There Are Diamonds on the Floor at Saks Fifth Avenue
"I remember you. You’re the lady with the jewelry.” It’s the kind of thing Kittie West hears from time to time. On this occasion, the phrase poured out of the mouth of the manager of Mr. Chow’s on East 57th Street.
West had come to New York from her native San Antonio to attend the Louis Vuitton Cruise show at the new TWA Terminal at JFK. Afterward, she wanted some Chinese food. Accompanying her, to the show and to dinner, were friends she has trusted decades: her salespeople at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“They were the ones who exposed me to all these jewelry designers,” says West, her emerald and green tourmaline–laden hands folded on the table at L'Avenue, the new restaurant at Saks’s New York flagship. Her Nini kunzite pendant occasionally hits her plate. “Repossi, Chanel, Chopard. I didn’t know Vuitton made this kind of jewelry.”
Aside from heirlooms that belonged to her mother, every piece she is wearing she bought through Saks—either at her local store or on one of the VIP shopping trips Saks arranges for its best clients.
She picked up a “decent amount” of High Jewelry on one such trip at an appointment at Chanel in Paris, including a one-of-a-kind baroque pearl necklace and pearl earrings she wears “on the ranch.” But though these excursions have broadened her jewelry horizons, she still buys most of her jewelry through Nona Barrick at the San Antonio Saks. They have worked together for more than three decades.
“She worked with my mother, too. It’s generational,” says West, who is a philanthropist as well as a ranch owner. “And I like to support my hometown. I always say you take care of those who take care of you.”
Barrick, who has been part of the Fifth Avenue Club team of personal shoppers for 33 years, does just that for West. She has flown from Texas to be with her at the Vuitton show, and she was by her side on that trip to Paris. She says West is “the fastest shopper” she has ever seen.
West explains: “I tried calling them investment pieces so my financial adviser didn’t freak out. But I really don’t have a strategy. I just know what works. And I always have something on. People will say, ‘Wow, you’re wearing a lot of jewelry,’ ” says West, who at this moment has a ring on every finger and several bracelets on each wrist. “And I just say, ‘Actually, I’m not.' In San Antonio, we think big.”
How big? This fall Saks Fifth Avenue is making perhaps its most significant investment to date in cultivating more clients like Kittie West, when the Vault—10,673 square feet devoted exclusively to watches and jewelry—opens in a subterranean space in its New York flagship.
To enter the Vault, one descends an escalator designed by Rem Koolhaas, emerging into a retail concept five years in the making. “That escalator is this architectural wow that introduces people to these beautiful watch and jewelry shops,” says Marc Metrick, president of Saks Fifth Avenue. “Why shouldn’t an American store have that kind of moment?”
Once the client has landed, the mission is full immersion and full-on attention, the kind of catered-to experience that has made people like Kittie West so devoted. “The focus,” says Marta Nowakowski, Saks’s vice president and divisional merchandise manager of jewelry, is on “personalization, exclusivity, and amazing service.”
She also emphasizes the attention paid to international visitors. In addition to the first Repossi and Boucheron shops in the U.S, and an impressive assortment of “exclusive one-of-a-kind pieces,” there will be a multilingual concierge service.
Department stores have, for years now, been players in the fine jewelry game. Saks, in fact, recently renovated the second floor of the Fifth Avenue store to create a dedicated jewelry space, an 8,465-square-foot area. It’s an unusual move to add more—doubling the jewelry selling space in one store within two years—but it’s a direction Saks firmly believes in.
“We started to really notice a change when I first joined as president in 2015,” Metrick says. “We were underdeveloped in jewelry—not so much against our peers here but against the international scene, places like Harrods."
"At the same time, something was happening in the luxury market. Prices for handbags went up. People began to consider that you could buy a gold cuff for $4,000; it could be an accessory. Fine jewelry entered a space between fashion and investment. We made the decision to build the second floor and the Vault because our jewelry offering was undersized.”
The first phase of Operation Saks Jewelry proved a win. “Our second-floor jewelry space is a top-performing area of the flagship renovation,” he says. “We lit it right; we treat it right. It lets the customer experience the jewelry and not just transact with it.”
The Vault, Metrick says, takes its name seriously. It was carved out of existing spaces: part of a beauty salon below the main floor and some recaptured back-of-house space. “There are no windows. It’s a complete jewelry environment, a destination, with all the finishings, with private rooms for trying things, an international lounge and services, and an assortment that was just never at Saks before. What’s in the Vault is 2,000 years of heritage.
“We have been here since 1924, but we have not been servicing the jewelry client in the right way,” he admits. “Now we are the answer. And this Vault is a portable concept for other flagship markets. This is a category that Saks doesn’t yet own—but no one really owns it. And we should.”
All jewelry featured in this story is available at the Vault at Saks Fifth Avenue. Please call 212-753-4000 for more information.
SUBSCRIBE NOW: This story appears in the September 2019 Issue of Town & Country.