WWD Digital Daily
Birks’ Strategy For International Growth Takes Root
The Canadian fine jeweler has prioritized raising consumer awareness in the U.S.
After 143 years in business, Birks, the Canadian fine jeweler, wants to shine on the international stage.
In just the past two months, the publicly held, Montreal-based Birks became active on social media, launched an international website for brand awareness that is expected to turn transactional in the second half of the year, and widened distribution with additional specialty stores.
“We have been around for many years. Our b-to-b [business-to-business] business is strong. Canadian jewelers are familiar with our brand. American jewelers are familiar with our brand. But the American consumer needs to be made more aware of our collections,” Jean-Christophe Bédos, president and chief executive officer of Birks Group Inc., told WWD.
“We are working on expanding… through independent jewelers, but we don't want to rush. It's very important to build trust, especially with independent retailers,” Bédos said, speaking about the U.S. market.
In addition, Birks is focusing on international trade shows. “We started to have a presence in Las Vegas during the couture shows four years ago, and in Geneva last year and again this year during Watches & Wonders. We exhibited at the Fairmont Hotel downtown,” said Bédos.
Through its purchase of Mayors two decades ago, Birks became a public company. In 2017, Birks sold its Mayors stores to the Aurum Group, the parent of Watches of Switzerland and other jewelry retailers, remained public, and started distributing its collections to Watches of Switzerland while continuing to sell at the 14 Mayors stores, which are in Florida and Georgia.
In Canada, the company operates 23 stores under the Maison Birks names in most major metropolitan markets, has a store in Calgary under the Brinkhaus brand, and two stores in Vancouver under the Graff and Patek Philippe nameplates. Birks' fine jewelry collections are also available through select Saks Fifth Avenue stores in Canada and the U.S. and on Saks. com; at several other jewelry retailers in the U.S; through select Mappin & Webb and Goldsmiths locations in the U.K., and at W.Kruk in Poland. There's also the Maison Birks e-commerce website in Canada selling the Birks collections alongside Chaumet, Cartier, Rolex and Patek Philippe. Birks is considered Canada's leading fine jeweler and is known for its iconic blue box.
Birks began introducing its own collections a decade ago. They're all inspired by nature. For example, the
“Birks Splash” collection evokes water. “There's plenty of snow, ice and running water in Canada,” said Bédos. “Splash is a celebration of the energy of water and was introduced a few years ago. We also have a collection called ‘Birks Bee Chic.' It's an homage to the world of bees. We invest a lot in collaborating with organizations and universities that protect the bees. Bees are endangered because of insecticides but are so important for pollination and the survival of the planet. Bee Chic was launched to celebrate our 135th anniversary, eight years ago.”
“We wish to give very evocative names to our collections.”
“Birks Dare to Dream,” one of the first collections launched in 2012, is a bestselling line. “Dare to Dream is a very Canadian experience, a Canadian belief, that tomorrow will be a better day,” Bédos said. “It's very successful with pendants and rings.”
Among Birks' 10 collections, “a lot of what we sell is 18-karat gold set with diamonds,” said Bédos.
“When I arrived in Canada in 2012, I interviewed people and realized how important Birks was for Canadians celebrating weddings, anniversaries, graduations and holidays. Birks is always present. Our blue box is famous. It's known by all Canadians,” said Bédos, who previously served as president and CEO of Boucheron, and president and managing director, Cartier, France.
The brand dates back to the 17th century, with the Birks family of silversmiths in Sheffield, England, the home of silversmith traditions. “When the Birk family migrated to Canada they kept that tradition and manufactured a lot of silver. We moved to 18k gold. We are also known for our diamonds,” Bédos said. “Canada is one of the largest producers of natural diamonds mined in Canada. The are very large mines in the north but a few years ago a new mine opened in the province of Quebec.”
He said the company follows the “Kimberley Process,” the international certification scheme that regulates trade in rough diamonds. Aside from Canada, many of Birks' diamonds come from Africa. Birks no longer sources diamonds from Russia.
Canadian companies including
Birks were hit hard by COVID-19. “Canada had a very early lockdown and it did last longer,” Bédos said. “Very strict policies, close to what Europe did. But in 2021, there was a transfer of consumption from traditional luxury activities to jewelry and watches. Paradoxically, 2021 was a very good year for us, like many other jewelers and watchmakers. Who could have expected such an incredible demand for luxury jewelry?”
During Birks' fiscal year ended March 26, 2022, the company generated net sales of $181.3 million, an increase of
$38.2 million, or 26.7 percent, from fiscal 2021. Comparable sales rose 32.5 percent, making comparisons in the latest fiscal year challenging. The company is scheduled to report fiscal 2023 in June. Birks' shares are traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
“In the sense there is a return to the office. It's slower in Canada than the rest of the world. Working at home still applies strongly in Canada, but there is a return to office that triggers a need for casual jewelry, everyday wear, not anything ostentatious,” Bédos observed. “I suppose it's similar to the fashion industry where women needed to buy fashion again when they started to return to the office.”
He said the new Birks.com was launched for people to discover the brand and its collections, and in a few months the website will become transactional. The site directs those who wish to purchase to the websites of the other retailers selling the Birks collections and to the Maison Birks website in Canada.
“We are very strong in storytelling, conveying our history, our heritage, our tradition in craftsmanship,” said Bédos. “We are new to the U.S. but we are not a young brand. That differentiates us. A lot remains to be done in terms of developing brand awareness among U.S consumers, and this is the reason why we launched our website and social media platforms,” Bédos added. “We take time to build.
At 140 years old, we want to do things right. There is no rush. We have a growth strategy. It's all about building trust and awareness.”
The brand also reflects its very Canadian image, Bédos suggested. “It's refreshing in a sense that we bring something different — luxury with a smile, luxury that is not boastful or ostentatious. In that sense
I'm talking about the Canadian spirit. It's serious. It's fun. It's inclusive. It brings people together. So we're not talking about excluding. In the world of luxury, exclusive is very often used, but it's not necessarily a very Canadian value. We need our brand to express those Canadian values. We're proud that we're not trying to come off as arrogant, and in that sense, Birks is a very Canadian brand.”