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2021’s Diamond Person of the Year

There were many who powerfully influenced the market in the past year, but one candidate stood out from the rest.

Dec 30, 2021 5:16 AM   By Avi Krawitz
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RAPAPORT... Twelve months ago, the world seemed set for a fresh start after an exhausting 2020. President Joe Biden had won a contentious election, promising to fix the economy, improve the response to Covid-19, and restore some calm to the Oval Office after the volatile Donald Trump years. And if they couldn’t beat the pandemic, people across the globe were at least learning to live with it.

In hindsight, however, 2021 was anything but calm, even if it seems to have passed as a blurry continuation of the previous year. In fact, it was arguably extraordinary, with historic scenes that could define the decade.

There were ugly incidents mixed in with the awe-inspiring. Who could forget the January 6 storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, the messy US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the civil war in Ethiopia, or the destruction numerous extreme weather events left in their wake? And, of course, the Delta and Omicron variants ensured that Covid-19 continued to dominate the headlines.

But it was a year that also saw the first private space tourists, the fastest vaccine rollout in history, a thrilling Olympic Games — even without fans in the stadiums — and then a return of spectators to live sports and music events. And just as we started to get used to the office-home work hybrid, we were introduced to the reality-virtual one. In a highly publicized rebranding, Facebook staked its claim to the metaverse, and artwork as nonfungible tokens (NFTs) sold for tens of millions of dollars at Christie’s. Yes, those are pieces that only exist in a virtual world — but we should expect more of that in 2022.

It was an especially extraordinary time for the diamond and jewelry trade. The industry had its best year in over a decade, with strong retail sales boosting polished demand and rough trading. So, when the Rapaport editorial team sat down to discuss who should be our person of the year, there was really one choice that stood out above the rest.

Others offered serious credentials, mind you, as there were important themes that took center stage in our news coverage during the year.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues were arguably the most prevalent of those, as 2021 marked a positive shift in the industry’s attitude toward sustainability and responsible-sourcing programs. De Beers dedicated its annual Diamond Insight Report — and much of its public relations — to the topic. Meanwhile, the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) effectively harnessed its membership and outreach to spread awareness. We consequently considered as a nominee Iris Van der Veken, the RJC’s thoughtful, soft-spoken, yet forceful CEO who has raised the organization’s profile and, with it, the industry’s strategy on responsible sourcing.

Diversity was also a central theme during the year, with the work of the Black in Jewelry Coalition (BIJC) gaining traction at a grassroots level and more women being appointed to leadership roles. Signet Jewelers, under the guidance of Gina Drosos, has been singled out for enforcing this, and Drosos herself could be a contender for person of the year, considering the brilliant turnaround she’s inspired at Signet.

We looked at other brands to assess whether any of them had created a buzz worthy of the top prize. Pandora grabbed attention when it launched its first lab-grown diamond line, with CEO Alexander Lacik stressing the environmental benefits they offered over natural diamonds. But Pandora was barely in natural diamonds in the first place, and its PR hype very quickly died down.

Tiffany & Co., on the other hand, emerged from its takeover by LVMH with a renewed edge and sex appeal, and a penchant for pushing the limits. Some of the campaigns launched under new CEO Anthony Ledru were not so well received – for example, “Not Your Mother’s Tiffany” drew criticism for alienating the jeweler’s older devotees while it attempted to appeal to Gen Z-ers. But many were. Its April Fool’s tease about a change in its signature color proved to be a cheeky introduction to its new yellow collection. And its partnership with Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z reminded us how effectively A-listers can advocate for diamonds.

The miners also had their moments in 2021, though their activity was hardly as glamorous. There have been notable efforts to change the way rough diamonds are sold, but there’s a long road ahead on that score; breaking tradition takes time. That said, the profit-sharing deals on big stones between Lucara Diamond Corp., HB Antwerp and LVMH, as well as between Lucapa Diamond Company and Safdico, have introduced new life into the rough sector’s approach to business. We also considered Rio Tinto and its head of diamonds, Patrick Coppens, as a tribute to the Argyle mine, which closed a year ago, and its pink diamonds, whose prices soared yet again at their final sale.

Taking a different direction, we thought of tipping our hats to the “return to normal.” Sarin Bachmann’s team organized the JCK show under trying circumstances. While traffic was understandably down, wholesalers and designers who exhibited, along with dealers and jewelers who came to buy, confirmed the strong momentum in the US market.

The show was an important moment during the year, but it merely reflected the positive mood rather than influencing it. The incredible spike in demand for diamonds and jewelry was the real takeaway. And that has been a constant throughout 2021. Retail jewelers have seen double-digit growth over pre-pandemic levels, and the momentum has continued through the holiday season. Jewelry sales rose 32% year on year from November 1 to December 24 and were up 26% from 2019, according to Mastercard SpendingPulse.

Many elements have played into the uptrend. Households received government stimulus checks; they saved during the lockdowns of 2020 and have not spent on travel and other experiences the way they might have; there is pent-up demand for weddings, so more couples got engaged; and there is a strong desire to shop in person again after being stuck at home. The list goes on. But ultimately, the boost for the industry came from the resilience of the US consumer.

The US accounts for some 51% of global diamond-jewelry sales, according to the latest De Beers’ Insight Report. The industry relies heavily on that market, and it very rarely disappoints. This past year has brought renewed interest in diamonds and a recognition that jewelry is truly a way to express one’s individuality and authenticity.

The trade can credit itself for telling better stories, being more engaged marketers and bringing innovative design to the market. Those factors surely contributed to the growth. But ultimately it was the resilient US shopper who made the difference. No one else had quite the same impact on the industry. For that reason, our 2021 diamond person of the year must be: The American Consumer.

Images: Avi Krawitz and a diamantaire holding a diamond. (Ben Kelmer, Shutterstock)
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Tags: Avi Krawitz, De Beers, diamonds, facebook, JCK, Jewelry, NFT, Pandora, President Biden, Rapaport, Rio Tinto, Tiffany & CO.
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