Diamond Branding Explodes

For a product—diamonds—once considered “un-brand-able,” the sheer creativity and variety of the new sightholder initiatives is staggering. There are branded loose diamonds, branded set diamonds, retail “co-brands,” even branded treatments. There are new ways to present diamonds, new machines that measure them, and new occasions to give them. There are completely new cuts, excavated old ones, plus brands based on origin, gemology, and almost everything else.

It’s all the result of De Beers’ “Supplier of Choice” initiative. The strategy, unveiled in June 2000, calls for sightholders to share De Beers’ marketing burden and find new ways to increase demand. Two years later, there’s a flood of new initiatives, with so many at the recent JCK Show that two sightholder breakfasts were scheduled for the same time.

“There are some very strong programs coming out,” says Dominic Brand, De Beers’ marketing director for North America and Europe. “Overall, we are pleased.”

How much is too much? While the trend toward branding—and many of these initiatives—pre-date “Supplier of Choice,” De Beers’ directive has clearly kicked things into high gear. And it’s not only sightholders that have leapt into branding but also retailers (Zale, Asprey) and even miners (including De Beers itself). In fact, there are so many new programs that some worry this may be, like the jewelry dot-com explosion of 1999, another case of too much too soon.

The pages of Town and Country are already so stuffed with jewelry ads that even tradespeople are overwhelmed. Could the growing din from the diamond industry create not consumer interest, but confusion? And could an industry that once had almost no brands now have a glut? “There isn’t room in the marketplace for 30 brands,” sightholder Hertz Hasenfeld told the AGS Conclave in Vancouver, echoing the thoughts of many of his colleagues. “In a number of years, the marketplace will be littered with failed brands.

Skeptics note that even experienced marketers sometimes stumble when introducing a brand—never mind diamond dealers just taking their first steps on the learning curve. Brand building requires large amounts of money and patience, and some aren’t sure whether dealers accustomed to the fast-paced diamond industry will want to pour money into projects that may not pay off for years—if ever. “Are these sightholders going to spend the millions they need to really build something?” asks Elizabeth Chatelain, of Palo Alto, Calif.-based MVI Marketing. “There isn’t that much profit in the industry. A lot of people say they have a brand, but they have no idea what that means and what it really takes.

Branding is still a new concept in the diamond industry—and to many, an unproven one. “You are just coming off a period where customers are going to retailers with a Rap sheet and asking how much they are getting a discount off Rap,” notes Chatelain. “Now you are saying that they are not only not getting a discount off Rap but they will pay a premium for a branded product. I don’t know if the consumer will be jumping up and down, especially for a product that you can’t tell is branded once it’s mounted in a ring.”

Not yet at retail. For now, branding is mostly a wholesale phenomenon; even the biggest brands claim only a few hundred stores. But retail support may be crucial. “If this is going to work, it will be because the retailers feels comfortable enough in selling the brand,” says Chatelain. “In the end, those 10 feet of counter space will make the difference.”

American jewelers always have had a certain wariness of brands, with many saying the only name they want to promote is their own. But De Beers argues brands have certain benefits for retailers: they “de-commodify” diamonds, improve margins, and give salespeople something to talk about besides whose diamonds are cheapest.

No matter what happens with the new initiatives, some feel this exercise is already a success of sorts, because it has persuaded sightholders to think more about the end consumer. In the past, sightholders rarely had marketing budgets. Now virtually all do. “This lets sightholders appreciate more of the pipeline,” says Chatelain. “It takes them out of a myopic rough-cutter mentality and brings them into the real world.”