Nikos Koulis is an optimist.
The Athens-based fine jewelry designer established his namesake brand in 2006, shortly before the global economy nosedived. But over nearly a decade of financial crises that have hit hard in his native Greece, Mr. Koulis has watched his luxury business thrive.
“In a crisis, people who can will spring for value and design as an investment,” Mr. Koulis said, “and those people are coming to us.” He is the best known and most upmarket in a wave of fine jewelry designers to emerge from Greece in recent years.
At the Baselworld trade show in March, Mr. Koulis — classically dapper with a thick mustache, side-swept hair, a neat dress shirt and blazer — presented new pieces with a graphic quality that is rare in fine jewelry: the Eden collection, with apatite and rubellite checkered with white diamonds and black onyx; and new bridal jewelry with emerald-cut diamonds framed in black or grey enamel.
The effect is strikingly contemporary, but Mr. Koulis pointed to Art Deco and geometric patterns from Ancient Greece as source material.
While meticulously wiping down his cases at the Basel show (“I love making things perfect,” he said), the designer considered why his jewelry — high-priced and nontraditional — has struck a chord even in a difficult economy. “My designs revisit classic ideas, and that gives people a sense of familiarity,” he said, “even if they look very modern.”
His aesthetic and his fabrication both rely on links to the past. Mr. Koulis, who produces the majority of his jewelry at his atelier in Athens, gratefully cites the extraordinary talents of his artisans and the long survival of the Greek jewelry craft for his success. The country’s jewelry roots reach back millennia to the Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations and some of the world’s first great goldsmiths, and to the extraordinary jewelry craft of Alexander the Great’s era. “Greece is an ancient country,” Mr. Koulis said. “Its traditions will outlast hard times.”
The designer was born into a family of diamond traders. “I spent my childhood in the shop, playing with gold and stones,” he said. He studied German literature, but was soon drawn back to jewelry and studied at the Gemological Institute of America. Now, as a connoisseur of gems, he travels the world to find the right stones for his jewelry.
Mr. Koulis introduced his first bridal line in 2014, seeking to inject freshness into a field he saw as repetitive and unadventurous. He paired geometric diamonds and large, jungle-green emeralds — “I have a Mediterranean mentality; I like color” — with his black enamel frames to produce pieces unlike any labeled “bridal.” At the following edition of the Las Vegas Couture show, he won the top prize in the bridal category for his daring approach to the form.
In the summer of 2014, he opened his first store, on the island of Mykonos, and his second a few months later in Athens. It seemed like an auspicious period, Mr. Koulis said, as Greece was pulling out of its economic crisis — but then, in January 2015, with a new government, the country again teetered on the edge of economic dissolution. “It could have gone badly,” Mr. Koulis said airily, “but it was our best year yet.”
On Mykonos, luxury travelers visited the new store, and in Athens, the shop was overwhelmed with Greeks looking to put their assets into high-quality jewelry with certified gemstones. “Greeks love buying jewelry — it’s how they show happiness for special occasions, and it’s how they like to invest their money,” he said.
This summer, Mr. Koulis will open his third boutique, on the Greek island of Santorini, another favorite among international tourists.
“The general environment is negative here, and the bureaucracy makes things difficult, but our business is growing, and we’re taking advantage of the best things about living in Greece: the craftsmanship, the culture, the passion for jewelry,” Mr. Koulis said. “Plus we have the sun, the sea and good weather, so how can we not be optimistic? Everything will be great.”
A market view
How does a country in financial turmoil become a hotbed of cutting-edge fine jewelry?
“There were always exciting talents in Greece, but no one ever bothered to export before, because there was a lot of money in the country,” said Yannis Sergakis, who spent 10 years designing for other brands before introducing his own line in Athens in 2014. “With the crisis, everyone in Greece has had to look abroad for markets, but at least it’s giving firepower to designers to go international.”
He now belongs to Hellenic Wave, a collective that represents Greek designers like Ileana Makri, Venyx and Michael Pelamidis internationally. Its first effort presented the jewelers’ work together at the 2015 Baselworld trade fair.
Greece has the European Union’s highest unemployment rate: 24 percent in December, according to the most recent figures from the union’s statistical agency Eurostat. And the government has introduced some extreme measures in an effort to make up for tax shortfalls. Capital controls are limiting transfers and withdrawals of money, as well as diamonds and gold that are vital resources for jewelry businesses, Ms. Makri complained.
Mr. Sergakis said business taxes have risen, but the government has not repaid the 23-percent value-added tax on European sales owed to business owners like him. “Sometimes I wonder if this is what life in Venezuela is like,” he said. When he opened his first shop in 2014, he added, he believed the country was coming out of its crisis.
Ms. Makri opened her Athens flagship store in the same period, and with similar hopes for Greece. She said she had managed to find success, thanks to tourists and wealthy private clients, plus a well-timed introduction of a lower-price line in sterling silver.
“If the situation stays the same for another year, maybe I’ll move to France,” said Mr. Sergakis, who has a strong market there. “But I love Greece. I don’t want to leave. I want the government to leave.”
It is a stalemate that jewelry designers, even those finding success against the odds, hope will end soon. “We’re trying to look forward because this cycle must turn upwards at some point,” Ms. Makri said, “but for now, tough is the new normal.”
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