Catalyst

Of Saraswathi & Swarovski

SRAVANTHI CHALLAPALLI | Updated on September 28, 2011 Published on September 28, 2011

Sanjay Sharma, Director, Swarovski Elements,

Models show off saris and jewellery made with Elements at a recentfashion event in Chennai. - Photo : R. Ravindran.   -  THE HINDU

CT29SWAROVSKI2   -  THE HINDU

Elements, the company's crystal components business, has had to become a “part of the fabric of India” over the last ten years.



When we entered India ten years ago, people called us Saraswathi,” Sanjay Sharma, head of Swarovski's Elements business in India, says with a laugh. Once they got lodged in people's hearts as Saraswathi, they became Swarovski on the tongue. “We've learnt how to take our product forward,” says Sharma, who was in Chennai recently for a company do — a fashion show of Swarovski-embellished saris, other apparel and jewellery by designers and destination stores in Chennai and Bangalore, where some master craftsmen of Kanjeevaram saris were also honoured. Elements is Swarovski's brand of crystal components that can be used to create and decorate, among other things, apparel, accessories, jewellery, interiors and lighting. The Austria-based €2.66-billion Swarovski also sells crystal figurines and accessories in India.

Sharma, who has been with the company for 13 years, set up Elements in India. Ten years hence, all such adornments are synonymous with Swarovski. “It's a great accomplishment we can be proud of, of being the Xerox of fashion,” he says. Not a cause for concern? Of course, it's a “double-edged sword”. “Some retailers try and cash in on existing brands with our name so we've started issuing ‘ingredient branding tags', so that people know it's original,” he says. The battle to protect one's trademark is not one you can win overnight, but consumers are beginning to question things now; Indians are very price-conscious, even the ones who can afford it, he points out.

A visit to a weaver's home in Kancheepuram about four years ago turned out to be a revelation — Sharma had heard that the weaver was using crystal and visited him, to find he had a unit employing 11 women to stick the crystals on the saris. While his success with selling these saris had given him a measure of success that included, “in a '70s set-up a huge, old-time radio, a Maruti car and a digicam that was more sophisticated than mine”, it exposed Sharma to the actual issue with other weavers. The lack of recognition and respect as a weaver, and weak returns on the exclusivity of the craft discourage the next generation from entering the profession. It needs to be labelled a national treasure by the Government to prevent this. The Kanjeevaram saris business is “estimated at Rs 200 crore, shockingly low,” says Sharma.

Swarovski Elements has been “extremely aggressive” over the last 10 years (during which import duty on its products dropped from 72 per cent to 27 per cent), making efforts to educate business partners about the techniques and the possibilities. The embellishment doesn't stop at apparel and lighting — it goes on to bathrooms, saddlery, paper and packaging, tableware, ceramicware, even chopsticks! Working with designers across the country, creations run the gamut from chic and classy to quirky and crazy, says Sharma.

Adapting to India

When Swarovski came in, the motifs were very European and the diversity in India was a challenge, so it took some doing but ultimately got on to a variety of Indian fabrics — ikats, jamewars, tanchoi, leheriya, puan. And then it caught on.

“We had to become a Saraswathi,” says Sharma, “literally become a part of the fabric of India.” The textiles segment was the most organised then, more than, say, fashion jewellery. The stores, the fashion schools, had good visibility. The “only B2B luxury brand” was part of the country's first ever fashion week in 2001. It tied up with “free-thinking trendsetters” and gave them what they were sourcing till then in old Delhi's Chandni Chowk, maintaining tradition while working in new ways. It has worked with the likes of Abu Jani, Tarun Tahiliani, Ritu Kumar, Farah Khan, JJ Valaya, Manish Arora, Rohit Bal and others for creations in apparel, jewellery and accessories.

The next frontier, though, is fashion jewellery and bridal wear, says Sharma. He advances several arguments in favour of fashion jewellery: Heavy jewellery remains mostly in the bank locker; you can't wear it often; and party-hoppers, especially women, can sport new looks by changing just their jewellery (“men at least can change inside the car”) and not be mocked by the fashion police for wearing the same clothes. And, of course, it doesn't burn a hole in the pocket, prices range from Rs 2,000 to Rs 30,000.

Then he says: “Fine jewellery retailers in India are like scrap dealers — it's sold by weight and metal. Would this happen with a Tiffany's or a Van Cleef & Arpels? Design doesn't get its due in India. In Europe, a master craftsman sits pretty — he will run a patent on his design and someone else will put it together.”

Elements sells through eight authorised distributors with offices in Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai and is distributed in Tier-II and III cities through sub-dealers. It's sold in only 16,000 SKUs (out of 300,000 shapes and sizes and colours) and the smallest ones are sold in lots of 1,440 crystals.

For Swarovski Elements, the “relevant years” have been the last four or five — Sharma claims it's been one record year after another, including the downturn years. Though he doesn't reveal any revenue figures, he says growth has been in double digits, over 20 per cent consistently, and year-on-year growth in 2010 has been 32 per cent. And there's more bullishness: he sees the upper and luxury segment growing 7-10 per cent. The sense of quality is growing, the trends have to be the latest, not even two months old will do, and stripped-down, affordable versions, such as those of luxury automobiles, the norm 10 years ago, won't work any longer. To Sharma, these are crystal-clear indications that Swarovski expects to be in its element — and stay there.

Published on September 28, 2011
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