWorld is the largest and, some would argue, most important jewellery industry event, why does a mobile phone company exhibit?

It’s true, BaselWorld is predominantly a watch fair but more than half the exhibitors are jewellery suppliers, and most would be considered up-market, fine jewellery brands.

So why is Vertu, a mobile phone company, allowed to exhibit at BaselWorld, let alone have a major presence? The answer maybe in one word, “luxury”; Vertu is described as a manufacturer and retailer of luxury mobile phones and it has exhibited since 2006, however, it best illustrates the blurring of traditional markets.

Defining fine jewellery

Even if a mobile phone is adorned with gemstones and crystals few people would consider it jewellery, let alone luxury or fine jewellery. Indeed, how do you define the term fine jewellery?

It’s a compelling question and one that stimulated much discussion last year on a Facebook page representing the Young Jewellers Group (YJG). At that time and over the ensuing days, the discussion erupted into a sensitive, passionate and, in most cases, an entirely subjective debate about defining and differentiating between fine and fashion jewellery; where and how to you draw a line between the two?

Even if we accept that a phone would not be classified as jewellery, what about the increasing instances of products like USB necklaces, jewellery headphones or fragrance jewellery? Should these products be classed as jewellery, even if these are covered in diamonds?

From the moment the YJG debates started it became obvious that, even among a group of industry tradespeople, defining what is and is not fine jewellery was near on impossible, but that didn’t stop anyone from trying.

Tim Haab, a Tasmanian jeweller first poked the ants’ nest when he drew attention to the use of the term ”fine jewellers” in an article about Michaeal Hill on Jeweller’s website. And while a handful of readers shared his humour, it started to get interesting when Chris Botha, a high profile Melbourne manufacturing jeweller, challenged Haab.

Law of averages

If Michael Hill outsells most other jewellery stores in Australia, Botha pondered, surely by law of averages it sets the standard for what is fine jewellery, if that is what it and its customers deem it to be.

The initial argument put forward was that if something was mass-produced it could not be classified as ”fine jewellery”, and that the customer always received good value for money from a manufacturing jeweller of fine jewellery.

Immediately, Botha disagreed, stating that cast-in stones had better retention life and less chance of fall-out and that, in his experience, the ruling on mass-produced fine jewellery lay with the customer.

This concept of value being in the eye of the ring-holder was also promoted by Melbourne retailer John Temelli, who said he had seen consumers wear fashion jewellery more proudly than precious metal or gem-crested jewellery.

It was then suggested that fine jewellers were those who always provided value for money, but Botha countered again by stating that something quite inexpensive could be just as finely made as something retailing for more than $100,000, and that the definition of fine jewellery might also lie in the detail of the craftsmanship.

Haab expanded that definition with the declaration that fine jewellery must be crafted from fine gemstones and metals, and assembled with fine skills. He said fine jewellery stores must be able to deliver the services of a fine jeweller.  This view was shared not only by Victorian jeweller Jacqueline Willmore, who stated that fine jewellery was jewellery made with precious materials and that costume (or fashion) jewellery was a replication of that.

NSW jeweller Simon Grew said: “To me, fine jewellery represents the best in its class and has been made with precision and skill by a finely trained craftsperson.”

Sydney jeweller Kathryn Grey chimed in with the suggestion that fine jewellery should be something made to endure over a long period, adding that both fine and fashion jewellery had a place in the market but there was cause for concern when one was represented as the other.

When the subject of “quality” was raised as a way to define fine jewellery, Jeweller editor Coleby Nicholson, who had joined the online discussion, suggested that quality was too subjective to be used as a gauge.

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say, and I felt it was not sensible to attempt to define fine jewellery by a measure of quality when, in fact, we would at first have to agree on a definition of ’quality‘,” Nicholson said, looking back on the debate.

After days of debate among a wide cross-section of YJG members, no agreement was reached so Jeweller sought comment from some of Australia and New Zealand’s more established figures to see if a clearer picture could be obtained. The magazine also posed the same question to a number of specialist international jewellery journalists. 

Australian industry stalwarts

Albert Bensimon from Adelaide-based 39-store chain Shiels Jewellery, says his definition simply came down to the materials used in its construction.

“Fine jewellery must contain one noble metal, at least silver, gold or platinum,” Bensimon says, before adding that this did not necessarily mean price was a determining factor. “Costume jewellery can be very expensive, as in brands such as Hermes and the like, but if there are no noble metal or gems in use, then it is not fine.”

Nationwide Jewellers managing director Colin Pocklington agreed with Bensimon, saying the traditional precious metals of the jewellery industry still dictate what classes as fine and fashion, even though there may be a range of new materials in use in the broader jewellery industry today.

“From my first days in the industry, fine jewellery was precious metals and/or precious stones,” Pocklington says. “Wood, plastic and many non-precious materials can be used as jewellery or accessories but a retail jeweller is a business in which the majority of its sales come from the sale of precious metals and/or precious or semi-precious stones.”

Ian Winterburn, CFO of 55-store jewellery chain Wallace Bishop says fine jewellery extends way beyond any choice of materials. Pieces need to be durable and suitable to be worn for years, if not decades. Likewise, Winterburn says, whether or not an item is “fashionable” really has no bearing on whether it is fashion jewellery.

“The fashion aspect may confuse the issue, as we sell expensive product such as cocktail rings, which are orientated towards a current design or colour but are fine by virtue of the value of the materials and the make,” he explains, adding, “Antique jewellery, such as art-nouveau pieces from the 1920s and 1930s, were highly fashionable but considered fine by virtue of the design and intrinsic quality.”

The Kiwis chip in

Two members of New Zealand’s most influential jewellery family perhaps provided the most compelling answer to the debate in the form of another question: does it really matter anyway?

Peter Minturn, founder of Peter Minturn Goldsmith School, believes the difference in definition typically comes down to a person’s own perception and background.

“There is no definition for these terms – it, like many things in life, is where you are viewing from,” he explains. “For the Bloomsbury set, Cartier is fine jewellery; for the girl who works in a factory or office, Angus & Coote may be their definition. As for me, I have one criteria: it’s all for buying and selling.”

Minturn’s daughter-in-law, Lee-Anne Minturn is president of New Zealand’s Jewellery Industry Association. She agrees, saying it is silly for people within the industry to get tied up about what classes as what when typically their own customers do not care.

“From my point of view, be it fine, quality, classic, fashion, traditional or contemporary, categorising jewellery is essentially irrelevant,” she says. “Only a client or customer can truly judge what they perceive as being fine jewellery and what level of quality is important to them as a consumer.”

Around the globe

Any debate of this kind is always going to be driven by emotion at the coalface, which is why it can be useful to step outside the local industry to gauge the opinions of the public, or at least the experiences of other jewellery publications in solving the same question.

South Africa Jewellery News journalist Andrew Meyer concedes that defining fine from fashion becomes harder as more analysis is used.

“Once you start putting words down on paper, you realise that the line is becoming thinner and thinner,” Meyer says. “The general perception seems to be that fine jewellery tends to be unique, rather than mass-produced, and sold at high-end jewellery stores. The price and material used will also contribute to the definition.”

He adds that fashion jewellery leans towards being mass-produced and strongly branded, with the brand influencing the purchasing decision more than the design itself; however, he again concedes there have been exceptions to this rule.

“Fine jewellery can also be branded, as is the case with the De Beers range, but then it is not mass market and it is made of very high quality material, such as diamonds, gold and platinum, and priced accordingly,” Meyer explains.

UK-based Retail Jeweller journalist Kate Donovan believes there is no straightforward answer to what is fine and what is fashion. While tradition may state one thing, the current market and consumer buying habits indicate another.

“Fine jewellery, as we traditionally understand it, refers to pieces that include precious stones and expensive metals, such as gold and platinum, which give items a high monetary value within the market,” Donovan says.

“However, the lines are definitely blurring. At Retail Jeweller, we try to avoid the terms precious and non-precious in relation to stones because, while rarity levels constantly shift, so too does the desirability of particular stones. Plus, with beauty in most stones, who is to say one is more desirable than the other anyway?”


Donovan says the craftsmanship and consumer desire for a piece of jewellery are just as important as the materials used to make it.

“In my personal view, the term fine goes beyond value in the monetary sense and instead can relate to customer desirability and skill in design and production; however, while fashionable pieces of jewellery crafted using different materials and methods are undoubtedly fine to certain audiences, the term fine will probably always be used in relation to products that sell for big bucks,” she says.

Sarah Carpin is a director of CMJ Media, a marketing and publishing company supported and endorsed by the UK and Ireland’s biggest co-operative group of retail jewellers, The Company of Master Jewellers.

Carpin believes many British retail jewellers have been forced to reconsider their definitions since the dominance of brands like Pandora and Thomas Sabo in recent years.

“Although there are still some purists out there who refuse to stock anything apart from precious jewellery, most successful retailers are having to move with the mix, and that involves embracing the world of fashion jewellery,” Carpin explains.

Her personal opinion is that fine jewellery is made from precious materials and that all silver jewellery and base metals fall under the label of semi-precious or fashion jewellery. Carpin says fashion can be a misleading term, as it is quite possible for fine jewellery to be fashionable even though its higher price means it also needs to transcend immediate fashion trends.

“This is jewellery that can be worn and treasured for many years, not just for a season,” Carpin explains.

“Many brands, like Marco Bicego, for instance, are making fashionable fine jewellery, but this is jewellery that is successful because it is adaptable – collections can be worn and layered with each other to create different looks and the style is casual enough that the jewellery can be worn with jeans as well as cocktail dresses or business suits.”

The challenge is for retailers to educate their fashion jewellery customers on the benefits of upgrading to fine jewellery alternatives.

“Branding aside, this means talking to customers about the value and the integrity of buying a piece of jewellery set with gemstones rather than glass,” Donovan says, adding, “There will always be customers who are looking to invest in bridal jewellery and fine jewellery that bridges the gap between what is fashionable and what is precious enough to be considered a future family heirloom.

“The explosion of fashion trends into jewellery is something that should be seen as hugely positive for the industry. After all, even the most valuable of fine jewellery should be enjoyed and worn by women, not purchased as an investment and hidden away in bank vaults.”

Nicholson says he’s been debating the issue for 10 years and is yet to hear anyone give an iron clad definition. He asks, “why does it matter anyway?”

“I don’t know why people get so uptight over the matter. When confronted with the question, I ask, “Would you call a stainless ring fine or fashion jewellery?  Almost everyone answers fashion jewellery. Then I ask, what if we set a diamond in the stainless steel ring, what do you call it now?

“The discussion usually ends there, and rightly so. It’s impossible to define the two categories, so why do we need to define something when the consumer doesn’t care? In their mind they’re buying jewellery and that’s all that matters,”  Nicholson says.


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