In Christmases past, gentlemen headed to their trusty local jewelry shop to buy generic gems for their significant others -- strands of pearls, diamond-stud earrings.

This year more are visiting luxury department stores and boutiques and dropping premiums on branded fine jewelry from fashion houses including Ralph Lauren Corp., Gianni Versace SpA and Salvatore Ferragamo Italia SpA. Celebrity jewelers such as glam-rock-inspired Stephen Webster are feeling the love, too.

Well-heeled consumers are developing a taste for precious adornment that broadcasts its brand provenance either by incorporating such well-known logos as Versace’s Medusa head or using distinctive designs like David Yurman’s chunky carved cable silverwork.

“Jewelry was the last luxury product sold largely anonymously,” designer Webster said in an e-mail. “Brands caught wind of that and, of course, brands cannot be anonymous.”

Branded jewelry sales will double to 30 percent of the $59.2 billion U.S. fine jewelry market in the next decade, said Ken Gassman, president of the Jewelry Industry Research Institute. The new entrants are competing with Tiffany & Co. -- which last month cut its annual profit forecast for the third time this year -- and may further decimate the thinning ranks of specialty jewelers. The U.S. had 22,330 specialty jewelers in 2011, down 28 percent from their 1987 peak, Gassman said.

“The fact that many top-tier luxury brands are targeting jewelry creates intense competition, and squeezes Tiffany,” said Milton Pedraza, chief executive officer of the Luxury Institute, a New York-based luxury consulting firm.

Holiday Race

The race is on this month because the holiday period generates 30 percent of jewelers’ annual sales, making them more dependent on November and December than any other retail segment, according to the National Retail Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. Most of the sales occur in December and a quarter of them in the week before Christmas, said Michael McNamara, a vice president for Purchase, New York- based MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse.

Jewelers are fighting for market share while facing weak consumer demand for lower-priced baubles as well as higher raw- product costs. Purchases of jewelry sold at the top 10 percent of prices fell 3.2 percent in the retail fiscal year through November, compared with a 13 percent jump a year earlier, according to SpendingPulse figures for transactions in all payment forms.

Tiffany Struggles