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Men’s Jewelry on the Rise

This niche market is growing thanks to hip-hop and celebrity influences.

Sep 18, 2019 5:09 AM   By Lara Ewen
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RAPAPORT... It seems men are tired of letting women do all the sparkling. In September 2018, The New York Times printed a story about the growing popularity of men’s jewelry, tying the trend to the introduction of men’s fashion weeks and the rise of Instagram. More recently, nautical-cord bracelets, upscale chains, signet rings, and dog-tag-like pendant necklaces have made style headlines in magazines like Forbes and Men’s Health.

But this isn’t new to jewelry store owners.

“The men’s jewelry market has made a big turn in the past few years, especially with a large influence coming from the entertainment industry,” says Zahir Jooma, co-owner of Icebox Diamonds & Watches in Atlanta, Georgia. Jooma, whose family-owned business has served the area for over 40 years, ties some of the demand to the mainstreaming of hip-hop. “If you listen to the big, big rappers, they’re talking about diamonds,” he notes. In the song “Put a Date on It” by rappers Yo Gotti and Lil Baby, for example, a line mentions not only diamonds, but their clarity: “VVS diamonds drippin’ over my t-shirt,” raps Lil Baby.

“Right now, hip-hop is the number-one [music] genre,” says Jooma. “It used to be pop. But now there’s a lot of men rapping about jewelry, and the [listener] demographic is older, and they can afford to buy for themselves.”

While celebrities may drive trends, Jooma — who has plenty of celebrity clients — says his customers also include young professionals, teens whose parents buy them jewelry, and suburban men who drive into the city to visit his store. Many of his clients want to emulate their favorite musicians, athletes and entertainers.

Bring the bling

Self-purchasing men are also driving sales at Shyne Jewelers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which has an entertainer- and athlete-driven base as well.

“It’s definitely a culture in Philadelphia,” says Lea D’Onofrio, the company’s business development director of e-commerce. “We’ve seen a strong increase in men self-purchasers investing in jewelry. Our business here is 85% male self-purchasers, and we only see it increasing.”

Younger men in particular are beginning to buy, she adds. “We find a strong focus in millennial men wearing jewelry. Many men in their late 20s are investing in their first piece of fine jewelry.”

Whereas traditional ideas about men’s jewelry are usually limited to yellow gold chains, tastes have changed, Jooma says. Natural diamonds — his customers are not interested in lab-grown stones — are big sellers, as are tennis bracelets, tennis necklaces, and diamond-covered Cuban link chains in white, yellow and rose gold. He says custom pendants, large pinky rings, and athletic championship-style rings are also trending.

Size definitely matters, according to Joseph Aranbayev, co-owner of Avianne & Co., which has been operating in New York since 1999. “The bigger, the better,” declares Aranbayev, whose clients also include celebrities and young professionals.

He says his customers insist on natural diamonds over lab-grown, and that many clients want custom. “Big chains, big medallions. Everybody wants to put something right up on their chests. It speaks right there. The jewelry says hello right before you even say hello.”

Of course, lots of men also want more low-key pieces. “We need simple, basic stuff, too,” comments Ben Smithee, CEO of consumer consultancy The Smithee Group (TSG), which specializes in digital strategy and millennial marketing. He suggests that classic items such as rings, bracelets and stainless steel cuffs are good entry-level pieces for both customers and retailers. “Ask what allows a man to tell a story about himself,” he says. “My signet ring is a lion, because I’m a Leo and king of the jungle. And it’s something I can wear with shorts and tennis shoes as well as a suit.”

Male-order bridal

Regarding prices, Jooma says the average self-purchase in his store ranges from $7,000 to $10,000, although many items are much higher — $30,000, $50,000, and even $200,000 sales are not uncommon. Those sales also translate into bridal.

“People who buy a lot of jewelry for themselves spend a lot on the engagement ring, and they want higher quality for women than they buy for themselves,” explains Jooma. “They buy large center stones for women, and they also buy a lot of men’s eternity bands to match the rest of their jewelry — a plain band for daily wear.” He says the average men’s eternity wedding band in his store costs between $12,000 and $20,000. When people buy gifts for their male partners, the sales are more modest, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.

In New York, Aranbayev says men spend an average of $8,000 to $10,000 on self-purchases each time they shop, and that the average price of a men’s diamond wedding band in his shop is $3,000. “There’s a lot of men who do basic, but in the last 15 years, it’s become flashier, like a big diamond eternity wedding band,” he says. “And everything is custom.”

When it comes to gifts, Aranbayev says many significant others receive accessories that go with items they already own. “I have a client with numerous custom pieces,” he relates. “For his birthday, his girlfriend came in and bought him something to go with his diamond bracelet.”

Gifts are also big sellers at Shyne, where D’Onofrio says white sapphire initial pendants, costing between $150 and $350, are big sellers. Of course, many people spend bigger. “A woman recently came in and spent over $10,000 on a Father’s Day gift,” D’Onofrio reports.

Self-purchasers, who overwhelmingly prefer mined diamonds to lab-grown, are heavily investing in gold chains and custom work, she continues — especially in pendants, which start at $1,500 but can run upward of $50,000 for larger pieces, such as diamond-covered portrait necklaces. “Men want things that are crazy and out of the box,” she says.

Instagram inroads

The majority of Shyne’s customers find the store via its Instagram account, where it has over 358,000 followers, according to D’Onofrio. “We try to keep our feed organic, and we post throughout the day. Our clients want to see what we’re working on at the moment.”

Digital is important for Aranbayev, too. “Social media has a big role,” says the New York jeweler, who has over 288,000 followers on Instagram. “The hip-hop industry has become mainstream, and that culture comes with a lot of men’s jewelry.... It’s trendy, and the more you read about it and hear about it, the more you want to wear it.”

With over 1.8 million Instagram followers, Jooma is clearly embracing his dedicated online following. But his success is really predicated on knowing his clientele. “Marketing to men is more of a year-round sale,” he elaborates. “Women are more seasonal. And men buy a lot more fashion. A lot of men are buying their fifth diamond ring or their third diamond watch. The whole culture of collecting watches has moved [instead] to collecting jewelry.”

Companies such as David Yurman, John Hardy, Inox, and Goth Chic are serving the men’s fashion customer, but without enough retailers to stock them, many are going directly to the consumer.

“We’re forcing the men’s consumers online. I shop directly from brands on Instagram,” says Smithee. “Someone has to be the tastemaker. If I were a jewelry store, locally, I would find men who were Instagram influencers and have them create a men’s audience and a men’s line for me.”

Jooma says retailers looking to dip into the men’s market should start small and build. “Start with items that are actually women’s items, like a ladies’ diamond necklace or a diamond tennis bracelet, but a longer version,” he advises. “You can always cut it shorter and sell it to women. Then you can add some risky men’s pieces, like a large pendant.”

Stores can also tap into the online consumer base themselves. “I see a continued increase in millennial men investing money in jewelry,” says D’Onofrio. “We also see the online market increasing continuously, even in the luxury business, so it’s crucial that we provide the same intimate relationship online that we do to our customers face to face.”

Open to diversity

One of the reasons men’s fashion jewelry hasn’t yet penetrated the market more deeply, suggests Jooma, is that some retailers are not ready to accommodate the customers who seek it out. “Some of these stores are not welcoming to the hip-hop customer who wants hip-hop jewelry,” he says. “But a lot of those stores are suffering, and they can’t have that attitude for long. A lot of people come into our store because they feel respected. We have heard about some jewelry stores not showing love to them, but people who have that attitude will miss out.”

Jooma understands some of the hesitation, from a business standpoint. “The diamond jewelry market is still over 90% women, especially if you [don’t count] bridal,” he notes. “So it does make sense for [the industry] not to dive into men’s jewelry. But a lot of stores are failing, [and] it’s not because people don’t want diamonds. As [men’s jewelry] becomes more prominent, one or two years from now, we’ll see them adding more proven men’s designs.”

Stores that aren’t already courting men may be hurting themselves. “People are missing out on the market,” agrees D’Onofrio. “In Philadelphia, we get a lot of diversity, and people with tattoos on their faces, and piercings and shaved heads. I don’t know if those clients would be helped by associates in some stores. But you have to be able to cater to everybody and take everybody seriously.”

Part of the problem may be that the industry continues to struggle with a changing demographic. “There’s a big disconnect between white America and urban America, and that’s why white America doesn’t want to accept a large amount of men’s jewelry,” says Aranbayev. “And you have to understand the trends. If you’re talking to a whole bunch of old-timers, they don’t know what’s going on. Traditional studs or earrings or tennis bracelets are nice and all, but there’s a market that hasn’t been tapped into. In the next 20 years, everything will be different. You should just start accepting it now.”

Smithee agrees. “There’s a lot of jewelry dollars [that retailers] are leaving on the table because they feel like it’s not their customer.”

Elsewhere in luxury fashion, brands are already embracing a diverse clientele. Smithee points to Virgil Abloh, the creator of urban fashion brand Off-White, who is designing at Louis Vuitton. “And there’s people like me who wear a lot of men’s jewelry, who are not hip-hop artists and not biker dudes,” he adds. “Why not serve all those communities?”

Businesses already doing so say the space is lucrative.

“We had some kid come all the way from China,” recalls Aranbayev. “He’s 15-and-a-half years old and he spent a quarter of a million dollars. The kid heard about us through rap music... That’s how mainstream this is.”

Case Study: Todd ReedColorado-based designer Todd Reed has always been a part of the men’s jewelry market, both with his designs and, in recent years, as a standalone retailer. “In 1992, I had a lot of men’s jewelry, because I’m a guy,” he says. “I always made men’s jewelry and men’s accessories.”

Still, he says, that side of his business hasn’t grown as much as he expected. “I did think men’s would be a big part of my business. But in most jewelry stores, [men’s jewelry offerings are] mostly bridal and not fashion.”

A lot of jewelers just aren’t interested in stocking men’s fashion inventory, he says. “It’s difficult as a designer, because every square foot has to equate to a certain amount of sales, or it doesn’t stay.”

Nonetheless, Reed says male self-purchasers are making an impact. “Our two top customers in our Boulder store are self-purchasing men,” he says. “They buy big funky art jewelry, and they buy big chains and diamonds and stacked bands. And they’re both wanting to do more custom.”

Indeed, he’s looking to design more custom pieces for men, albeit in limited quantities. “Like the rest of my jewelry, I’m trying to make less, and make it more unique.”

Even if he wanted to enter the men’s market more extensively, he continues, it’s not cost-effective right now. “I’m a small designer. You have to balance the brand and market what’s selling. And to do a men’s campaign, it would have to yield so much return that I don’t think it’s smart.”

The strategy that seems to work best for Reed is connecting with men in person. “Events strategy is the only one that works,” he says. “On Instagram, I have 100,000 followers, and it feels like 99% of that is other jewelers. But at events, I can curate the results and the energy in the room, and I make it what I want.”

And once men become customers, he adds, they’re in it for the long haul. “If men buy something, they’re very loyal. They find something they like, and they stick to it.”

The original version of this article was published in the September issue of Rapaport Magazine

Image: Ice Box Rolo link necklace with 225.96 carats of diamonds and Icebox Mariner link necklace with 95.67 carats of diamonds. (Icebox)
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Tags: Avianne & Co, Ben Smithee, david yurman, Goth Chic, Icebox Diamonds & Watches, Inox, john hardy, Joseph Aranbayev, Lara Ewen, Lea D’Onofrio, Lil Baby, Louis Vuitton, men's jewelry, Rapaport News, Shyne Jewelers, The Smithee Group, todd reed, TSG, Virgil Abloh, Yo Gotti, Zahir Jooma
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