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Put a ring on it – how engagement rings are becoming more bespoke but budget-friendly

The Meghan and Classic engagement rings from Carnabys Bespoke Jewellery.

Carnabys

My husband proposed to me in absolute darkness. Seated inside the lightless dining room of O.Noir restaurant in downtown Toronto, he took my hand from across the table, slipped a ring on my finger and asked me to be his wife. I immediately said yes, crying ugly, happy tears that mercifully went unseen.

Much as I would like to credit my husband with impeccable taste, the real reason I didn't need a glimpse at the ring is that I had put Amy Follwell on his radar a few months prior. A certified gemologist and former quality assurance inspector at Tiffany & Co., Follwell moved back to Canada from New York to launch her custom-jewellery business, Bijoux by Amy, in 2013. Born in Belleville, Ont., and currently based in both Charlottetown and Toronto, Follwell guides clients through the process of creating one-of-a-kind jewellery, from budget setting and design to gemstone sourcing and manufacturing. "I saw the opportunity to share my expertise as a private jeweller and personalize the experience of buying an engagement ring," she says.

Fine-jewellery "concierges," as Follwell refers to herself, are a natural extension of consumers' evolving shopping habits and needs. With a growing number of shoppers, particularly those between 18 to 35, utilizing fashion to express their identities and values, personalization has become one of the biggest trends in retail and is set to remain a key sales driver well beyond 2018, according to reports from organizations such as McKinsey & Company. As such, businesses both big and small are meeting the demand for all things one of a kind by taking an increasingly bespoke approach to both service and product design. At the same time, purveyors of fine jewellery are introducing new price points to ensure they're not alienating the next generation of customers which, while flourishing, also widely identifies as financially insecure, according to a number of studies by the likes of The New Center, Project Time Off and Young Invincibles.

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For Vancouver-based Spence Diamonds, which has offered customization for more than 40 years, it was only a matter of time before consumers' calls for personalized products began having an effect on fine jewellery "Younger consumers have totally different shopping expectations than those of us who grew up before technology radically disrupted traditional retail models," says Eric Lindberg, the company's executive chairman. "They want to know they're getting something that is one of a kind, or at the very least unique in some way. So, it's not surprising that this is the case for something as personal and long-lasting as an engagement ring." In addition to allowing customers to create a unique ring from scratch, Spence now also gives clients the chance to make custom alterations to each of its more than 2,500 existing ring designs.

While a heightened interest in personalized fashion is certainly helping to bolster the market for custom-made engagement rings, so is the growing demand for more accessibly priced bling. "Although they usually require more time for design and production, custom engagement rings are available at a wide range of prices," Follwell says. "By being able to modify every aspect of the design, you can easily meet your budget without having to sacrifice quality."

Geoff Black, a wholesaler who expanded into retail last year with the opening of his west-end Toronto boutique, Carnabys Bespoke Jewellery, agrees. "Just because the ring is not mass-produced does not mean it has to be expensive," he says. "I work directly with the diamond exchange and this allows for access to every sort of diamond you can possibly want."

The desire for budget-friendly engagement rings is being fulfilled by retailers that specialize in ready-made jewellery, too. Last fall, for example, Canadian jeweller Birks began taking aim at price-conscious couples with the launch of Birks Bloom, a line of solitaire-diamond rings ranging from $2,995 for a half-carat centre stone to $8,995 for a one-carat diamond. "We've realized that customers today want more options budget-wise," says Eva Hartling, vice-president of the Birks brand and chief marketing officer for Birks Group Inc. As with all of the company's engagement rings, Bloom features only ethically sourced diamonds. Combining social and environmental responsibility with a more accessible price point has helped make the collection a hit among younger shoppers, Hartling says.

The company has also introduced Birks Bridal Bar, an intimate space at select stores where shoppers can pull up a chair and browse as a couple or as a group. "We see a lot of couples bringing friends or relatives along to help with the selection," Hartling says.

Spence Diamonds takes a similarly accessible approach, offering self-service showcases that allow customers to see the pricing upfront and try on rings without having to flag down a salesperson. "While we know that customization is becoming increasingly popular, we also know that customers want more from their shopping experience," Lindberg says. "They're looking for more information, choice and control, and they aren't satisfied with settling for stock rings and mediocre service." Meanwhile, at Toronto's Carnabys, customers can use the proprietary computer software to build the jewellery of their dreams in 3-D.

As the industry continues to shift on the supply side, today's couples are likewise changing the engagement-ring game by giving the patriarchal proposal an increasingly collaborative spin. "Our recent research showed that brides were involved in the ring purchase over 70 per cent of the time," Hartling says, adding, "The same goes for same-sex couples."

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For Toronto-based marketing agency owner Tara Hunt, tag-teaming the ring-design process was a no-brainer. "[My husband] Carlos knows that I am a little 'particular' when it comes to design, so it was incredibly smart of him to propose using a loaner ring, and then bring me into the process." From buying an inexpensive stand-in to putting a deposit down to borrow a ring, would-be proposers have found a way to postpone their purchase and still pop the question by surprise.

"We all love surprises," she adds, "but it's enough pressure to put together the perfect proposal, let alone design the perfect ring."

Even royals are co-designing rings nowadays, Spence's Lindberg points out. "A few months ago, Princess Eugenie's fiancé proposed without a ring and afterward, the couple designed her ring together." In other words, what's good enough for the rest of us is good enough for royalty. And when it comes to engagement rings, today's couples are clearly flipping the script in more ways than one.

*****

Nuptials by the numbers

150

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How big is a big wedding? How small is a small wedding? The numbers can soar into the thousands for blowout bashes or be as small as two people and an officiant. But the average number of guests at weddings in Canada is between 125 and 150 people, according to Danielle Andrews, president of the Wedding Planners Institute of Canada.

$30,717

Unless you're going to elope, weddings aren't cheap. A survey conducted by Weddingbells magazine in 2015 pegged the expected cost of a wedding (including honeymoon) in Canada at $30,717. That figure includes $8,798 for the venue, $6,877 for catering and $2,435 for photos, among other costs.

40

It's called your big day for a reason and many Canadians want to personalize it as much as possible, especially in the age of social media. A 2015 report by WeddingWire found that 40 per cent of couples create their own personalized wedding hashtag. #makeitspecial

28

Planning on boarding a plane to celebrate your wedding in a sunny locale? If you are, you'll probably be joined by about two dozen friends and family members. An average of 28 guests attend destination weddings, according to the Destination Weddings Travel Group 2016 Trend Report. The most popular destination for couples celebrating their nuptials away from home? Mexico.

$366

It's an honour to be asked to stand alongside a friend or family member on their wedding day. Of course, it's going to cost you. Groomsmen and bridesmaids can expect to shell out an average of $366, according to an Ipsos Reid poll conducted in 2015. But who can put a price on love?

Dave McGinn

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