Budget-conscious self-expression: That's the mindset of today's bridal jewelry shopper. In the increasingly diverse post-recession bridal landscape, there's still plenty of room for individuality within the lower price points many jewelers are reporting and, for some customers, a departure from tradition in their choice of adornment.
Today's bridal customers are different in other ways, too. First-time brides and grooms are older, but that's just scratching the surface of what makes today's bridal business different than ever before. Retailers say more boomers and couples on to second, or third, marriages are walking through their doors, not to mention same-sex couples, who can now get married legally in six states.
During and after the Great Recession, even the supposedly downturn-immune bridal sector took a few lumps, with customers scaling back on the size of stones and the overall amount spent. According to the 2011 Engagement & Jewelry Study from The Knot Market Intelligence, bridal customers spent an average of just under $5,200 last year, compared with $5,800 a few years ago. And consider this: In 2010, the wedding jewelry market, including everything from rings to bridesmaids' gifts, totaled roughly $12 billion, according to Ken Gassman, president of the Jewelry Industry Research Institute.
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Grooms take an average of three months looking for the right ring. Some spend up to six months!
"A lot of retailers, whatever their average size was, saw a drop in size when the economy took a hit," says Sally Furrer, owner of Libby, Mont.–based Sally Furrer Consulting. She adds that this tide is beginning to turn, although she hasn't seen a return to prerecession levels. "I've had some anecdotal responses that they're seeing the average size go up again," she says.
Other retailers report a similar improvement. "The bread and butter of our diamond business is three-quarters to 2 carats, but we've seen increased interest in larger stones," says Matthew Rosenheim, president of Tiny Jewel Box in Washington, D.C. "I would not describe the action as heavy as prerecession, but it's certainly better than it was."
Independent jewelers have another reason to be upbeat: They're the top pick for couples shopping for bridal jewelry, according to The Knot's research. Thirty-nine percent of customers bought engagement rings from local or independent jewelers, beating out the next most prominent category—chain stores—by 4 percentage points. Customers also spent nearly $4,000 more at independent retailers and bought larger stones.
The Knot's research shows 31 percent of brides shop for or purchase their engagement rings, while 34 percent give their partners an idea of what they want. Retailers JCK spoke with say they see even higher numbers of brides scoping out the goods, up to 95 percent. In this more egalitarian era, brides-to-be are equal decision-makers. In addition to shopping together, today's customers are well-armed with facts and online research.
|Platinum Candy mounting with 0.33 ct. t.w. diamonds; $5,605; Alex Sepkus, New York City; 212-391-8466; alexsepkus.com|
|Engagement ring in 18k gold with a 1.05 ct. round ruby and 0.33 ct. t.w. diamonds, $11,700, wedding band in 18k gold with 0.23 ct. t.w. diamonds, $2,550; Omi Gems, Los Angeles; 213-622-4533; omigems.com|
|Omi Gems ring with a 20.03 ct. oval sapphire and 1.22 cts. t.w. diamonds; $300,000||;|
|Platinum tension mounting; $6,625; Steven Kretchmer Design, Scottsdale, Ariz.; 480-998-1548; stevenkretchmer.com|
|6 mm palladium band; starting at $675; Novell, Roselle, N.J.; 888- NOVELL-1; novelldesignstudio.com||;|
|5mm palladium band set with a 0.22 ct. baguette diamond; $2,050; Michele Mercaldo Jewelry, Boston; 617-350-7909; michelemercaldo.com|
But although consumers know what they want, they also desire the experience of seeing and feeling the actual stone and mounting, and trying on pieces in real life. The Knot's research shows that 43 percent of brides do extensive online research, while 34 percent cited jewelry store salespeople as influential. For retailers, this sends a clear message that they need to invest in both an informative, easy-to-navigate website as well as sales and staff training to turn in-store browsers into buyers.
The right sales training is especially important because shopping for bridal jewelry isn't a sprint—it's a marathon. Grooms in The Knot survey spent an average of three months searching for the "right" ring, and 16 percent devoted more than six months to the effort. They visited an average of four stores and looked at 27 different rings. The upshot? Sales associates need to cultivate relationships with browsers even if the effort doesn't lead to a sale that day, that week, or even that month.
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Same-sex couples want the same modern, edgy designs as other bridal customers.
"We don't plant seeds for all the other purchases," says IAS Training president Brad Huisken. "We need to get better at selling items to go with the engagement ring, like wedding bands."
A desire for uniqueness is a Generation Y hallmark, and it shows in the choices bridal customers make. According to The Knot's survey, 41 percent of brides received an engagement ring with at least some degree of customization; of these, 14 percent got a ring that was entirely customized.
But today's customers are still budget-minded, if not to the degree they were a year or two ago. "I think they're being more careful," Phyllis Bergman, president of Mercury Ring, an Englewood, N.J.–based manufacturer, says of today's shoppers. Mindful of the still-tenuous economy, they're willing to compromise—but only up to a point. "Maybe they're going down a bit on the center stone, but they still want the look," she says.
The dwindling size of the center stone—a trend that's been noted by jewelers and consultants alike for a few years—is offset by a growing preference for more ornate mountings and a greater use of accent stones.
"They're very much interested in the mounting," says Deborah Finn, owner of Deborah Finn's Rittenhouse Jewelers in Philadelphia. "Especially first-time marriages, they're looking for something antique-looking, with filigree or beading." She says she sometimes has to dissuade customers from picking a setting so over-the-top that it would eclipse the diamond.
Finn's experience supports the research done by The Knot Market Intelligence: The style and setting of the engagement ring was ranked top priority for 2011 brides, beating out stone quality, stone size, and even value. Finn says this trend gives jewelers who have CAD programs or are otherwise capable of creating custom pieces an edge in attracting these couples.
Necklace with rough diamonds, pavé diamonds, and baroque pearls; $8,000; Jordan Alexander at Fragments, New York City; 212-334-9588; fragments.com
Another mark of individuality is the addition of color to bridal jewelry. Whether inspired by Britain's royal wedding, movie stars' red-carpet gems, or just the lower price point many gemstones offer, the embrace of color is a strong trend, says Michelle Orman, president of Last Word Communications, a New York City–based public relations agency focusing on jewelry and watches. "People aren't afraid to add a little color," she says. "It's such a personal thing."
The skyrocketing price of gold has also led cost-conscious bridal shoppers to search for alternative metals that are both striking and easier on the bank account. "I think men are drawn toward interesting metals," Orman says. The Knot's research confirms this. While women still choose white gold by a wide margin, men are increasingly gravitating toward palladium, titanium, tungsten, and gold in colors beyond white or yellow. "Men aren't afraid of pink gold," Orman says.
As for the burgeoning same-sex market, "it's not so simple to generalize," says Rosenheim, but he concedes that there are a few common threads. Like other bridal customers, same-sex couples seek uniqueness and are willing to push further away from tradition to get what they want. "Sometimes they're more design-driven and less traditional," he says. "I think there's an interest in contemporary, clean, architectural design."
This preference for modern designs dovetails with the designer presence that has reshaped the bridal category in recent years, as well-known names like Stephen Webster have debuted bridal lines, and smaller designers have shaken up the traditional aesthetic with edgy elements like raw diamonds or unconventional mountings.
The other demographic that truly breaks with tradition is composed of brides making their second (or more) trip down the aisle. These customers tend to choose—and sometimes even pay for—their rings themselves, says Finn.
What they want is often bigger, brighter pieces, eschewing the traditional engagement ring in favor of something bold. "She knows exactly what she wants," Finn says of the quintessential second-marriage customer. "She's interested in an important piece of jewelry with a large center stone."
Nine times out of 10, Finn says, the brides-to-be get a bigger stone than their first ring, and they want to call attention to it with the cut: "The shapes I'm seeing are princess cut, radiant cut—more the fancy cuts than round."