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The King of Bling

Harry Winston, Jeweler of the Stars, opens a Honolulu salon as part of a worldwide expansion

photo: Jimmy Forrest

James Seuss' eyes are sparkling.

Seuss, the president of Harry Winston, is being asked about the more than 70-year-old company, famous worldwide for its exquisite jewelry and watches, a company commonly called "The Jeweler of the Stars" for lending extravagant pieces for Hollywood red carpet walks. The question enlivening Seuss is: What can customers expect from the newly opened Harry Winston Honolulu store?

"We find those pieces that are rare, the blue diamonds of this world, the fabulous Burmese rubies, and the unusual pieces as well, the purple sapphires. Our products are really the best in gemstones and diamonds and watches," says Seuss, sitting in a richly upholstered chair, in a velvet-walled sitting room inside Ala Moana Center. "I think people will find some pretty amazing pieces at Harry Winston."

And expensive pieces. The average sale is reportedly $100,000. Tourism leaders talk about moving high-end, well, Harry Winston is literally the high end.

But the company started branching out to a wider audience in the past year, gearing up to open a handful of new stores globally. Honolulu's store – opened in December next to Louis Vuitton and Cartier – is one of the first two. It's a massive shift in marketing for the luxury jeweler. Here's what Seuss had to say about Harry Winston's sudden expansion and what the company brings to Hawaii.

HB: Harry Winston has been successful for more than 70 years. What is the thinking behind its current expansion?
JS: Harry Winston was acquired last year, the majority share, by Aber Diamond Corp. (NASDAQ: ABER). Aber, a diamond-mining company based in Toronto, was looking for a way to diversify the business. The chairman of Aber, Bob Gannicott, said, "Well, what better way to expand than to actually go from the mine to the finger, than to purchase a jewelry company, a prestigious jewelry company?" Harry Winston was an obvious choice.

HB: So the big change came with Aber obtaining majority ownership?
JS:
Aber, being a publicly held company, is looking for ways to increase shareholder value and to grow the assets and expand the business was a natural strategy. But a strategic expansion, not a mass expansion, looking at centers of wealth, where we have customers that are not currently being served.

HB: That brought you to Hawaii?
JS:
Hawaii was part of our first tier of that expansion. We identified Honolulu and Bel Harbor in Miami as two very important markets that Harry Winston was not reaching. In Honolulu, the target customer is not only local, but also the international clientele. And not really tourists for us, but those Japanese nationals that have second homes in Hawaii or live here most of the year. Those from the Mainland, as well.

>> FAST FACT:

The original Lesotho diamond was 601.26 carats when it was found in 1967 in southern Africa. It was cut into 18 gems – weighing a total 242.5 carats – by Harry Winston’s cutter in 1968. Harry Winston currently possesses Lesotho 1, pictured here, which weighs 71.73 carats.

source: Harry Winston

HB: So you would characterize this as a strategic expansion, not a mass expansion?
JS:
Yes, we looked at strategic markets in addition to our New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles stores. We don't want to open – I mean we would never be like Tiffany's or Cartier. We will never open many stores. Our next location we are looking at is Chicago; so we have geographic hubs for the brand and of course, Honolulu is one of those geographic hubs.

HB: Is there also an international component to the expansion?
JS:
Of course, we have the international expansion plan, which is anchored by Japan and our flagship store in Paris. We have a private selling location in Geneva and we will look to open a London flagship store this July. We have opened a store in Taipei and we are looking to open a store in Hong Kong next year, as well as in Beijing and Shanghai. The Middle East is also important and we are looking at a store in Dubai, and we have a strong customer base in Russia, so we are looking at Moscow as another location. But the U.S. is our major focus, where the brand is known, where we have what I call brand equity.

HB: Were there any concerns in balancing the value of the Harry Winston brand with the expansion?
JS:
We had to look carefully at the product representation that we had in each market. We wanted to make sure that the customers that come to Honolulu see the most fabulous, unique gemstones and watches anywhere in Hawaii. So part of our expansion plans include being the best in any market we go into. So it wouldn't be possible, because there are only so many unique gemstones in the world, to support the store the way we have supported it, to embark on a very large number of stores.

HB: Is there potential for continued growth here in Hawaii or do you feel you are filling a static niche here?
JS:
No, I think there is continued growth, especially on the other islands. A lot of our customers might not have homes on Oahu and they might fly direct from the Mainland to Maui or the Big Island. We wouldn't necessarily have a store there, but we would reach out to them with the collection of jewelry that we would take to them and host in the locations.

HB: I have seen reported that the average product sale is $100,000. So who is the average Harry Winston client?
JS:
We have prices starting at $5,000 and up. And we have a good core range of products running from $5,000 to $50,000. Of course, we have the million dollar necklaces as well, but we have a core business under $50,000 that is very strong.

HB: Can you paint a picture of the Harry Winston customer?
JS:
We are talking about a significant purchase here. It is not something you would go in and pick up on a whim. It marks a special occasion. So it is a customer who is getting married or a customer who wants to mark an anniversary like a 25th wedding anniversary with a diamond anniversary band. Or a husband's birthday with a Harry Winston watch. There is also a collector customer. The customer who absolutely loves gemstones and comes to Harry Winston to find the very best.

HB: So Harry Winston is not for everybody?
JS:
It is important to note that it is an accessible brand. We are not trying to be exclusive or unapproachable. Because if you think about a $25,000 purchase, and there are a lot of other products that consumers are buying, I mean cars are much more expensive than $25,000. It should be seen as a much more approachable product.

HB: Can you tell our readers a little about this store?
JS:
This is a new store concept that we have just introduced. Honolulu and Bel harbor are the first locations in the world to have this new store concept, which is done by a French architect based in New York, by the name of Thierry Despont. We worked with him on creating a very luxurious and residential feel. Everything, just like our jewelry, is designed exactly for us.

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