| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Sellers of bling caught the blues this past Christmas.
Jewelry sellers in North America and Europe on Thursday said sales plunged during key months of the 2008 holiday shopping season, hurt by the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and bad winter weather in the United States before Christmas.
Many retailers struggled through their worse holiday shopping season in about four decades and jewelers, who traditionally book about one-third of their annual sales in the last months of the year, were not immune.
JMP Securities analyst Kristine Koerber, who covers upscale jewelry seller Tiffany & Co (TIF.N) and online retailer Blue Nile Inc NILE.O, said the declines were unprecedented.
"Who knows how long it's going to go on ...? If the '09 holiday is worse than '08 holiday we have some big problems," said Koerber. But she gave credit to jewelry retailers for cutting costs to compensate for consumers' new frugality.
Signet Jewelers Ltd (SIG.N), the world's biggest specialty jeweler, reported a 15.2 percent plunge in underlying sales for the 9 weeks ended January 3, including a 10.9 percent fall in the United Kingdom and a 16.4 percent decline in its main U.S. market.
The group, whose stores include mid-tier retailers like H. Samuel and Ernest Jones in the United Kingdom and as Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry in the United States, also said it would stop paying dividends.
Rival Zale Corp ZLC.N said sales at established stores fell 19.6 percent in November and December from a year ago.
"This holiday period was the most difficult in memory due to the overall macroeconomic situation," Zale Chief Executive Neal Goldberg said.
Finlay Enterprises Inc FNLY.OB, which has its own shops and also operates counters in U.S. department stores like Macy's Inc (M.N) and Lord & Taylor, saw November and December sales drop 23.7 percent to $265.9 million.
The company, which also operates chains such as Carlyle and Bailey Banks & Biddle, said sales at established stores fell 20.1 percent during November and December.
Shares of Zale slid 7.64 percent to close at $3.75, while Tiffany fell 3.02 percent to $24.08, both on the New York Stock Exchange.
Signet rose 1.4 percent after it said it would not disappoint market expectations for full year profit.
Finlay, which in December warned that it was suffering liquidity problems, trades for 4 cents a share on the over-the-counter market.
Discounters like Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) and BJ's Wholesale Club BJ.N also reported a hit to jewelry sales in December, while J.C. Penney Co Inc (JCP.N) said its fine jewelry sales were soft.
JMP Securities analyst Koerber said she expects Blue Nile's net sales to be down 16 percent for the holiday quarter. Its shares fell 2.77 percent to $23.15 on Nasdaq.
Koerber is forecasting a 34 percent decline in U.S. fourth-quarter same-store sales at Tiffany, which said early last month it would cut about 800 jobs in the United States as the recession leads even affluent customers to cut spending.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; editing by Richard Chang)