Rapaport Magazine

Symbol of love

Modern attitudes toward marriage mean the diamond engagement ring is losing its iconic status, but jewelers say it’s still a top choice.

By Anthony DeMarco

The diamond engagement ring has been the foundation of the US jewelry industry since De Beers came out with its “A Diamond Is Forever” slogan in 1948. Marriage is nearly as certain as death and taxes, and De Beers’ groundbreaking marketing campaigns — combined with the economic growth and population boom that followed the end of World War II — elevated the engagement ring to iconic status among US consumers. It remains a significant part of US culture and has helped spawn a wedding industry valued at approximately $72 billion as of 2016.

However, a lot has changed. De Beers is no longer the dominant player in the diamond industry, and its advertising budget is a fraction of what it was back when Baby Boomers were making diamonds the centerpiece of an increasingly elaborate marriage ceremony. In addition, younger consumers are more socially conscious, and many don’t see the natural diamond engagement ring as a sustainably produced item.

There is also a sense that millennials and the up-and-coming Generation Z are no longer enamored of diamond rings and consider the expense unnecessary. These same consumers are looking for modern and distinct ways to celebrate their marriages, rather than with a ring that looks about the same as the one their grandmother wears. There is a trend toward bucking tradition and opting for “alternative” engagement rings. “For some, it’s a way to save money,” explains a recent feature in The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Others want to tailor their rings to their personalities. In all instances, it’s shaking up the jewelry industry.”

Tradition wins out

The good news for diamantaires is that the vast majority of couples are still going traditional: 71% of engagement rings have a diamond as the center stone, according to this year’s “Newlywed Report” by online wedding resource WeddingWire.

“There are many trends in jewelry, but when it comes to engagement rings, the younger generation in general still places a high value on diamonds,” says Antonio Achille, senior partner of management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. “The explicit meaning of the diamond in marriages is still important.”

This response is a consistent one among retailers, manufacturers and designers.

Even though “customers today have the world literally at their fingertips, a diamond engagement ring continues to dominate the highest levels of choice for most couples,” says Michelle Adorjan Chila, senior vice president of marketing and public relations for bridal-focused jeweler Tacori. “While people like to shop and discover fresh looks and styling options, we have seen no slowing in demand for a classic diamond engagement ring.”

Alex Graham, bridal director at jewelry manufacturer Stuller, believes “the engagement ring will always remain at the core of the industry. The changes in the industry simply mean that the core is expanding, not shrinking.”

Diamond engagement rings are still “a strong symbol of commitment,” agrees Carly Stewart, luxury concierge at Florida retailer Provident Jewelry. “Some couples may take a little more chance with rose gold instead of platinum or white gold, or with an east-west setting, but for the most part, we see it remaining traditional. We really excel in the traditional market.”

Saving it for later

The bad news is that millennials are marrying later in life or are considering not marrying at all. The rate of marriage is declining, from 8.2 marriages per 1,000 people in 2000 to 6.9 in 2016, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the US Centers for Disease Control. In 2016, millennial men were delaying their nuptials until the age of 29.5 on average, and women were deferring until 27.4, as per a report by the Pew Research Center.

Some millennials expect to forgo marriage altogether. In 2012, one in five adults 25 years and older (about 42 million people) had never been married, according to another Pew report, which dubbed the figure a “historic high.”

The result of this decline in marriage is that engagement ring sales in the US are flat, says Achille. However, he continues, other demographic trends may prove favorable for the jewelry industry. For example, many millennials are not making major purchases with the same zeal as the Baby Boomers did. “A generation ago, boomer teenagers were saving money for a car. Millennials don’t buy cars and often don’t buy houses. Jewelry is something they can still invest in.”

New rules

Among the vast majority of people who still consider marriage worthwhile, though, preferences have changed dramatically. For example, the traditional surprise proposal is in decline because more couples are now purchasing a ring together. WeddingWire has put the figure at 20%, but others in the industry believe it is more commonplace.

Charles Stanley, president of De Beers diamond brand Forevermark, says couples have become more realistic and budget-conscious when buying a ring, and that women are more open to alternate style options than men, who tend to lean on tradition. “The purchase of the ring is often made jointly and is balanced against other practical expenses,” Stanley says. “But the man is still insistent on giving the diamond. It’s he who insists it should be a diamond, because he feels that is the right and only way.”

Some of these findings went into the creation of Forevermark’s “I Take You, Until Forever” ad campaign and its new Engagement & Commitment bridal collection, which launched in July. “We’ve reinterpreted what forever means and how modern couples see their relationships together throughout their lives,” says Stanley.

Lisa Bridge, president and CEO of Seattle-based retailer Ben Bridge Jeweler, has likewise noticed major changes in how couples shop for rings.

“The new rules of engagement have changed to reflect that there are no rules. ‘One size fits all’ is over,” she declares. “The world is changing, and we are embracing the fact that more couples are making this exciting shopping experience a joint effort. Today’s couples are creating their own traditions and want the shopping experience to be a memorable and meaningful part of that.” Nonetheless, she adds, “we are still seeing couples desiring to express their love with a diamond ring they can pass down for generations.”

Customization nets customers

Despite the rise of internet shopping, 50% of engaged couples purchase their rings from brick-and-mortar stores, according to WeddingWire. Indeed, the traditional retailer still has a vital role to play, Stanley says, citing findings that while couples frequently do their research on the web, they tend to make their purchases at the store. “[Contrary to] popular perception, they’re not likely to buy online...and the numbers support this. They think it’s important to see the ring in person.”

Yet many do purchase online, with e-jewelers Blue Nile and James Allen among the biggest sellers. This means competition for bridal clients is fierce, and both retailers and e-tailers are engaged in a similar strategy: customization.

Millennial and Gen Z consumers have a strong preference for creating a personal symbol of their love. “Brides don’t have one idea of what their engagement ring ‘should’ look like,” says Bridge. “Today, anything goes.”

Online and traditional retailers have answered this challenge by providing ways for couples to design their own rings through computer-assisted programs. This includes choosing the stone and the design of the shank. Some offer a template of choices, while others go a step further and provide bespoke services.

Ritani, a fine-jewelry company specializing in engagement and bridal, sells directly to consumers online, as well as through approximately 200 independent retailers in the US and Canada — a strategy it describes as “clicks and bricks.”

“We find that for some people, buying an engagement ring online is a lonely experience. This is why we have a network of retailers and our customer service staff to help people who are buying a ring,” says Claire Goldwitz, Ritani’s vice president of marketing and business development. “It’s a very expensive purchase, along with a scary engagement proposal, and there’s anxiety. We want to provide a level of confidence and help. We don’t care what diamond they pick. We’d rather make sure they pick the right diamond and design for what they are trying to achieve with their ring.”

Tacori, meanwhile, is letting couples in on the crafting process at its Glendale, California, headquarters. “Rather than holding audiences away from the curtain, we are working toward actively giving visibility into our design process, our artisans and our family story,” says Chila. “We believe that bringing people into the magic of Tacori in a way that adds value will help even more customers connect powerfully and passionately with our brand of diamond engagement rings.”

Ben Bridge, too, offers customization in its Bella Ponte collection, allowing couples to choose rings based on criteria such as price, design and metal. Using hologram technology, they can create the ring either in a store or online. “The modern couple wants infinite options and to be able to create something completely unique to them versus off the shelf,” Lisa Bridge states.

Beyond the veil

A few jewelers are noticing that women, particularly those with means, are open to updating their engagement rings after a number of years.

“It’s a fairly new trend that brides are not staying with their original engagement ring forever anymore,” says Provident’s Stewart. “Maybe after five years or so, she is willing to change her ring to something more her style. We either sell them something new that is traded against the ring, or they can keep the diamond and we redesign the ring. It’s not one ring forever anymore.”

And brides are finding further ways to personalize their jewelry well beyond the wedding day, according to Chila.

“Perhaps due to the power of Instagram and the beauty of a #RingSelfie, we’ve seen an increase in demand for additional diamond ‘stacking’ rings, such as adding more than one wedding band and adding anniversary band layers to showcase the customer’s personal expression of jewelry styling,” she says.

Committing to a price

Determining price is where things get interesting. There is no shortage of surveys listing the cost of an average diamond engagement ring, and no agreement as to what that cost is. For example, WeddingWire puts the average price at $5,000, which is consistent with Ben Bridge, while Ritani reports it as $6,000. Stanley says a Forevermark diamond engagement ring goes for $5,000 to $10,000 on average, though parent company De Beers put the number at $3,397 in 2017.

One area of consistency is that couples are spending less on engagement rings. McKinsey & Company’s Achille says that’s because the prices of loose diamonds are available to the public and because consumers have the option of choosing their own ring designs. They are no longer reliant on branded retailers to make these choices for them. The “three-month salary” rule, created by the jewelry industry for the jewelry industry, no longer applies.

“In the end, a diamond is a commodity, and the price can be easily compared,” he says. “This is something consumers are increasingly aware of.”

If retail and diamond brands want to compete, he advises, they must translate that commodity into a story that meets the emotional needs of couples getting married.

Adapting the storyFor a long time after the slogan “A Diamond Is Forever” emerged in 1948, advertisements for diamond engagement rings followed a tried-and-true pattern of presenting a diamond as a never-ending sign of love and as a gem that would always keep its value. More than 70 years later, though, this message has had to adapt to a younger, more diverse, more tech-savvy audience that consumes and shares information differently than in the past.

Enter Forevermark’s “I Take You, Until Forever” campaign. Launched in conjunction with the brand’s new Engagement & Commitment collection of engagement rings and wedding bands, it’s not so much a revolution as it is an evolution of a classic De Beers advertisement.

It begins where a typical De Beers ad would have ended: On the beach with a man on one knee, proposing to a woman with a diamond ring. From there, the two-minute video shows scenes of tender moments alongside the challenges and difficult decisions couples make throughout their marriage.

“Forever is no longer a fairytale ending and is instead created through the commitments that a couple makes to one another daily,” says Forevermark president Charles Stanley. “Today, couples feel that ‘my’ diamond means everything to them, and over time, it gains more meaning and is a constant reminder of their ongoing partnership.”

Another difference is that the commercial includes minority, same-sex and mixed-race couples of different ages, at various stages of their lives — including three couples who are together in real life.

Both the advertisement and the new collection — 17 engagement ring designs with center stones ranging from 0.30 to 1 carat, and 11 classic wedding bands — reflect a personal style and long-term commitment, Stanley says. “We very much wanted to be elegant and timeless, reflecting the research we had, [but] with a branding twist that’s not overt. We are looking for the consumer to embrace their own style and reflect their personality, without being overwhelming with customization options.”

Bridal-focused design house Tacori went the more traditional route of a giveaway in its first ad campaign, “Love Tacori.” The brand will award five people $20,000 in jewelry between July and December, a total of $100,000 worth of merchandise. In order to participate, customers have to go to a retailer that sells Tacori jewelry. The idea is to bring the brand’s clients to its retail partners, and to help people better understand the design and craftsmanship of the family-owned business’s products.

“We have the opportunity to build better connections with our current audience, to communicate and engage with new audiences, to embrace new technology, to tell a more relevant story — all in the service of creating the most compelling jewelry experience,” says Tacori’s Michelle Adorjan Chila.

Regional tastes The US is a large country with a diverse population, which means tastes in diamond engagement rings should differ depending on where one lives. To put this theory to the test, online jewelry retailer Blue Nile used its sales data from April 2018 through April 2019 to determine how 11 US cities stacked up when it came to the most popular shapes, settings, metals and carat weights.

Overall trends were consistent with bridal jewelry trends, but when you dig deeper, regional preferences do appear. For example, 66% of US engagement ring buyers specify round cuts, but among other shapes, Dallas, Texas, orders the most emerald-cut diamonds. New Yorkers prefer pear-shaped and radiant-cut stones, while residents of Los Angeles, California, order the most marquise cut diamonds. Oval cuts are the most popular in Chicago, Illinois.

As for size, a resident of Charleston, South Carolina, purchased the biggest diamond this past year: an 8.04-carat princess cut. However, someone in Honolulu, Hawaii, brought the love by ordering the largest heart-shaped diamond during the same period: 4 carats.

Platinum is the most sought-after metal for diamond engagement rings among Blue Nile customers, accounting for 42% of orders nationwide. The most popular city for platinum is San Francisco, California. However, orders for rose gold rings have doubled since 2016, with Atlanta, Georgia, leading the way. In Texas, Dallas orders more white gold than any other city, while Houston orders the most yellow gold.

At 39%, the classic solitaire is the number-one setting nationwide. However, for those who live in Washington, DC, the most popular setting is white gold Riviera pavé. Blue Nile customers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, prefer the vintage-inspired heirloom petite milgrain engagement ring.

“We’ve noticed that engagement ring trends vary based on where our customers reside,” says Blue Nile chief merchandising officer Katie Zimmerman. “It’s those trends that tell a story of their own.”

Which city spends the most?The average customer at jeweler Ritani spends $6,000 on a diamond engagement ring, according to sales data. The company, based in White Plains, New York, determined the average outlay for an engagement ring in 13 cities. The biggest spender was Dallas, Texas, where residents ponied up an average of $12,700; Seattle, Washington, was the most frugal at $6,800.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Dallas, Texas: $12,700
  • Boston, Massachusetts: $10,600
  • Charlotte, South Carolina: $10,500
  • Chicago, Illinois: $9,500
  • Atlanta, Georgia: $9,400
  • Washington, DC: $9,200
  • San Francisco, California: $9,100
  • Denver, Colorado: $8,500
  • Las Vegas, Nevada: $7,900
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: $7,800
  • New York: $7,200
  • Miami, Florida: $7,100
  • Seattle, Washington: $6,800

  • Image: Stocksy; Tacori diamond ring.

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