LOS ANGELES — It comes by Brink’s truck and is hand-delivered by security guards. It is served up on silver platters and in lighted glass vitrines at chi-chi cocktail parties. The finest jewelry in the world is in Hollywood during the weeks leading up to the Golden Globes and Oscars. Because no matter how valuable a diamond may be, a photo of a celebrity wearing one on the red carpet is priceless.
Award show season is the Super Bowl of celebrity placement. The world’s biggest jewelry brands (Harry Winston, Cartier, Chopard, Tiffany & Co., Bulgari, Van Cleef & Arpels, Fred Leighton, Pomellato) are competing with Hollywood hometown favorites (Neil Lane, Martin Katz, Loree Rodkin), brash newcomers (Kimberly McDonald, Stephen Webster, Solange Azagury-Partridge) and mass-market players (Kwiat, Le Vian) for the chance to bejewel Hollywood’s beauties and dazzle armchair fashion fans watching around the globe.
One sparkling moment in the celebrity spotlight can be worth millions in advertising for a jewelry brand. The styles celebrities choose to wear set trends that trickle all the way down to the mall’s fast-fashion copycats.
“That image of a celebrity wearing drop earrings or a dramatic necklace and all the many ways it is shown and commented on in the weeks after the awards shows ... there is no way to quantify the value,” says Victoria Gomelsky, editor of JCK magazine, a trade publication for retail jewelers.
The Tiffany tassel earrings worn by Natalie Portman at last year’s Academy Awards “had an enormous repercussion on the market.”
Jewelry worn in the hair is another trend that was sparked by celebrities wearing brooches and bracelets in their awards night ’dos. And Le Vian successfully changed the perception of brown diamonds by renaming them “chocolate diamonds” and lending them to Halle Berry and other celebrities to wear on the red carpet.
For jewelers doing the lending, having a piece on the red carpet “ratchets up the sense of mystique about a brand and creates awareness,” Gomelsky says.
The red carpet has become so central to the industry that some brands are willing to pay celebrities to wear their jewelry.
For last year’s Academy Awards, Tiffany & Co. reportedly paid Anne Hathaway $750,000 to wear Tiffany jewels onstage while she was hosting the event. And Gwyneth Paltrow was rumored to have picked up a $500,000 paycheck to wear pieces from Louis Vuitton’s L’Ame du Voyage fine jewelry collection. (Neither brand has commented on the specifics, and it’s not in a business’s best interest to be too public about paying for exposure, but over the last few years some labels have acknowledged having “contractual relationships” with stars.)
Other jewelers use cocktails and canapes to court the attention of celebrities, hoping to build relationships and loyalties that will lead to future sales. Award season buzzes with parties designed to woo wealthy shoppers and borrowers alike.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly when the practice of lending jewelry for the red carpet started. By the 1930s, Paul Flato, the original jeweler to the stars, was already lending his designs to the studios for celebrities to wear in films, so it is likely that they wore them on special occasions, too.
But Harry Winston has long claimed to have been the first to lend diamonds to a star to wear to the Academy Awards. It was 1944, and at the request of director David O. Selznick, a friend of the jeweler, Harry Winston lent a pair of diamond earrings to actress Jennifer Jones, who won the lead actress award for the film “The Song of Bernadette” that year.
The earrings aren’t visible in photos, and nobody knows what happened to them afterward, but the moment has nonetheless become part of Harry Winston lore. The firm lends out millions of dollars worth of diamonds every year, including the $165,000 princess-cut diamond choker Gwyneth Paltrow wore with a pink Ralph Lauren ball gown when she won an Oscar for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love.”
After the ceremony, Paltrow’s father, Bruce, bought it for her.
“It’s a company commitment,” says Frederic de Narp, Harry Winston’s president and chief executive. “We have a dedicated team, PR effort and craftsman effort. We pull from all 22 of our salons around the world so celebrities can pick and choose the best of the best.”
The red carpet wasn’t the international luxury fashion phenomenon that it is today until the 1990s, when Giorgio Armani saw an opportunity and began dressing Hollywood for award shows.
Jeweler Martin Katz didn’t know what he was in for when Sharon Stone called him in 1992 asking to borrow a pearl necklace and earrings to wear to the premiere of “Basic Instinct.”
“I said, ‘Borrow?’ ” Katz remembers. “If she breaks it or loses it, it’s too bad, Martin. And it’s not as if she was going to wear a sandwich board with my name on it.”
Katz agreed on one condition: that Stone wear his jewelry while doing magazine publicity for the film and that his name be in the fashion credits.
That simple agreement changed Katz’s career and the red carpet forever. “My phone started ringing off the hook,” he says. “I had to hire publicists to deal with the phone calls. Jewelers around the world were offering me pieces to put on celebs; people were even giving me scripts to show celebs.”
Over the years, he’s bejeweled a bevy of stars. One of his favorite looks was from the 1997 Oscars, when Nicole Kidman paired his Indian-looking diamond earrings with her Asian-inspired chartreuse John Galliano dress.
Fortunately, there haven’t been too many calamities along the way. But one notable accident occurred at the 1998 Oscars, when Minnie Driver’s ruby bracelet snagged and broke. “A couple dozen rubies went flying. She was on her hands and knees with James Cameron, and luckily they found them all,” Katz remembers.
The growth of the Internet has made celebrity endorsements even more valuable, he says. A single placement lives for perpetuity on websites and blogs and can reach billions of people.
But Katz and other smaller jewelers have found it harder to compete in recent years because so many jewelers have started playing the game and some are willing to pay for red carpet exposure.
“Last year, I had one of my favorite actresses lined up. And sadly, one of the houses gave her and her stylist watches as gifts to wear their jewelry,” he says.
Katz says some of his competitors have celebrities on their payrolls as well. “In the last five or six years, agents have started making deals. ... To me, if you know it’s a paid endorsement, it changes the complexion and perception,” he says.
Another jeweler who has benefited from high-profile exposure is Neil Lane, who started out in 1989 with a counter at the Antiquarious antique center on Beverly Boulevard. He met his first celebrity clients because they wandered in, often after meetings with their agents at International Creative Management nearby.
His big break came with Renee Zellweger, who wore a vintage black James Galanos gown and Neil Lane Art Deco-era jewelry to the 2001 Golden Globes, where she won best actress in a comedy for “Nurse Betty.” He remembers her coming into the shop with her gown in a garment bag.
Since then, he’s lent jewels to Charlize Theron, Madonna, Jennifer Hudson and countless others. His store is full of jewels that have been worn by celebrities, not that he advertises them as such. But he can identify the diamond and platinum wave brooches Eva Longoria wore to the 2011 Golden Globes and the bracelet he purchased from Mae West’s estate that was worn by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the film “Chicago.”
“A lot of celebrities who were buying my (wedding) rings asked me to borrow jewelry for the red carpet,” he says. “Or I loaned them jewelry for the red carpet, and then they bought my rings. It’s very symbiotic, not a one-shot deal.”
Lane has become something of a celebrity himself, as the official engagement ring maker for ABC’s “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette.” And, in the same way fashion designers capitalize on the exposure they get from doing runway shows by spinning off more-affordable secondary fashion lines, Lane has capitalized on the attention he has received on the red carpet by launching the Neil Lane Bridal collection at Kay Jewelers nationwide.
Although he does not pay celebrities to wear his jewelry, Lane sees the pay-for-play red carpet deals happening. But no matter how much money is changing hands, relationships still have more value in the long run, he says.
“Hollywood is an amazing vehicle for exposure,” he says. “If I was still in Brooklyn, I don’t think I would be the guy I am today.”