Inside the Same-Sex Marriage Market: Real-Life Couples Tell All



Real-life same-sex couples dish about their engagement jewelry buying experiences: what they liked, what they didn’t like, and what kind of products appeal to them. (Hint: There’s no such thing as “gay jewelry.”)

“Hi, I’m gay and getting married—do you have a problem with that?” was the question Brendan Kelly, an advertising executive based in New York City, asked every potential vendor while planning his wedding with partner James O’Connell in 2012. 

It was a probe engineered to weed out companies that didn’t support marriage equality—which had passed only the year before in New York. To his relief, “not one person answered ‘yes.’?” 

But the process of planning for his nuptials “was loaded with hesitation,” Kelly says. “Our wedding was the first gay wedding either of us had ever attended. And we didn’t know who was going to be happy for us and who wasn’t.”

When it came to wedding jewelry, there was no template for what same-sex couples should and could buy (many say there still isn’t). Without precedents, etiquette, or ad campaigns to guide them, it came down to whatever jeweler they chose to help them navigate their options.

Kelly and O’Connell researched custom jewelers and eventually asked Wilson & Son Jewelers in Scarsdale, N.Y., to make a brushed platinum engagement band inset with a single diamond for Kelly, along with two high-shine platinum wedding bands (Kelly’s band is unembellished, but O’Connell’s features evenly spaced inset diamonds). The styles, Kelly says, “are traditional, but also feel very personal.”

And the store’s customer service made the buying process fun, he reports. “They were super nice and helpful, but not exaggerated in that [overly eager] way that can feel even more offensive than rejection sometimes,” he says with a laugh. “In the end, you just want to be treated like everyone else.”

Three years later—and less than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2015 that same-sex couples have the right to marry, legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states—relationships between wedding jewelry retailers and same-sex couples are certainly more common. But has the buying experience become less daunting for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender consumers? 

Christos Garkinos, who co-owns the Los Angeles designer consignment store Decades, says the contrast between ring shopping for his first wedding in 2002 and his second wedding in 2015 was “like night and day.”

In 2002, “we were hunting for a place to buy rings—it was all really stressful and we didn’t know who we could go to, so we ended up at a gay jeweler’s store in West Hollywood.”

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Omar Reader and Christos Garkinos model their Cartier three-gold wedding bands.

But in 2015, Garkinos says he “felt like we could go anywhere.” Ultimately he and his fiancé “walked into Cartier in Beverly Hills and got two simple gold bands,” he says. “We bought them in 15 minutes, and the people who worked there couldn’t have been nicer.”

Matthew Perosi-Doughty, president of the Jewelers Equality Alliance, which consults with jewelry companies on how to create welcoming experiences for same-sex couples, says the relationship between retailers and LGBT wedding-jewelry buyers is getting cozier. But the industry still has a ways to go before it can be called truly inclusive, he adds.

“The jewelry industry is usually a little slower to adopt new technology and new ideas,” says Perosi-Doughty, who tied the knot with his own partner in 2012.

One stubborn roadblock: the lack of marketing messaging/shopping invitations from LGBT-friendly retailers. “There are a lot of small jewelers who are open to working with same-sex couples,” he says. “The problem is the LGBT community is not aware of their acceptance. Sometimes they’re not even aware that it’s okay to buy wedding jewelry!”

And retailers who don’t make an effort to connect with LGBT consumers are essentially sacrificing a chunk of a (still largely untapped) revenue stream. 

Nationwide marriage equality is still new, and “from a business perspective, same-sex couples have the potential to be a very lucrative demographic,” says Britten Wolf, owner of BVW Jewelers in Reno, Nev., which last year released an advertising campaign showing two women getting engaged. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of same-sex married couples has nearly doubled since 2012; in September 2015 there were an estimated 252,000 married same-sex couples in the United States—up from 182,000 in 2012.

A major step in becoming a more welcoming retailer, Perosi-Doughty says, is ditching all noninclusive language in your store and your marketing. Ads that push “his and her” sets and use the word bridal, for example, tend to conjure visions of 25-year-old women in billowing white gowns—not exactly an inclusive image. 

Small Changes, Huge Impact

Replacing a word on a display or asking associates to use the word sweetheart instead of girlfriend when referring to a client’s fiancé may feel like trivial tweaks. But such small changes can have a major effect on how comfortable clients feel working with you.

Above all, “gay and lesbian couples don’t want to experience any discrimination or -awkwardness,” says Bernadette Smith, founder and president of the Gay Wedding Institute, which helps connect marriage-minded same-sex couples with LGBT-friendly vendors. For sales associates, that means eschewing notions about gender roles as well as hard-and-fast ideas of what a wedding—and wedding jewelry—should look like.

“Same-sex couples don’t have to follow gender roles.… Anything goes,” Smith says. “As a result, I think it causes a little more apprehension when jewelry shopping.”

Beth Williams, co-owner of a cake company in Hawthorne, N.J., says she and her partner “don’t identify with butch/femme,” or any other label. But both knew what they wanted in their wedding rings: simple matching gold bands. And Williams appreciated that the employees at Kay Jewelers in Paramus, N.J., were “just totally normal” when the couple bought their bands in 2015. “We had all three employees chatting with us,” she remembers. “It wasn’t exaggerated or overwhelming.” 

Jay Dionne, a youth advocate based in Portland, Maine, recalls “how awkward I felt at first, being gay and buying rings” (his choice: a pair of plain white gold bands). But the owner of the jewelry store in Boston “was so professional and supportive. That felt so good.” 

For many same-sex couples, wedding jewelry may be their first foray into buying fine jewelry—which opens up opportunities for the jeweler to act as guide and educator.

When Robert Greenan, an American diplomat who lives in Vienna with his husband, shopped for bands in 2014 at Sid Potts Inc. in Shreveport, La., a “very nice young salesperson named Randy took us under her wing and showed us many rings, explained the metal choices, and gave us good advice on wear-and-tear issues,” he says. Her friendly demeanor and wealth of knowledge made the couple feel confident in their purchases. “She treated us the very same way she would treat any couple. Equality and dignity are pretty ideal.”

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Above: Jackie and Renee Demski; below: their bands, from Baltimore’s Smyth Jewelers. Says Jackie: “We wanted a wedding band with round diamonds to sit up against the sapphire-and-diamond rings we bought years ago.”

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Warm Invitations

Perosi-Doughty knows that depicting same-sex couples in marketing campaigns “can be a delicate [proposition] for many retailers,” particularly outside of big cities. So he recommends taking it slowly. “We say, ‘Listen, you don’t have to have the ad with two guys holding hands.’ It can be subtle—it doesn’t have to be overt.” Imagery that shows a bride or a groom alone, for instance, is a good first step.  

Of course all consumers respond best to messaging they can personally relate to. 

“It would be nice to see more jewelry advertising with two women,” says Jackie Demski, a Baltimore resident who tied the knot with Renee Demski in 2013, shortly after Maryland legalized same-sex marriage (the couple forged their union with matching channel-set diamond bands). “Then you wouldn’t have that question of whether the store was [pro-marriage equality] or not.” 

What LGBT consumers don’t want is advertising or marketing messages “covered in rainbows or gay pride,” laughs Williams. Garkinos says he’s also turned off by campaigns that seem to scream, “They’re gay, they must want fabulous rings!” He adds: “Maybe some guys do, but I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that is so much ring.’?”

Styles for Miles

Being inclusive in your sales and marketing is imperative. But be sure your store has the goods—a wide-ranging selection of rings and bands—when same-sex couples come to shop.

Retailers confused about what LGBT consumers want in wedding jewelry can take comfort in knowing that “there is no gay jewelry,” LGBT-focused jewelry designer Rony Tennenbaum said in a recent Plumb Club seminar. “Rings are rings—they don’t stand up and dance. They don’t wear rainbow skirts.”

Williams and her partner wanted diamond engagement rings, but she was looking for a ring with detailing in the shank, while her partner asked for a plain shank with “a diamond that was up on a Y-shaped pedestal.” To create both, they turned to a jeweler working an -independent booth at The Jewelry Center in Paramus, N.J. “I told her I was buying a ring for my girlfriend right away,” Williams recalls, “and she couldn’t have been more helpful.”

The exchange fueled the profound gratitude Williams felt at every stage of her wedding planning: “I feel really blessed to live in the time we do, where I can marry the person I love.” 

Top of page: O’Connell and Kelly: Photograph by Maria Sliva; Garkinos and Reader and their rings: Photograph by Stefanie Keenan; Demskis and their rings: Photographs by KellyBurnsPhoto.com

 

Talk the Talk

Tips for creating an LGBT-inclusive sales culture in your store 

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Matthew Perosi-Doughty and his husband Jamie’s engagement and wedding rings

Interview Your Staff

Before undertaking any sales training for working with same-sex couples, ask your employees a few questions, says Matthew Perosi-Doughty, whose Jewelers Equality Alliance educates retailers on how to work with same-sex couples. “Ask if they know any gay people, and see if you get an uncomfortable shuffle or if they avert their eyes. Any prejudices your staff has are going to hurt the store.”

Give a Pop Quiz

Perosi-Doughty suggests asking sales associates: What’s the first question you ask a guy who walks in and says he wants to buy an engagement ring? “If answers include the pronoun her—as in ‘What’s her name?’ or ‘Do you know what she likes?’—point out that they’ve already made an assumption about that client.” Dropping those pronouns “is an easy thing to change,” he says. “You’re just giving them some new vocabulary they can use with everyone.”

Study Up

Make sure everyone is up to date on appropriate LGBT terminology. When you’re comfortable with inclusive language, you’re better equipped to make sales and earn repeat customers. For reference, check out jealliance.com, which features a Gay Lexicon for retailers and also hosts GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide. Print and disseminate.

Take It Easy

Same-sex couples want what all couples want—beautiful, personal-feeling jewelry and friendly, helpful service. “You just want to make sure your store is welcoming,” Perosi-Doughty says. “You’re not doing everything differently.” In other words, wheel reinvention not required. —EV