Rapaport Magazine
In-Depth

The skinny on 2021

Rapaport Magazine takes a deep dive into five diamond-world developments from the year that was.

By Rachael Taylor


Image: Karla Ticas

Another step for diversity was the rise of the Black in Jewelry Coalition. An impressive roster of industry heavyweights founded the organization at the end of 2020, and the last year saw it offer several initiatives, including digital programs tackling racism in the workplace, and design competitions to win vital precious materials. The group also teamed up with the Gemological Institute of America (GIA) to provide distance-education scholarships.

Celebrity jeweler Lorraine Schwartz took up the cause as well. In a project called the Emerging Designers Diamond Initiative, she partnered with the National Diamond Council (NDC) to pledge $1 million worth of support to designers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). In October, the first cohort of six jewelers presented their creations in a Moda Operandi trunk show.

Even Beyoncé got involved. The singer collaborated with Schwartz and the GIA to create a scholarship for two Black jewelers to study at the institute.

Sotheby’s debuts sale of jewels by Black designers

Black jewelers have long been fighting for greater exposure, equal footing and a shot at the big time. In 2021, there was good news on that front, with several initiatives promoting diversity in the trade.

One such project was “Brilliant & Black: A Jewelry Renaissance.” The Sotheby’s New York selling exhibition — which journalist and author Melanie Grant spearheaded in partnership with the auction house’s director of jewelry, Frank Everett — presented the work of 21 Black jewelry designers in September.

The showing was in New York, but the attention it garnered was global. While some may have been concerned that the event would be an exercise in color-washing from an organization founded long before slavery ended, it was in fact a glittering showcase of world-class jewelers at the top of their game, who happened to be Black as well.

The pieces up for sale were accordingly high-quality. Designer Maggi Simpkins wasn’t messing around when she created a ring with a 2.43-carat, fancy-pink diamond for the occasion, and its $1 million price ticket targeted a fresh audience of high-net-worth individuals.

Pandora taps lab-grown, drops mined stones

Just as right battled left in global politics in 2021, the jewelry industry had its own info wars as natural diamonds squared off against laboratory-grown ones. At times, the volley of “facts,” data and emotions was so constant, one almost got whiplash trying to keep up.

The NDC ran a pincer strategy, shimmying at consumers with expensively glossy ad campaigns and an editorial-style website, all the while using partnerships with trade organizations to hammer jewelers with legislative-sounding nomenclature warnings. Those in favor of lab-grown stones stood their ground, trying to shore up the argument that man-made diamonds were more environmentally friendly despite NDC data suggesting otherwise.

In one glorious month — April — the US’s National Advertising Division (NAD) rapped Diamond Foundry on the knuckles following an NDC complaint about the lab-grown producer’s murky rhetoric, and then weeks later publicly took the NDC to task for its environmental claims after Diamond Foundry lodged its own complaint.

One of the major flash points between the two camps came when global jewelry brand Pandora announced in May that it was launching a collection featuring lab-created diamonds, and discontinuing its use of natural ones. What the brand had likely hoped would be a popular PR story turned sour when its fairly tame press release about “aiming to transform the market for diamond jewelry with affordable, sustainably created products” provoked a furor.

Needless to say, the NDC weighed in on the issue, as did the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) and the International Diamond Manufacturers Association (IDMA), all crying out for retractions in a joint statement. By claiming that lab-grown stones were sustainably superior, Pandora was disparaging the mined-diamond industry and the communities it supported, the statement argued, accusing the Danish jeweler of creating “confusion.”

Going against the precedent of other parties in this sparkling info war, Pandora responded with silence.

GemFair program sees first rough sale

In October, we witnessed a meeting between two traditionally opposing sides of the diamond mining industry: large-scale producers and artisanal miners. The convergence came with the first tender from GemFair, a new initiative by the De Beers Group.

What GemFair aims to do, according to the marketing video on its website, is empower smaller diamond mining communities by hooking them up with the international market. Mining communities receive a kit that includes a tablet with the GemFair app so they can document diamond finds — including a swift selfie with the rock — and QR code-tagged bags for securing the gems. They can then sell the diamonds to GemFair, which uses blockchain technology to create a provenance record as the stones shuffle up the supply chain.

Following a pilot in Sierra Leone in 2018, the project is now underway at 200 sites across the country. In October, the first fruits of this initiative came to market, and the tender completely sold out, including an 11-carat stone.

While the strong provenance and uplifting ethics can make solid selling points for consumers, GemFair has little interest in being a brand; what it cares about is getting the money on behalf of the miners. As such, those who buy the stones are under no obligation to disclose them as GemFair goods.

This is a sharp contrast to other ethically minded strategies such as Fairtrade gold or the female-led Moyo Gems operation in Tanzania. However, the model of a company that’s commercial rather than charitable may be just what the artisanal sector needs. Visiting miners from poverty-stricken regions giving heartfelt anecdotes during fundraisers might make us Westerners feel smug about championing conscious consumerism, but a decent cash flow would make more of a difference in their lives than worthy press coverage. GemFair is perhaps one instance where cold-hearted capitalism can bring about genuinely heart-warming change.

De Beers says ‘I do’ to new marketing campaign

The lion’s share of the commercial bridal market still consists of heterosexual couples who intend to marry in the traditional manner. However, the marketing of commitment jewels is undergoing a revolution, becoming more inclusive of alternative sexualities, genders and relationship types.

The number of people who do not fit the cookie-cutter image of bride and groom is on the rise. While 70 years ago, married couples accounted for about 80% of US households, that number was 49% in 2020, the country’s Census Bureau shows. Meanwhile, Americans identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender increased by a percentage point between 2017 and 2020 to hit 5.6% of the population, according to a Gallup poll.

These numbers indicate that our definition of love is changing. And an industry that relies on love for the majority of its income should embrace those changes, rather than fall behind the times.

The De Beers Group is certainly wise to this. In November, it launched a purposefully ambiguous campaign that will continue to roll out across key markets in 2022. While the main tagline, “I Do,” has its roots in matrimony, the ads also use the wording “to cherish bonds that last,” alongside imagery that could suggest any number of relationship types, from romantic couplings to family bonds and self-love. As CEO Bruce Cleaver stated at the time, “today, we see a new generation of consumers who wish to communicate a wider commitment: a commitment to their own personal development, to their friendships, to their families, to society, and to the natural world.”

101-carat diamond goes for $12 million in cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), jewelry collections launching inside video games — it suddenly feels as though hard luxury is becoming more ethereal. And while these concepts may be a brain teaser for many of us, there were some jewelry opportunists in 2021 racing to dominate the space — or at least to create voguish fodder for marketing plans.

As a chunk of the industry still wrestles with the merits of PayPal and Klarna, others are now accepting cryptocurrency in lieu of dollars. In June, both New York’s Jacob & Co and Belgian brand Baunat announced that customers could use this new form of currency to buy the companies’ luxury jewels and watches. Family jewelry stores soon followed suit, including Wisconsin’s Chalmers Jewelers, North Carolina’s Reeds, and New York’s Jewelry Affairs. Yet the question remained: Was this just posturing, or were there crypto consumers ready to drop Bitcoin or Ether on jewels?

By July, we had our answer. Auction house Sotheby’s sold a 101.38-carat, flawless diamond from manufacturer Diacore to an anonymous buyer for $12.3 million. Other than the diamond’s massive size — it was the second-largest pear shape ever to sell publicly — what made the sale headline-worthy was that the purchaser paid in cryptocurrency. By accepting this payment method, the auction house was expanding its “reach into a whole new clientele, many of whom are from the digitally savvy generation,” commented Wenhao Yu, deputy chairman of jewelry for Sotheby’s Asia.

Another player that set its sights on Generation Z last year was Pandora. The collectible-jewelry brand has been investigating a number of routes to younger consumers, including launching a collection via the Animal Crossing computer game in September. The brand created its own “island” in the game, along with digital jewels and clothing, and a virtual version of its Chang Mai factory for players to explore.

Meanwhile, in New York, Saida Mouradova of jewelry brand Object & Dawn collaborated with DRESSX to sell virtual editions of physical jewels, allowing shoppers to download them for a 10th of the price.

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - January 2022. To subscribe click here.

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