Piercing convention in Las Vegas sees upscale trend

Even in a niche of the jewelry industry that thrives on the outlandish, there is such a thing as going too far.

Pain Magazine recently angered some of its readers, said co-publisher Ralph Garza, by running an article on how to tattoo the whites of the eyes.

"Some others thought it was pretty interesting," he added.

But for many of the exhibitors at the annual Association of Professional Piercers conference at Bally’s, terms such as "upscale," "mainstream" and even "organic" punctuated the sales pitches more often than "extreme." The conference, with about 900 attendees, focuses many of its seminars on health issues, but also covers business issues.

The market for body jewelry has now matured to the point where vendors find a significant demand for $150 hand-carved wooden gauges — large discs used to stretch holes in the ear lobes — instead of just plain metal rings that go for $30. Other types of body jewelry have followed the trend.

"People want to go quality," said Ana Paula, the owner of Quetzalli Jewelry. "People want to go fancier. People want to spice it up."

Many of her gauges are carved in Hindu, Celtic, Moorish or seashell designs. Other pieces are finished in brass, with amber touches, or other substances well beyond the plain silvery metals that have predominated for years.

Omerica Organic of Denver tries to come out with a new design every week, said general manager Justin Sim, using inlays, different woods and laser-cut patterns.

With gauges, practical considerations play a role. As the hole in the earlobe grows larger, the size and weight of the metal ring increases, and so does the heat it conducts.

But the impetus to spend more arises in part from the evolving clientele. The core demographic is still males in the late teens or 20s, but older generations and women are joining in. For example, said Garza, women have started taking after the Hollywood fashion of tattooing their children’s names on a wrist or ankle.

Although the show focused on body piercings rather than tattoos, the two are almost synonymous to many consumers, an exhibitor said.

The sector has also started to follow the classic path of pushing up a product’s price by added aesthetics instead of just remaining plain and functional, said Sim.

Further, some of the people who started decorating themselves when they were young are now sprouting gray hair.

"The whole business has changed in the last 10 years," said Scott Collins, who started Body Gems in Feasterville, Penn., in 1994 and has turned the business over to son, Josh.

After missing shows for several years, Scott Collins said he returned and thought to himself, "Wow, everybody really got older."

As a result, he said, Body Gems finds buyers for a navel piercing adorned with a heart-shaped 3.5-carat diamond, which wholesales for $2,000 and retails for about $5,000.

Because piercing is diffused among thousands of privately owned shops and jewelry makers, hard numbers about the size of the industry are scarce. Although all fashion trends historically decline after an initial popularity boom, Garza said he can tell that body piercing is still growing because he tracked about 3,000 new shops opening last year, more than in past years.

"We still have momentum behind us despite the economy," he said.

Contact reporter Tim O’Reiley at toreiley@ or 702-387-5290.

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