Has Technology Killed the Jewelry Industry? - Pacific Standard

Has Technology Killed the Jewelry Industry?

Jewelry sales continue to plummet. Are iPhones and Kindles to blame?
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(Photo:Seth Lemmons/Flickr)

(Photo:Seth Lemmons/Flickr)

I used to dream of taking over my dad’s jewelry business. I would spend summer vacations in his Los Angeles office taking orders, weighing sparkly loose diamonds no larger than specks of dust, oohing and aahing over cases of bejeweled rings the size of my nose as he prepared for sales trips, and often being reminded that if I wanted to be paid that week, for the last time, food was not allowed to be eaten on the diamond desk. This was back in the '90s, and while some part of these fond memories can be chalked up to youthful revisionist history, it does seem—even now—like the phone never stopped ringing. There was always one more order to fill, always one more ring to be picked up from the setter to polish and send off to a nervous groom-to-be.

A large part of the charm in ascending to the head of the family business was the glamour. Sure, some people’s parents might have corner offices in high-rise buildings, but spreadsheets never set anyone’s world on fire. But diamonds ... everyone loves diamonds. Shah Jewel Inc. wasn’t just in the business of making sales; it was in the business of making memories, one fancy piece of jewelry at a time.

Those diamond earrings are a classic, sure, but a future purchase may not hold up in the trend department in the same way. An eternity band isn’t like an iPhone—there’s no trade-in plan after every two years.

I spent those childhood years imagining myself taking the diamond market by storm, spending my days luxuriously covered in a fistful of rings and an armful of bracelets. But things didn’t quite pan out as such. When you come from a line of jewelers, friends tend to expect you to be dripping in diamonds worthy of a Harry Winston catalog. So when one of them finds out that I’ve been wearing the same quarter carat white gold studs for half a decade, they’re less than impressed. My lack of ice doesn’t stem from my parent’s concern over my penchant to misplace things (though that’s up there, to be sure)—it’s that as a single woman in her mid-20s in 2015, what do I need fine jewelry for?

I understand fine jewelry’s appeal. There are pieces in my mother’s collection I’d go to the mat with my sister over. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want someone to peer at my future engagement ring and make that clichéd joke, “You can’t even see where the Titanic hit it!” But with rapidly innovating technology bringing out shiny new gadgets in droves to spend my money on (or have gifted to me!), buying something that can’t be upgraded to the latest model down the road seems foolish. Those diamond earrings are a classic, sure, but a future purchase may not hold up in the trend department in the same way. An eternity band isn’t like an iPhone—there’s no trade-in plan after every two years.

What changed? It used to be that the precursor to the engagement ring was the fancy anniversary necklace or the tear-drop earrings. By the time the engagement ring purchase rolled around, men had a fairly cursory understanding of the 4 C’s (cut, clarity, color, and carat). But now, even post-recession, the jewelry retail industry remains sluggish after a precipitous decline. Millennials, meanwhile, are spending more money than ever on tech and travel. A diamond may be forever, but in a generation that values impermanence, the one-time slogan of the century is looking more and more like an outdated mantra.

Nowadays, the only time my friends are impressed by the fact that my dad is a jeweler tends to be when one of them is inching closer to getting engaged—usually accompanied by a wink and a nudge of, “Can I get a friends and family discount?” And to be sure, many a friend has come to the Shah Jewel office, looking for a ring to propose to his fiancée with, or a pair of earrings to add to her collection. But as my dad points out, those repeat customers are fewer and further between (and when they do show up, they often don’t know much about the jewelry market), because, just like me, my friends have outgrown the idea of jewelry—even if we never fully grew into it to begin with.

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It’s no secret in the jewelry industry that retail demand for fine jewelry is slipping. As Forbes reports, the demand for gold jewelry has dropped 30 percent since last year, and continues to fall. Even diamond behemoth De Beers had to admit in their 2014 Insight Report that “retailers have faced pressures from a weak economic environment and strong competition from branded luxury goods and experiential categories, as well as the low-price models of e-commerce companies.” Simply put: There are better things to spend money on, often at better prices, than jewelry.

Originally marketed to World War II veterans returning home and settling down, the luxury jewelry trend continued well into the Baby Boomer generation. While the industry has taken hits over the decades, it was generally always able to find its footing. That is, until the 2008 recession hit. One owner, Bill Johnson, who runs the Solvang, California, store Johnson’s Jewel Box, says that his business still has yet to climb back. “We’ve had highs and lows for many years,” Johnson says. “But this time, my business is down probably over 50 percent from when it was at a high, and it just won’t come back. It seems like there are no longer any gains.”

It’s easy to blame a sluggish economy, especially when millennials are reaching self-sufficiency at a much later age. The latest Census data shows median earnings for the 18-34 generation at their lowest rate, especially when compared to their counterparts in decades past. Affordability also comes into play. While the engagement ring industry remains a stalwart in retail fine jewelry buying, the New York Times reports that ring-purchasing philosophy continues to shift away from the old De Beers-crafted adage that a ring should cost two months’ worth of salary. Instead, many are turning to family heirlooms for engagement rings, both for the raw material value of the diamond and the gold, and for the vintage settings. After all, millennials do love nostalgia.

But as Golden Gate University psychology professor Kit Yarrow told Jeweler’s Circular Keystone, millennials have a different idea of success. “The psychology of this generation is not that of a depression generation.... Status for this generation isn’t about money—it’s about attention,” Yarrow explained. “Previous generations got that Chanel handbag or 3 carat diamond to tell the world they made it. This generation has already grown up in a time of unprecedented prosperity.... Their expectations are much higher.

The sheer proliferation of technological gadgets available on the marketplace—yes, some even at the same cost as fine jewelry—further dilutes the spending pool. If jewelry used to be the ultimate lover’s gift on birthdays and anniversaries, iPhones are the new way to say I love you. As Stanford lecturer and entrepreneur Nir Eyal sees it, this represents a simple shift in economics. “Just the fact that these things are now available [has changed the market]. Of course [technology is] going to pick up an increasing share of wallet,” Eyal says. “It’s not a conscious trend of displacing money from here to there, but it’s more of an economic imperative.” A 2014 Unity Marketing study that spoke to 1,335 millennials with an income above $100,000, supports this assertion. The study found that, as a group, these "affluent millennials" enjoyed technology purchases far more than jewelry; 46 percent said technology purchases gave them “great pleasure,” compared to just 25 percent for jewelry.

And these technologies are functional. Millennials spend $170 billion in purchases per year, and, according to an October study by digital ad agency Moosylvania, three out of their five favorite brands are tech gadget companies. (Apple, Samsung, and Sony, in case you’re wondering.) Tablets, laptops, gaming systems, televisions, and smartphones all offer a very real purpose to the owner. If a generation favors performance above aesthetics, what does jewelry offer?

The last few birthdays and Christmases have yielded vacation getaways, iPhones of every generation, even a smart home thermostat. What hasn’t shown up under the Christmas tree in the last five years? Diamond anything.

But it’s not all Kindles and iPhones; according to the De Beers report, millennials are choosing to spend their dollars on experiential activities over luxury goods as well. Travel—and its intersection with technology—is a huge area of growth for Generation Y, with 49 percent of millennials booking and planning travel on mobile devices, and 40 percent going on to share their trips on social media. Nowadays, keeping up with the Jones’ has gone global, and an everlasting Facebook album from that scuba diving trip in Bali says so much more than one lone photo of a pave diamond necklace.

Even my own diamond-business owning, non-millennial father is turning away from jewelry when it comes to gift giving. Sure, he’s made my mom a handful of statement pieces over the years, but at the same price point, he’s more likely to gift something that has actual purpose, aside from aesthetic value. The last few birthdays and Christmases have yielded vacation getaways, iPhones of every generation, even a smart home thermostat. What hasn’t shown up under the Christmas tree in the last five years? Diamond anything.

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By now, you can see how the jewelry industry’s growth is intertwined with newer technology trends. As it happens, what little business jewelers have left is quickly moving online. Blue Nile, the largest online marketplace for both loose diamonds and finished jewelry, is quickly displacing all those mom and pop jewelry stores, especially as jewelry continues to become a one-off purchase for many buyers. As Johnson, the jeweler, is quick to note, “[Blue Nile] has over 50 percent of the market share [for fine jewelry]. Brick and mortar has a huge problem. They have expenses the Internet does not: payroll, insurance, and the like. [Online retailers] have ruined the diamond industry as far as a jeweler is concerned, by selling directly to the consumer.”

But, Johnson warns, going online isn’t just bad for independent jewelers like himself —it’s also bad for the consumer. While Blue Nile trumpets that the diamonds they sell are all certified, the site is still a marketplace, and jewelers can use whichever certification agency they choose, including the less reputable ones. “I can’t blame people who come into my store, and take forever to make a selection, seeing the merchandise, putting it on their hand, having it in front of them, and then going on the Internet and buying something they’ve never seen before,” Johnson says. “It’s mind boggling that people do that, but it’s a change in attitude. They think [buying] this stuff online is just as good as buying in the store—but normally, it’s not.”

My dad, who has his diamond business for the last 31 years, points out the same: that a diamond is, after all, a nature-made product, and thus, hard to standardize. “You don’t know who’s certifying your diamond—a legitimate high-standard laboratory, or a legitimate not-so-high standard laboratory, but they all use the same terminology for color, cut, and clarity,” he says. “Diamonds are not like a Sony television sold brand new in a sealed carton. Whether you buy that TV at Walmart or K-Mart, in Seattle or Miami, it’s the same product. Diamonds are not a man-made product.”

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While travel and tech are booming industries, money isn’t relocating from jewelry to technology in a one-to-one ratio. So how else have jewelry trends changed? Mainly, it turns out, in the mass marketing of upscale costume jewelry (also less flatteringly known as the “cheap” or “fake” stuff). Women’s Wear Daily reported on the rise in the trend for costume jewelry back in 2008, during the height of the recession. As Michael Coan, chair of the jewelry design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told WWD, “People who would look to buy something fine between $3,000 and $5,000 can find a similar and even more avant-garde piece in fashion for $100 to $200. In times of trouble, people want to splurge, but not on a fine piece of jewelry.” Costume jewelry used to invoke images of fingers turning green from cheap gold, and mall stores like Claire’s, marketed directly at teenagers who couldn’t be trusted with the nicer products. But now at price points in the multiple-hundred range, it’s easier to keep up with changing trends in jewelry, without feeling the pinch of having invested in a statement diamond and gold piece that may go out of vogue.

“It’s trading up versus trading down, and the product in the middle is getting squeezed. The cheaper products look so darn good now, and they’re manufactured so quickly, they can keep up with the styles," says Eyal, the Stanford professor. “Psychologically, there’s an anchoring problem. To a consumer of an item of jewelry, the cheap stuff looks so similar, it’s bringing the expected value of these things down. Those who want [jewelry] just for the functional purpose of something to wear day in and day out [are turning to] costume jewelry, because it’s so cheap, and so accessible.”

Of course, as this man learned, proposing with a hoard of 99 iPhones still doesn’t replace one engagement ring. And so too, this changing marketplace isn’t going to completely do away with the industry. People will always need engagement rings. But the diamond and fine jewelry industries have been irrevocably changed. Johnson remains skeptical, not just for his own little jewelry store’s future, but for the mass retailers as well. “You can’t sell a jewelry store,” he says. “There’s no value to it other than the inventory you’ve got. Nobody wants to pay a million dollars for junk, and that’s what it amounts to.”

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A friend emailed me last week, asking if I had any ideas for a five-year anniversary present to his graphic designer girlfriend. “She doesn’t have any vacation days left, so it can’t be travel, but I’m open [to any other ideas]. It has to be really special!” I suggested a pair of diamond earrings. I had noticed her admiring a colleague’s similar set before, I told him. He scoffed at the idea, eventually settling on a comparatively pricier laptop. His rationale? “She can’t use the earrings to make her artwork.”

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