Are We Listening to the Echo?

I spent many days at the summer trade shows and listened carefully to what suppliers and retailers had to say. Business is strange. Some people are doing very well while others are struggling or worse. We’ve heard about all the megatrends in the business, but that’s background. Some people say the winners are the branders. While there is much truth to that, intuition tells me there is a more primal movement at work.

Not long ago I was in New York’s Central Park enjoying a beautiful afternoon. I sat for a while and people-watched. It was a colorful and diverse parade—elderly couples in full sporty regalia; runners and ballplayers; and countless young couples, many with children in tow. It was a warm afternoon, so T-shirts, flip-flops, and shorts were the common dress. Then I began to notice the large number of people —young and not so young—who had tattoos.

Even setting aside my own predilections, I wonder at this kind of personal statement. It is a mixture of revolt, thrill-seeking, eroticism, and, I suspect, boredom. At the least, it is a clear departure from the social norms of the recent past. It is not unlike going to the theater and seeing people in shorts and flip-flops. I have been in business meetings and seen the same. We have all seen old photos of baseball games where the men wore hats, jackets, and ties. Social norms do change—witness the hippie revolution of the 1960s—but what is this one about, and what does it mean for our industry?

These trends do prove once again that conformity counts. Jewelry has at times been the beneficiary of conformity, most recently with the symbolism attached to bling. Even people who are not jewelry wearers buy engagement rings. It’s just the thing you must do.

But recent in-depth reports by The Economist and Los Angeles Times (which started an extensive series of articles in early August on the thinking of teens and young adults) suggest that the echo generation, the children of the boomers, are a new breed that will not play by our rules. Their main communication is with their own peers, via e-mail, text messaging, and blogs. They are not listening to the establishment when it comes to spending money. They create their own brands and do not buy into trumped-up brands and invented images. Many have stopped wearing watches, since their cell phones are drawn quicker than John Wayne’s six-shooter.

The Economist offers a lengthy piece on the quickly fading middle class—that bulwark of social stability. The article suggests that the serious shift in wealth has left the middle class carrying the heaviest burden, one that will, of necessity, alter the value judgments made by many people.

The real test, for us, is what happens in the field. Many jewelers have already made up their minds and are largely abandoning the middle class. They have moved to upscale neighborhoods, built beautiful stores, dropped any 14k products, and sought out upscale lines.

These stores still target the boomers. There is much to be said for that, as that generation has lots of money. But listen well to the echo. Ben Janowski has spent more than 34 years in the diamond and jewelry industry. For the last 14 years he has been a business consultant focusing on strategic planning for the U.S. market.

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