* Companies invest in innovation to beat rivals
* Return to old style with modern machinery
* Alternative materials on the rise
By Svetlana Kovalyova
VICENZA, Italy, May 20 (Reuters) - Italian jewellers are fusing the latest laser technology with traditional lace-making techniques in their efforts to ride out the economic downturn and keep up with growing competition from low-cost rivals in China and India.
The Italian jewellery industry used to dominate world markets but its market share has shrunk in the past decade, under pressure from cheaper rivals in India, China and Turkey. The unfolding euro zone debt crisis has dealt it a fresh blow.
“The way to overcome crisis is ... to be creative, innovative, to take risks, experiment with style, technologies and materials to come up with innovative products,” said Augusto Ungarelli, chairman of Italian jewellers association Club degli Orafi Italiani, speaking at a trade fair in northern Italy.
Jeweller Lucio Presentini said his company, Neonero, began a few years ago to reproduce traditional Italian lace designs in gold, using lasers to create elaborate earrings and necklaces priced at 2,000-5,000 euros.
Neonero jewellery has conquered consumers from Hong Kong to eastern Europe and the Middle East and as demand has been exceeding current production, the company plans to increase its output this year, despite tough economic times, Presentini said.
“We have managed to unite the tradition of lace, with memories and emotions that it evokes, with technological innovation,” he said.
A return to deeply rooted artisan traditions of making jewellery, textile or mosaics as well as a revision of earlier styles and designs have helped Italian jewellers regain foreign markets recently, Daniela Invernizzi, a representative of the World Gold Council (WGC) in Italy, told Reuters.
Others bet on innovative technology. Goldsmiths Fratelli Bovo, for example, use sintering laser melting to fuse layers of gold powder to create fancy shaped pieces.
Tecnigold, a leading Italian producer of machine-made gold chains, uses the cutting-edge technology and process automation to reduce costs and stay ahead of rivals. Tecnigold which sells 60-65 percent of its output in Asia, hopes to see stable sales volumes in 2012 after a 15 percent drop in 2011.
Over the past 10 years Tecnigold has halved the weight of its gold chains to 2.5 grams on average as consumers become increasingly price-conscious, which was partly a reason for falling output volumes, chief executive Paolo Piotto told Reuters.
“We have to follow the market,” Piotto said.
Gold prices have been rising for 11 years in a row and the industry-funded WGC expects another year of a bull run for gold in 2012, despite a slow down in the price rise so far this year.
In the meantime, many jewellers have been actively using steel, bronze, wood, ceramics and other cheaper materials.
Jewellers Micheletto who started using alternative materials back in 1970s, saw sales of its products take-off in austerity-hit Europe last year, its president Roberta Micheletto said.
“We resumed using alternative materials 8-9 years ago because we felt there are many women who do not need to show off their wealth with gold, who have different tastes... But with the crisis (sales in) Europe have exploded,” she said. (Reporting by Svetlana Kovalyova; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)