July 20 2010
Lucia van der Post
Unless you’re an exceptionally ardent follower of glossy magazine advertisements or are very familiar with Italy, you’ve probably never heard of Pomellato, the Italian jewellery company that is to the sophisticated Italian woman what Hermès is to her French sisters – which is to say it is the insiders’ choice, a cult brand that doesn’t have the obvious swank and swagger of the Bulgaris and the de Grisogonos of this world, but has a quiet power and elegance all of its own. Until now it’s been mostly an under-the-radar, well-kept Italian secret, but it looks as if we’re all going to hear a lot more about Pomellato, not to mention its charming and fast-growing little sister, Dodo.
In October 2009 the (mostly) family-owned company appointed a new chief executive officer, Andrea Morante, a former investment banker who was chief operating officer at Gucci during the early days of its reinvention, and he’s clearly all set to turn Pomellato into the global player he thinks it deserves to be. Tilda Swinton has come on board as its “face”, which, as he puts it, “tells you something about where we see the brand” (in other words, it’s beautiful in an unconventional sort of way; edgy, even) and he has ambitious plans to open several new stores to grow the business in the Americas and China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – “in order to be better balanced geographically, as we’re too concentrated today in Europe”.
Until recently Pomellato has been curiously low-key about its jewellery, advertising mainly in Continental Europe. It was almost as if the company was determined to keep it the sort of secret that you had to work hard to discover. Dawn Mello, for instance, who was creative director of Gucci in its glory days and brought Tom Ford to the Gucci table, who loves the brand and brought it to Bergdorf Goodman, had to discover it for herself. These days, though, there’s a striking advertising campaign, there are finely orchestrated showings to interested press and the signs are that it’s all paying off. In the last, very difficult year, when Bulgari was down some €47m and Damiani lost money, Pomellato made a profit of 16 per cent on a turnover of just over €100m (2009). Not bad for a company that many women in the UK have never heard of.
There are other signs, too, that Pomellato is beginning to become a more high-profile player. New York’s highly influential W magazine recently had a cover showing actress Julianna Margulies wearing some of Pomellato’s signature Narcisco chain bracelets (in rose gold, from £9,610). Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Assad, has been snapped wearing its Sabbia earrings (rose gold with green and brown diamonds, £2,815). The Queen of the Netherlands recently purchased two Pomellato rings, and Italian L’Uomo Vogue called Dodo one of the 35 most interesting brands in the world. Whisperings on the web are beginning to gather pace. “Fab, fab, fab,” says one American blogger. “Think Marni and Missoni turned into jewellery.” Christina Ong, a woman with a track record of impeccable taste, loved the brand so much she brought it to London and opened its first (and so far only) UK store in Brook Street. “Pomellato jewels,” she says, “are designed like prêt-à-porter pieces, to be enjoyed every day. When you wear a Pomellato piece of jewellery you feel part of an aesthetic and a style, the unique combinations of design and stones giving each creation its recognisable and distinctive seal.”
Those who’ve discovered Pomellato have always loved it. Something like 65 to 70 per cent of its business is returning customers. When Pino Rabolini, who is still the majority shareholder, founded the company in 1967, he wanted to make fine jewellery but he wanted to remove the stuffiness and formality. He also wanted to make pieces that were relatively affordable. Way back in the 1960s, jewellery, especially in Italy, was a rather formal matter. Jewels were bought to mark weddings, christenings, first communions. They were mostly classic pieces designed to be worn at special celebrations.
Rabolini’s idea was to make jewellery that was every bit as fine but that could be worn every day. He’d cottoned on to the fact that while prêt-a-porter clothing brands were bringing fashionable clothing within the reach of almost everyone, nobody was doing the same thing for jewellery. He didn’t want to make vastly expensive parures that could only be worn by the very rich at the grandest of balls; he wanted to see his pieces worn during the day, at private dinners, going to the theatre. He wanted women to buy his pieces in the way they might buy a dress. It’s still a niche that it seems to have almost to itself. As Mello puts it, “Pomellato is unique in that it has the quality of its peer competitors – Cartier, Bulgari etc – and yet it is much more fashionable. Every year there is an element of surprise when the new collections come out. The range might include a sportif chain necklace of gold and wood along with a delicate drop earring in an exquisitely cut precious gemstone.”
Even those who don’t yet know the brand will, if they have the smallest interest in jewellery, have come across its influence, for its designs are copied almost wherever jewellery is made. Back in the 1980s it was Pomellato that first launched the idea of the key as a jewellery gift; now it’s everywhere. It resonated particularly in Italy where the word for key (chiave) is loaded with romantic suggestion, implying the keys to the heart. Then there’s its Nudo ring (from £1,385), which is probably its single most imitated piece. Nudo features coloured semiprecious stones (blue London topaz, lemon quartz, prasiolite, Madeira quartz, amethyst, red tourmaline, peridot) cut and set as if they were solitaire diamonds, with no visible means of support on the sides.
It’s probably the design that is most emblematic of the brand. Fans collect them and wear three or more at a time on the same finger. Then there’s Tango, a stunning linked chain necklace (£102,880; collection from £4,400), which uses an 18th-century technique of setting diamonds in burnished silver on pink gold to give it a much-copied vintage air. Chains with almost invisible clasps and beautifully crafted flexible links are another of its signature marks.
Victoria, another instantly recognisable chunky chain necklace (collection from £2,825), set the trend for combining jet with pink gold (£19,600), while Eva relaunched the fashion for the ancient Italian art of cameo-making (from £1,845). But while some of the prices are high, one of its most iconic designs is a simple ring called M’ama, Non M’ama (He/She Loves Me, Loves Me Not). These rings (from £775) are all made from pink gold with single stones of red tourmaline, fire opal, peridot, garnet, moonstone, amethyst, iolite, green tourmaline and blue London topaz.
One of Pomellato’s key strategies is to launch seasonal collections and to keep the prices at the sort of levels that women (who make up some 75 per cent of its customers) would contemplate spending on themselves. Hence alongside the high-priced pieces there is always a great deal in the £1,000 to £5,000 bracket.
“If I think of our typical customer,” says Andrea Morante, “it is a woman who is professionally successful, who is independent, not just financially but also psychologically, and who doesn’t want to go for the obvious brands.”
While Pomellato is becoming better known and more sought after, its junior brand Dodo is growing even faster. Dodo is the young, fun, playful end of the business, and although as I write Pomellato counts for some 60 per cent of the company’s turnover and Dodo some 40 per cent, this could easily change. Everything in the Dodo range is made from precious materials – gold, silver, diamonds – but it was started by Rabolini in 1995 because he wanted to do something even more affordable than Pomellato. He asked his designer to create something that took just one gramme of gold, that was ecologically sound and affordable. He came up with a little charm that sold for about €40 (now priced from £99). They called it Dodo and today Italian mothers and daughters, such as Anna Zegna of the Ermenegildo Zegna family, give each other little charms as tokens of love and affection, to celebrate or just for fun.
In Italy a Dodo bracelet and charm is often the very first piece of jewellery a child is given. Each of the 60 different charms sends a message – a lion is for courage, the owl says, “I love the night,” and the sea turtle says, “We’ll go far together,” but there are lots, lots more. The animals are typically in gold, some have little diamonds or coloured stones, and all can be worn as pendants or strung along a line of little gold beads to make a bracelet. Each customer puts his collection together in an individual way and can start small and add gradually through the years.
A proportion of all Dodo sales goes to the Italian branch of the World Wildlife Fund and this year, to celebrate its 15th birthday, there is a special little charm, a diamond-embellished Chinese panda (£770). At La Rinascente, the flagship store in Milan where Vittorio Radice (formerly of Habitat UK and Selfridges) is now in charge, Dodo sales per square metre are the highest in the whole product range, and this year Radice is giving it massive window space, because, as he puts it, “it’s a very big business for us”.
And while Dodo is relatively inexpensive, at the opposite end there is Pom Pom, a small, very exclusive and highly priced collection of one-off pieces. At a recent press showing, most of the (hardened) jewellery experts were blown away by this year’s show-stopping rings, each designed round an individual and extraordinary stone. There is, for instance, a 67ct fire topaz surrounded by orange sapphires (£56,000), a large cabochon of red coral from Japan supported by flat brown diamonds (£77,000) and a monstrously huge 87ct moonstone mounted on diamonds (£115,000). This special collection is on sale in the London showroom from this month. But in the meantime, I defy any woman to see the range and not long to own something. And the great thing, from Pomellato’s point of view, is that once she’s hooked, she comes back and back.