Even in a Pandemic, Fine Jewelry Is Selling

CORONA DEL MAR, CALIF. — Conventional wisdom suggests that a pandemic would not bode well for jewelry sales. But for Mark Patterson, a fine jewelry designer with a retail store in this coastal Southern California enclave, 2020 has defied expectations at every turn. (And he’s not alone.)

“Wholesale is down — we haven’t done any trunk shows — but our retail store has doubled sales from last year,” Mr. Patterson said in late October. “It’s crazy. We don’t know how to explain it.”

Actually, he did. “Big diamonds,” he said.

Mr. Patterson described a recent sale to a local couple: “They had plans to travel for their 20th anniversary — Europe or maybe Australia — and their trip was canceled due to Covid, so they decided to upgrade her diamond engagement ring from one carat to four carats,” Mr. Patterson said. “They spent close to $55,000.”

For the first time, jewelers are enjoying a holiday season unburdened by competition from their No. 1 rival, travel. It’s one way to explain the category’s unexpected resilience during a year of crisis. But it’s not the only one.

“People are realizing, ‘Wow, life is short, why don’t we get married?’” said Edahn Golan, a diamond and jewelry industry analyst based in Israel. “It’s all about love, emotions, the fragility of life.”

Mr. Golan said that, in the United States, retail jewelry sales in March and April fell by $3.8 billion compared with the same period in 2019 — retail stores there were closed in these early days of the pandemic.

Once lockdowns eased in June, July and August, however, sales for that period grew by $1 billion year over year. Engagement ring sales led the charge, he said.

Couples who tied the knot this year cut down on “guests, food, flowers, party favors,” Mr. Golan said. “The one area where there’s the least tendency to compromise is on the bride’s jewelry because it’s long-lasting, and ‘I gave up on everything else, why should I give up on this?’”

If the crisis has spurred people with means to buy jewelry as an expression of love, it’s inspired those with even greater means to look at it through an age-old lens: as a tangible form of wealth.

Gary Schuler, worldwide chairman of Sotheby’s jewelry department, saw that at the house’s Magnificent Jewels sale in Geneva last month, where the 14.83-carat Spirit of the Rose, a fancy vivid purple-pink diamond, sold for $26.6 million, making it the most valuable jewel auctioned in 2020.

“People are looking for hard assets,” Mr. Schuler said. “We’re seeing it in these and other categories we sell at Sotheby’s: contemporary art, old master paintings.”

All of these factors help explain why sales of fine jewelry, pieces priced at less than $50,000, have performed better than most luxury categories, said Luca Solca, senior research analyst for global luxury goods at Bernstein.

“The only caveat is high jewelry, which has suffered from the lack of opportunities to present products to potential customers (normally, brands would piggyback on couture shows in Paris) and, equally, lack of gala occasions to wear those products,” Mr. Solca wrote in an email.

At Compagnie Financière Richemont, the Swiss luxury group that owns Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, the results for the six months ended Sept. 30 bear out Mr. Solca’s larger point: Jewelry sales in the second quarter grew by 4 percent at actual exchange rates compared with the prior year.

In a note accompanying the results, Johann Rupert, Richemont’s chairman, attributed the category’s resilience to “successful digital initiatives and the continued appeal of iconic collections,” including Clash de Cartier and Perlée at Van Cleef & Arpels.

Hélène Poulit-Duquesne, chief executive of the luxury jeweler Boucheron, said engagement ring shoppers figured into what she called the “surprising” traffic at the house’s Place Vendôme boutique in Paris immediately following France’s first lockdown in May.

“I am optimistic as we have seen consumption return rapidly in China and Asian countries, where our clients currently can’t travel to Europe but keep investing in jewelry locally,” Ms. Poulit-Duquesne wrote in an email. She added that Boucheron, which is owned by Kering, would soon introduce an e-commerce website.

“Distance selling and e-commerce were already in the pipeline and are now more than ever a priority,” Ms. Poulit-Duquesne wrote. “This crisis reconfirmed the fact that clients are easily buying jewelry online.”

That may be the understatement of the decade.

In the United States during the peak lockdown months of March and April, the fashion e-tailer Moda Operandi saw fine jewelry sales grow by 35 percent over the same period in 2019. Lauren Santo Domingo, the company’s founder, offered a few theories for the increase: clients in lockdown reallocating their budgets from ready-to-wear styles to fine jewelry, sentimental shoppers seeking out talismans and personalized jewels “to mark the occasion,” and women in search of the feel-good experience of buying pieces for themselves.

“Women, as we know, bore a lot of the burden of the lockdown — and we definitely heard a lot about them rewarding themselves, or husbands rewarding them,” Ms. Santo Domingo said.

Even though most retail jewelry stores around the world have been open since June, the shift to buying online has remained constant through the second half of the year.

Alice Cicolini, a London-based designer specializing in enamel and gold jewelry, said her four-year-old online business, while relatively small at the start of the year, had grown by 300 percent to 400 percent compared with 2019 — although she declined to disclose sales numbers. She has also seen a notable pickup in bespoke commissions, she said, with most orders originating through direct messages on Instagram or via email.

Ms. Cicolini referred to the less frenzied pace of life circa 2020 as an explanation for people seeking out her work. “People have time they haven’t had before — to think about the stone they have been meaning to get reset since they inherited it, or simply to discover what they like and what is out there,” she wrote in an email.

The considerable amount of time many people are now spending on screens has had another drastic effect on jewelry sales, which the industry has been calling “the Zoom phenomenon.”

“We saw a rapid decline in ring sales during lockdown (presumably from relentless hand washing) and takeup in necklaces and earrings (that can be seen on Zoom),” Cecily Motley, co-founder of the affordable jewelry brand Motley London, wrote in an email.

While it may be too soon to tell how the pandemic has influenced jewelry design — other than prioritizing styles worn from the shoulders up — it’s clear that during this year of lockdowns, both real and potential, jewelry buyers are gravitating to simpler, more contemporary designs that can be worn at home.

“Imagine daytime couture meets loungewear — that’s the vibe,” the Hong Kong-based private jeweler Nicholas Lieou wrote in an email.

As the industry revs up for the final few weeks of the year, independent jewelry retailers said they are in a better position to capitalize on steady demand for fine jewels than their bigger, more corporate competitors.

Katherine Jetter, a jewelry designer who in late October opened a private atelier in Boston called the Vault Boston, described a recent shopping event she organized for a small group of clients in a friend’s garden, where she invited them to try on jewelry, take pieces home and bring them back if they decided not to buy.

“It was all outside with their masks on, and people were excited to have something to do,” Ms. Jetter said.

She said she would spend the next few weeks staging intimate events such as cognac and wine tastings for friends and couples looking to splurge on jewelry.

“We had two women come over to my atelier on Sunday, and we did Champagne and caviar,” Ms. Jetter said in mid-November. “They got to have fun and be relaxed, and I kept my mask on.”

“It’s a labor-intensive way to operate,” she said, “but in this environment, I don’t see any other way to do it.”

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