Close family ties keep the Lalaounis jewelry store alive
If there is a company that could claim to have been the first to put the art of Greek jewelry on the international map, it is undoubtedly Lalaounis. Founded in 1969 by Ilias Lalaounis, who died in 2013, the company has been run since 1998 by his four daughters: Demetra, Ioanna, Aikaterini and Maria.
Lalaounis is also one of the few family-owned jewelry companies of this era to have expanded internationally, adapted to the digital age and survived several financial upheavals.
So what’s behind Lalaounis’ strength and endurance?
“The family element has given a lot of continuity and identity to the brand, which gives them longevity,” says Victor Lee, a consultant for luxury brands who has worked with the company.
“[Being] a family, all pulling in the same direction, without competing interests, is a huge strength for them. Their uniqueness is another crucial strength. Like Louis Vuitton, Chanel or Hermès, Lalaounis has remained faithful to his heritage, he has not weakened.
Henry Bailey, head of jewelery at Christie’s in London, explains the impact of Lalaounis: “In the 1980s, gold jewelery was popular and Lalaounis designs corresponded to the fashion of the time, with bolder shapes than in previous decades. Lalaounis revived a generation of artisans in Greece and inspired other contemporary jewelers.
“The jewelry is very recognizable and one immediately thinks of Greece, but Lalaounis’ collector base is beyond Greece – it’s not just a local brand but an international collection.”
Like the few remaining private international niche jewelry companies, Lalaounis faces challenges. It competes in a $280 billion global market dominated by three luxury conglomerates – Richemont, Kering and LVMH – and trades high-value commodities amid fluctuating gold prices.
Lalaounis had to adapt its sales strategy from its own stores to a combination of these alongside wholesale and e-commerce, while maintaining its market share with a limited promotional budget.
Jewelry also brings a layer of complexity in the form of international luxury taxes, import tariffs and hallmarking requirements. Small businesses must overcome these hurdles without the economies of scale of the big luxury brands that dominate retail space from Mayfair to Ginza.
“The jewelry industry has grown and changed tremendously over the past two decades,” says Demetra Lalaounis Auersperg, Co-CEO and Director of International Operations. “I don’t think any other luxury sector has developed in the same way, and jewelery has been the most explosive of all the luxury categories, despite the complexity of the production chain and the costs.”
The company, which does not disclose any financial information, employs 70 people, mainly in Greece. It is often compared to Buccellati, the Florentine family home, due to the distinctive intricate gold work of its lace jewelry. Buccellati was acquired by Chinese group Gangtai in 2017 and two years later was sold to Richemont for an undisclosed price.
As for identity and heritage, the Lalaounis sisters — and their children, because they are old enough to join the family business — keep history alive with a zeal inherited from the founder. The instantly recognizable style is supported by the activities of the Ilias Lalaounis Jewelry Museum in Athens, which opened in 1994 and is dedicated to Greek jewelry making.
In the 1940s, Ilias Lalaounis, a graduate in law and economics passionate about history, was entrusted with the management of Zolotas, the jewelry house of his uncle for three generations during the difficult years of the Second World War. For two decades, Ilias successfully steered the company towards international growth, but his desire to do something different led to a parting of ways.
Beyond producing generic jewelry, he wanted to bring his love of Greek culture to his work and create jewelry with deeper meaning. The results were his striking Hellenic-themed jewelry crafted in hand-hammered 22-karat gold that proved to be a turning point in the history of Greek jewelry.
Challenging his artisans to make jewelry like their ancestors, he revived techniques such as granulation, filigree and weaving – time-consuming manual skills essential to the house’s distinctive look. Unlike other “revivalist” jewelers like Castellani, Lalaounis did not just reproduce museum jewelry but drew inspiration from details from many disciplines, including architecture and pottery.
The timing was right for the company as post-war optimism rekindled travel and spending, giving rise to the jet set. Jackie O’s glamor shone international spotlight on the glittering beaches of the Greek islands and Lalaounis was on hand to provide treasured memories with a distinctive look.
By the early 1990s, the company had 14 boutiques in Greece, France, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Japan and the United States, with thousands of designs that embraced a wider range of global cultural references. His fame was such that Ilias became the first jeweler to receive the French Legion of Honor.
When it comes to the company’s products today, large-scale original designs are less feasible now that gold prices have quadrupled since the 1980s. So Maria Lalaounis, Co-CEO and Chief Design Officer, subtly opted for lighter pieces that use less gold but look physically grand in the house’s distinctive style.
The American market is particularly fond of the addition of precious stones, such as diamonds. And, by adding diamonds, jewelry can fetch higher prices than all-gold or colored gemstone pieces.
Despite a broader trend to lower costs towards production in Asia, all Lalaounis jewelry is still handcrafted in its Athens workshops, in keeping with the founder’s commitment to maintaining traditional craftsmanship and supporting the local economy.
Consultant Lee sees the artisanal element of the brand as a key benefit. “Those in the top 10% don’t have many choices when it comes to handmade jewelry,” he says. “They know big names with multi-product offerings, but not the niche ones. Once people learn how Lalaounis jewelry is made, it becomes an aspiration because the craftsmanship is so rare. have artisans who have been with them for decades.
However, the combined effect of 9/11, the financial crisis and the Greek debt crisis meant that by 2017 the only remaining Lalaounis shops were in Greece and New York, along with distribution channels in other key locations.
“The decision to close the stores was financially strategic and allowed us to restructure our business,” explains Lalaounis Auersperg. “It proved to be very timely, given subsequent issues such as Covid.” The company now has three stores of its own in Athens, one in New York and, during the holiday season, a presence on the Greek islands of Mykonos, Santorini and Corfu.
“Greece is our main market due to local customers as well as international customers, followed by the United States and the Middle East,” explains Lalaounis Auersperg. “The Asian market, and the Chinese in particular, is a very interesting expansion area because of their love of gold and fine craftsmanship and, of course, the vastness of the region. We’re also looking at Japan, where the Lalaounis name has strong historical appeal, but we’re taking a slow and cautious approach. New York office expands US wholesale [arm] and a small consignment business.
Late last year, Lalaounis launched its e-commerce platform and is focusing on digital channels to increase brand awareness. All advertising and marketing is done in-house to save costs and, in keeping with tradition, sometimes uses family members as role models.
The Lalaounis sisters are looking to the future. “We are adding to the traditional print advertising model with Instagram and e-commerce to grow and reach a younger audience, while maintaining a physical retail presence and a close connection to our customers, which our father always had. done,” explains Lalaounis Auersperg.