PUT A RING ON IT
As twentysomething shoppers mature into luxury-goods consumers, the bauble business is faced with catering to their fickle tastes and marketing savvy. Caitlin Agnew reports on how fine jewellery houses are finding new ways to woo millennials. Photography by Saty + Pratha
When Nancy Albertson became engaged two years ago, she had to negotiate with her husband-to-be, Josh, for a ring without diamonds.
"I think it's more a status symbol for him," says the 33-year-old Vancouver-based retail manager about the more traditional – and blingy – take on an engagement ring. Instead, she coveted a unique spin on the solitaire setting, with a chunk of silver in place of a diamond. Among her generation, Albertson isn't alone in coveting an uncoventional bauble and that poses a conundrum for the $257-billion (U.S.)-a-year fine jewellery business: In an era of snap romantic judgments where we can find love on our smart phones with the swipe of a thumb, how do you convince anyone under 35 that diamonds are forever?
The millennial shopper is notoriously fickle, showing a preference for spending money on unique experiences over luxury goods. When they do decide to purchase a higher-end piece, their choices can be unorthodox to say the least; for example, the new Alison Lou x Hasbro collection, which launches exclusively on Net-a-Porter on Nov. 28, features playful 14-karat gold pieces inspired by toys and games such as Monopoly, Twister and Mr. Potato Head. As women like Albertson have reached the age of engagements, paid off their university debts and begun earning enough money to buy nice things, traditional jewellery houses are adapting to their skeptical attitudes and preferences for the quirky and one-of-a-kind – a tricky course change for an industry made up mostly of companies that have been in business for more than a century.
For Canadian jewellery institution Maison Birks, founded in 1879, the shift in tastes means rethinking its approach to marketing, starting with its ad campaigns. "With the millennial customer, it's as if traditional media is completely invisible," says Eva Hartling, vice president of marketing and communications. "If you're not online as a brand, they're not seeing you."
In July, Tiffany & Co. became the first luxury brand to launch a Snapchat filter. It was part of its #lovenotlike campaign – a play on the ubiquity of Facebook and Instagram "likes" – and features smiling subjects, including the pastel-pink-haired model Fernanda Ly; it was a big departure for the 179-year-old brand. "These campaigns bring new life and perspective to all Tiffany collections, allowing for more purchasing opportunities with millennial consumers," says Wendy Eagan, group vice president of Tiffany & Co. Canada.
At nearly 170 years old, French jewellery house Cartier is enjoying surprising popularity among young women. A study conducted by Goldman Sachs and Teen Vogue last year found that Cartier was the 19th most beloved brand of women between the ages of 13 and 29, due in no small part to Kylie Jenner's Instagram posts of her wrist encased in an estimated $40,000 worth of the maison's Love bracelets, reason to resurrect the #armparty hashtag if there ever was one.
In store, many brands are reinventing the rather formal ritual of jewellery shopping. Birks is renovating its 30 locations across Canada, doing away with the dark wood and imposing counters for a brighter environment and more interactive experience. "It was a very luxurious setting but very intimidating for a younger customer," explains Hartling, pointing to Apple stores as the brand's main source of inspiration.
After two-and-a-half years of renovations, Cartier celebrated the reopening of its New York flagship in September with a soirée attended by Rooney Mara, Sienna Miller and Sofia Coppola. While the 44,000 square-foot, Thierry Despont-designed interior is meant to feel like an early-20th-century home, it has all the bells and whistles of a 21st-century store including an online appointment booking system, complimentary WiFi and tablet-equipped salespeople.
Despite all this boutique activity, a recent RBC Capital Markets survey of around 500 millennials found that they prefer department stores and shopping online to branded shops. To that end, Chanel opened a fine-jewellery-focused pop-up space at New York's Bergdorf Goodman in September. The Jewel Box, as the room was called, existed for only five days and was set up like a chic private apartment. Visitors were encouraged to play with the pieces rather than viewing them behind glass from a distance.
Brands are also zeroing in on the middle-of-the-market segment between costume pieces and precious jewels. In October, luxury fashion e-commerce pioneer Net-a-Porter expanded its jewellery offerings to include a new category it calls "demi-fine," which focuses on everyday and more affordable pieces rendered in luxury metals and stones. "The demi-fine category taps into a market that has not yet been explored by our competition, so it gives our customer a unique and new offering," says Lisa Aiken, fashion director at Net-A-Porter, adding that she's seen an increase in women investing in jewellery for themselves. "We wanted to develop a category that instantly elevated our selection at an affordable price point without compromising on precious materials or design."
One of the brands listed on Net's demi-fine page is Wwake, a New York-based label founded by Vancouverite Wing Yau in 2012. A typical jack-of-all-trades millennial herself, the 29-year-old is a trained sculptor who fell into fine jewellery design while working as a barista at JJ Bean. The star stone of Yau's delicate line is the opal, which she offsets with smaller accent diamonds, subverting the expectation that gems with the most cachet get top billing. Prices for her Net-a-Porter selection land between $180 and $1,355 (U.S.).
"We want to bring space around each stone so that there's an etherealness and airiness to it that feels fresh for our age group," says Yau. "I try to balance traditional materials and having the stones feel precious enough while also having the design feel like it's a break from your mother's or grandmother's pieces. That's where I rely on my intuition to see what feels right."
Sophie Bille Brahe takes a similarly instinctual approach to her namesake line. "Working with gold, the way it moves when you heat it up, the way the colour changes from hot to cold, the diamonds – for me, it's magic," says the 36-year-old Danish jewellery designer. Inspired by the birth of her son, Brahe's unconventional 2014 La Pyramide des Perles collection focused on pearls at a time when she says only traditional jewellery designers were working with them. "I read a lot about pearls, how they're linked to the tides and to the moon, how Aphrodite was born out of a shell, stories about Cleopatra crushing and drinking them before she went to a battle with the Roman Empire. And then I created a universe around them." It's this personal storytelling that resonates with women like Albertson, who has layered a silver eternity ring atop her wedding set.
Amber Joliat, an entrepreneur behind Toronto's yoga, pilates and dance-based Misfit Studio, has a similar affinity for pieces that forge a connection beyond their bling factor. Joliat became engaged to her boyfriend Nik Timar this past October while the two were vacationing in Bali. Custom-made by Toronto jeweller Elana Ginsberg of K & Co. Bespoke, her engagement ring is a band of 30 black and white diamonds, which together represent the full lunar cycle. "Nik knows how attuned to the moon I am," she says. "I reflect on this cosmic connection daily and use its powerful pull as inspiration."
While this kind of esoteric thinking may not be something every jeweller's marketing or design department can entirely comprehend, it suggests that the aspirations of the millennial jewellery consumer match up with previous generations' priorities. Preferences may have shifted from conveying a more traditional idea of holy matrimony to moon cycles and even Monopoly, but women still want to showcase their unique passions through a little sparkle and shine.
Styling by Odessa Paloma Parker. Hair and makeup by Wendy Rorong/Plutino Group.