New York–As sterling silver prices climbed up and up (hitting a 31-year high of $49.21/oz. in April 2011), retailers pressed manufacturers to absorb price differentials and/or turn out smaller, lighter merchandise. But as consumers continued to demand substantial more styling, manufacturers went back to their drawing boards (and factories), and have come up with some solutions for bridge departments.
Alternatives to solid .925 silver have brought down the cost on current styling (and resurrected bolder styling at affordable retails). Options include silver plated over steel or brass, and silver bonded with base metal.
Shopko rolled out its “Premium Silver Plate” program in September. “We have transitioned a portion of our sterling silver inventory into a premium plated version, either plated over brass or stainless steel),” says DMM Melanie Wempe. “We’re using this opportunity to bring in larger styling, more ornate designs with more detailing and larger stones, and it’s been very well received. The consumer is willing to spend the same amount of money to get back to where she was [stylewise] with this type of product. She’s not just looking for the same small pieces at a lower price.”
Another mid-tier department store is switching its entire bridge jewelry business from sterling silver to silver-plated stainless steel and silver-plated brass. Only the fine jewelry department will carry sterling silver now.
Danecraft, already a major branded silver manufacturer to bridge departments, recently rolled out its Silver 100 to retail customers. Silver 100 features fine silver that’s bonded to—or infused into—complementary base metals for durability and plated with an e-coat for color/luster.
“We selected 10% as a minimum amount of fine silver to be included in every piece (sterling silver is 92.5% fine silver and 7.5% base metal),” says Danecraft president Bob Soltys, who notes their percentage will be higher on some styles, for instance, diamond cut, which requires cutting into the final piece.
“The true cost differential between .925 sterling and Silver 100 ranges from 30% to 50%, so our retail partners are probably offering 30% to 50% more look at the same pricepoints in Silver 100 as they were in sterling silver.”
Soltys points out that more substantial styling is driving the Silver 100 program. “We brought back high-performance styling from when the market was half of what it is today. We’re doing best with popular chain links that had exited programs due to price restrictions, bolder polished hoop earrings and substantial two-tone pieces and bangles.”
NES Group, which has had success with steel jewelry on QVC and other avenues, took steel into a new direction with its “Silver-Plated Stainless Steel,” shipping into Belk, Macy, Shopko and more. “It’s big and bold and mimics what you could find in a sterling department years ago—when silver was affordable,” says Robert Ebert of NES Group.
Sunstone Inspirations by Sunstone, bills itself as “inspired by the look of sterling” and “premium silver plate.” The merchandise features 20 microns of sterling over brass, which brings the price down to approximately 20% to 50% less than solid silver, depending on the piece, according to Sally Alex, president and CEO of TSI Accessory Group, the parent company of Sunstone. “Most stores are keeping this in the bridge department but differentiating mainly by look. Brass and 20 microns of silver plate gives it a finer look with more detail than traditional fashion jewelry.”
Overall, bridge departments have been flexible in their merchandise offerings, and are reaping the rewards with lower prices and larger designs. And as long as disclosure is transparent, which it has been, the whole transition has been win-win for everyone.
Scratching the Surface: A cheat sheet of silver terminology
Sterling Silver: 925
Sterling silver is an alloy containing 92.5% (.925) pure silver by weight mixed with 7.5% by weight of other metals, typically copper. Copper makes silver strong, as without copper content silver is relatively soft. All sterling silver manufactured in the USA is required to have one of these three identifying marks: STERLING, .925 or 925/1000.
Silverplate is made by electroplating fine silver on a base metal alloy, usually nickel or Britannia metal and sometimes brass or copper. Silver plate is measured in microns and can vary greatly from one piece to another. Top quality silverplating may contain two or three times the microns of less expensive plating.
Silver-Filled is a metal material that is similar in construction to Gold-Filled. Thicker than silver-plated, it consists of a layer of .925 sterling silver that is bonded to a brass core consisting of a copper and zinc alloy. The sterling silver layer is 1/20 or 5% by weight of the total material.