When Swarovski, the century-old Austrian maker of fine crystal, gave a party this spring for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, tens of thousands of sparkling crystals filled pools on a Manhattan rooftop. When Jennifer Lopez showed her first runway collection last year, the catwalk glittered with a carpet of Swarovski crystals. And at the Academy Awards, when Charlize Theron wore Gucci (2004) and Whoopi Goldberg wore Hush Puppies (2002), the Swarovski crystals attached to them were given equal attention by Joan Rivers.
Over the last decade, the name Swarovski has become widely recognized as the brand of crystals that provide the sparkle on Oscar gowns, trendy iPod covers and Paris Hilton's crystal-crusted mobile phone. For many people who had never given much thought to crystals, confusing the multifaceted beads with, say, sequins, Swarovski is now inextricably tied to fashion. The company has achieved this prominence by showering designers with financing — it is the main sponsor of the fashion council's annual awards — and by persuading hot designers to embellish their collections with its crystals.
For anyone who may have missed the message that Swarovski has arrived as a luxury brand, the company introduced an US$11 million advertising campaign in fashion magazines this month with models painted as the mythical Three Graces, swathed in a kaleidoscopic mist of crystals. But this climax may have come at an inopportune moment. A headline from Harper's Bazaar, on a page opposite the Swarovski ad, sums up the more somber mood of clothing for the fall season: “So Long, Sparkle.”
After a decade of what could be described as crystal madness, during which Swarovski's sales doubled to about US$2.73 billion, the company is facing a series of threats. The dark and moody direction of many of the fall collections would suggest that difficult times lie ahead for makers of rhinestones, beads, sequins and other sparkly fare.
Perhaps a greater challenge is the rise of less expensive crystal made in Czech Republic, as well as mass-produced stones from China that can cost about one-tenth of the price of Swarovski.
“There has been a general lessening of bling and overglitzed clothes,” said James Mischka, who with his partner, Mark Badgley, designs the Badgley Mischka evening-wear line. Mischka said that many companies have switched to Czech crystal in recent seasons, although Badgley Mischka continues to buy stones from Swarovski because of its quality and reputation. Even so, they purchased fewer crystals for fall styles like a US$6,275 jewel- and crystal-encrusted evening dress, as they sensed the trend for less adornment.
“To make the collection new, you have to move in a different direction,” Badgley said. “We certainly did beading and embroidery, but not as much as we normally do.”
In the mid-20th century, when Swarovski began producing crystals for Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, the company was the major supplier for designers; it was able to produce an intricately faceted stone thanks to precise cutting machines invented in 1892 by Daniel Swarovski, the founder.
Throughout most of its history, Swarovski did not publicize its involvement with designers, even though the company made the crystals that adorned Judy Garland's ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz and those that gave the sparkle to the white Jean Louis dress that Marilyn Monroe wore when she sang Happy Birthday to former US president John F. Kennedy.