Blue Nile's stock plunged nearly 21 percent today in after-hours trading as the largest online vendor of diamond engagement rings warned...

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Blue Nile’s stock plunged nearly 21 percent today in after-hours trading as the largest online vendor of diamond engagement rings warned of “tremendous uncertainty in the luxury retail sector.”

Seattle-based Blue Nile reported a fourth-quarter profit that beat Wall Street’s expectations, but a sharp decline in its outlook for the first quarter and full year was described by one analyst as a “real shocker.”

Shares of Blue Nile were down $11.10 to $42.75 at 2:30 p.m. Seattle time.

Blue Nile said sales in the fourth-quarter, which included the all-important holiday shopping season, rose 23 percent from a year ago to $111.9 million, while its profit increased 31 percent to $7.5 million. Blue Nile’s per-share profit of 45 cents narrowly beat Wall Street’s consensus estimate of 44 cents.

Blue Nile Chairman Mark Vadon told analysts in a conference call this afternoon that the company has begun to experience “weakness at very high price points.”

Blue Nile now predicts a per-share profit in the first quarter of between 11 and 14 cents, well below the 23 cents that Wall Street had been expecting.

Also today, Blue Nile announced that Vadon, its founder and chief executive, has assumed a newly created position of executive chairman. President Diane Irvine is now CEO.

Vadon, who remains chairman of the board, will provide “strategic direction” with an aim toward growing the company in the U.S. and internationally, Blue Nile said in a statement.

The company recently expanded its reach outside the U.S. by beginning shipments to a dozen new markets in Europe and Asia. Blue Nile’s international presence previously was limited to Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Amy Martinez: 206-464-2923 or amartinez@seattletimes.com