Rapaport Magazine

Tradition Rules Bridal

Diamonds and brides go together like a horse and carriage, but societal shifts are impacting this very traditional market.

By Lara Ewen
It’s widely understood throughout the jewelry industry that engagement rings and wedding bands are the bedrock of its business. According to The Wedding Report, Inc., the wedding market in the U.S. is over $58 billion annually as of April 2015 and provides a steady, reliable stream of consumers’ dollars each year.
   The trends, when they happen, arrive slowly. The report noted that in 2014 there were 2,170,593 weddings, up slightly from 2,164,292 in 2013. However, even this incremental growth is not expected to change much. In fact, the predicted number of 2,169,886 weddings in 2015 is actually lower than previous years. But what does seem to be increasing is the amount each couple spends on weddings. According to that same report, “The total amount couples spent on their wedding in the first quarter of 2015 increased to $26,486. That is a .2 percent increase over the 2014 total spent of $24,444.” That number is expected to increase to over $28,000 by 2020.
   So change does happen, even if its effects may appear subtle at first glance. A growing tendency by Millennials to seek out increasingly offbeat jewelry designs has led to a small but notable shift in engagement ring styles. Men, too, have begun voicing strong opinions about their fashion options. Social media also plays a role, as more customers search online for inspiration and share their ideas with each other via sites such as Pinterest. And, of course, the expanding acceptance and ensuing legalization of same-sex marriages has had its own impact on the market, bringing an influx of new customers.
   If there’s one overarching movement that perhaps can be said to encompass all of the above trends, it’s individualization. Consumers know more about their choices and demand more from their jewelers than they ever have before. They may spend more time researching than they do in the store itself. “The biggest change to the industry is that consumers are completely educated, or at least they think they’re completely educated, before they come into the store,” says Zaven Ghanimian, chief executive officer (CEO) at designer jewelry brand Simon G. “They’re already set on what they want and they’ve researched it. A jeweler used to be able to sway a consumer.”
   Not so much anymore. “What’s happening now is that buyers are far more educated than they’ve ever been,” says Natalie Dawley, principal at Two Be Wed, a Houston, Texas–based wedding planner. “They think they’re gemologists. They know the cut, the band, the stone they want. Fifty years ago, jewelers were more important, or at least, they seemed more important. Now, that’s not the case. Now, you have people who have even over-researched on Pinterest.”
   Online research is practically par for the course these days. “We found that over half of brides are involved with the internet extensively to research their rings,” says Kristen Maxwell Cooper, deputy editor of The Knot. “They are online all the time and they’re looking at rings on their phones. They are persuaded by online more than by a jeweler or their friends.”

   With that said, it’s certainly an interesting time to be a jeweler. As consumers demand more choices, the market will need to create new opportunities to serve them, a dynamic that in turn may help rejuvenate one of the oldest segments of the jewelry industry.
   Before delving into some of the more unusual trends to hit the market, it’s important to note that traditional styles are still leading the pack. “The halo is still very strong,” says Michael Han, president of The Wedding Ring Shop in Honolulu, Hawaii. “However, more guys are becoming more creative and using rose gold in halos and sapphire side stones. They’re embellishing the halo with colored diamonds in yellow or pink. So classic halos are being done a little differently.”
   There are several reasons why halos continue to trend. For one, they have perceived value because the design enhances smaller center stones. “Halos aren’t going anywhere,” says Brittney P. Reagan, marketing manager for New York City–based jewelry brand A.JAFFE. “They’re very popular among the Millennials, mostly because the design creates a larger overall look. Delicate, more feminine mountings are also very popular right now.”
   Still, halos aren’t the only classic style on the market. Solitaires are making waves again, though it’s not exactly a comeback, since they never really went away. “Halo is still the most popular design, but we are seeing more classic things like solitaires gain popularity again,” says Scott Berg, market president of Lee Michaels Fine Jewelry, with eight locations throughout Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.
   Ghanimian believes that the popularity of solitaires lies in their simplicity. “A big percentage of men on their own go the simplest route they can and they buy a solitaire — unless they’ve gotten a lot of influence from her,” says Ghanimian. “If he wants it to be a complete surprise, it’s the solitaire because the man is focused on the diamond quality and specifics. Women care more about the fashion and men by nature are much more technical.”

   In terms of shape, round is the front-runner, with cushion and princess always jockeying for second-place position. “For us, like everyone, it’s the cushion shape after the round,” says Han. “I think round is the number one by far. Third is princess. Emerald cuts are also getting popular, especially in the larger sizes, like 2 carats and above. And women are finding that they’re going for a kind of diamond that isn’t generic, like Hearts On Fire and the Fire and Ice.”
   After round, though, shapes begin to get interesting. Vintage and unusual shapes are making headway. “Rose-cut diamonds are certainly having a moment,” says Rachel Thames, store and Wedding Annex manager for Catbird, a Brooklyn, New York, retailer with two locations, one of which is devoted exclusively to wedding jewelry. “People ask for organic lines and ‘not your average cookie-cutter’ designs.”
Other shapes, too, are gaining ground. “We’re seeing a lot of pear,” says Cooper. “It’s a more vintage look. And we have been noticing a lot of horizontal settings. It’s an easy and cool way to give a traditional ring a modern look.”

The Stones: Beyond White
   It’s not surprising to report that white diamonds are still the most popular center stone. “Classic white diamonds aren’t going anywhere,” says Reagan. “They will always be number one for engagement rings. I am sure there are other alternatives, however, that can accommodate budget and personal style.”
   Thames agrees. “Even though colored stones are more in demand than ever, the classic white diamond is still leading the pack,” she says.
   There is, however, some movement toward alternatives. “We get a lot of requests for nondiamonds,” says Ghanimian. “After Kate Middleton, we saw a big spike in blue sapphires and sometimes black diamonds. And we do get some inquiries about man-made diamonds. Some people even ask for diamonds made out of the remains of loved ones or pets. And another popular option is that the woman picks out a design that is set with a cubic zirconia until she and her husband can afford a diamond.”
   Colored diamonds are also in the mix. “Recently, we had a client choose a canary diamond with a rose gold setting,” says Dawley. “It was really stunning. I have not seen anything like that outside of Hollywood.”

Gold Trends
   Because white diamonds are still the top sellers, white metals continue to be the choice for settings. Berg says white gold and platinum are strong sellers and other designers agree. “18-karat white gold is the most popular, but we are seeing an increase in platinum as well,” says Reagan. “And both rose and yellow gold are currently trending. However, even though rose gold is a trend, many brides aren’t sure they want to wear it for the rest of their lives. To accommodate them, we’ve created styles that have just hints of yellow or rose gold, so the bride doesn’t have to go all the way, but can still have a touch of yellow or rose gold in her design if she chooses.”
   One reason yellow gold is trending is because of its obvious luxury look. “I think that white gold or platinum is still the primary choice of metal for a wedding band,” says Sally Morrison, managing director, marketing and jewelry for the World Gold Council (WGC). “But when gold prices were high three years ago, we saw gold disappearing at the entry price point. But we have seen it reappearing strongly at the top of the market.”
   “What I would hypothesize happened,” continues Morrison, “is that once the price of the metal was high, people who could afford it wanted to buy it in yellow gold because it was clear what it was. White metal could be anything.”
   Alternative metal colors are also trending well with a younger, hipper clientele searching for something different. “Rose gold has become more and more popular over the past couple of years and doesn’t seem like a trend that has an approaching expiration date,” says Thames. Yellow gold is also a very popular choice for her Brooklyn clientele, she adds. “But most of our clients mix metals with their engagement ring and wedding bands now.”
   Berg agrees, to a point. “Yellow gold is trending more than rose, but it’s still a small percentage,” he says. “But we’re getting asked about it more now than we have in the past ten years.”
   Ghanimian also says that the trend is still in its nascent stages. “We may get asked for it, but we rarely do a whole yellow gold ring,” he says. “But we might do textured yellow gold accents. Still, 18-karat white gold is a staple for our metals. It exceeds sales over everything, including platinum.”
   Platinum still holds a great deal of sway, however. “As far as bridal trends, platinum is thriving,” says Amanda Tropila, public relations coordinator for Platinum Guild International (PGI) USA. “It has long stood as the bridal setting of choice.” Tropila notes that “clean, modern settings, modern twists on the halo and uniquely shaped stones” have also been “steadily maintaining popularity.” “Platinum has seen a slight rise because pricing is competitive and women prefer it because it’s known and the Platinum Guild has done a good job of educating people about it,” says Ghanimian.
   And of course, some stores are very devoted to platinum. “Platinum for engagement rings and bands is desirable, because it speaks of quality,” says The Wedding Ring Shop’s Han.
“Our employees say you can’t get a better metal for your diamonds than platinum.”
   There is also some indication that ring choice is tied directly, and unsurprisingly, to the nation’s economy. According to a 2014 Retail Barometer Results and 2015 Outlook report from PGI USA, about three-fourths of all engaged couples in the U.S. market historically opted for a diamond engagement ring. However, this fell to a range of 65 percent to 70 percent in the recessionary years of 2007 to 2011. The report says, “It appears to be recovering, with more couples returning to the tradition of purchasing a diamond engagement ring, though it is less likely to be a traditional solitaire and more likely to be a center diamond surrounded by other precious gemstones with a platinum setting.”

Men’s Jewelry: Texture and Matte
   When it comes to men’s bands, it’s usually more about the metal than anything else. Stones are rare. “For men, classic gold bands in white or yellow are still the most popular, but titanium and other metals are also selling,” says Berg.
   Texture plays an important part in today’s masculine wedding jewelry. “We have a whole men’s collection,” says Elizabeth Kantner, marketing and communications specialist at jewelry design firm Todd Reed. “Now men are finally realizing that there are more options for them. Every once in a while I’ll work a bridal show, and the guys are shocked at the options. Some men need something more textured and more rough, they like textured rings that allow them to do their same old stuff and it’s okay if it gets scratched.”
   Han agrees. “Matte finish and texture are important,” he says. “I think guys just want something that’s different. Plain bands have gone by the wayside and men are more fashion conscious. And I see the movement away from low-end wedding bands, like titanium and tungsten and silver. I see more men getting serious about it. They care about quality and durability and craftsmanship. And they’re getting a second, less expensive band as a sports band or to wear when they work out.”

Changing The Rules
   Of course, style is not the only thing that is changing and getting updated. As marriage equality becomes more of a reality for more couples, the wedding and engagement jewelry industry is finding new ways to help more couples celebrate their unions. “We cater to a lot of same-sex couples at our Wedding Annex,” says Thames. “It’s so fun when they buy each other engagement rings. More jewelry for everyone! We even had a same-sex couple buy the same ring for each other behind the other person’s back. They ended up proposing to each other with the same ring. It was so cute.”
   Not only does this mean more sales, it also means more design options. “Same-sex marriage for men has opened the door for so many more design options,” says A.JAFFE’s Reagan. “Where there used to be no place for diamonds in men’s wedding bands, it’s now very common to see some added sparkle in men’s ring designs.”
   Bands are still the biggest part of the same-sex jewelry equation. “We ran a brief social media campaign on same-sex marriage and the wedding band business has grown significantly,” says Ghanimian. “The wedding band is something same-sex couples customize, whether it’s with engraving or a fingerprint or something special on the inside of the band.”
   Kantner agrees. Todd Reed, she says, is a “same-sex-friendly company and our designs cater to that. We also do a lot of custom. I have seen a lot of different things.” Many couples will just get engagement bands, she notes. “But, of course, in a lot of cases, someone will propose to the other person and one person wears a ring until they get married and then they both wear rings.”
   There are some alternatives, too. “Actually, when it comes to same-sex couples, only 58 percent have a formal proposal and 85 percent pay for it themselves, compared to 13 percent of straight couples,” says Cooper, quoting statistics from The Knot’s June 2014 same-sex marriage report. “So they save their money in order to celebrate their love. As a result, they are statistically less likely to buy engagement rings. I have two sets of same-sex friends who have proposed with watches.”
   Same-sex marriage has not only increased options. It has increased the bottom line. “Hawaii is a state where same-sex marriage is legal and as soon as that law passed, I would say that the same-sex marriage business increased by 10 percent,” says Han. “Before it was legal, couples were buying rings, but they were relationship and commitment rings. So I think it’s good for us and business is getting bigger.
   “Same-sex couples tend to get matching rings more than most other couples do, with diamonds or not,” Han continues. “With guys, they have fewer diamonds and they don’t wear traditional engagement rings. But women get traditional engagement rings. I think most jewelers are afraid of what the market will think of their store if they encourage same-sex marriage, especially in areas that are very conservative. But you know, Tiffany & Co. broke the ice with their ad for same-sex engagement rings and bravo to them.”


   While there are lots of changes afoot in the wedding industry, one thing is still unchanged: Christmas. “Christmas is still standing strong as the most popular time to get engaged,” says Thames. “Not only is it the most magical time of the year, but it is nice to already be around family to show off your ring.”
   Han agrees, but with one caveat. “We find that engagement happens around Christmas, or just before, so couples can share their joy with friends and family. But April and May are also getting strong. Maybe spring is just a mating season. Everyone is optimistic after winter, and as they say, spring is when romance is in the air.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - June 2015. To subscribe click here.

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