In good Faith

Religious medallions and charms are a mainstay for many jewelers. Often these are the first pieces of jewelry a young girl (or boy) receives. Crosses and Stars of David are the most common symbols in religious jewelry design.

But inventories are beginning to reflect the fact that customers’ spiritual beliefs and symbols are becoming increasingly diverse.

While the majority of Americans (87%, according to 1996 figures from the Princeton Religion Research Center) do come from a Judeo-Christian background, 5% prefer other faiths. And while early 20th century immigrants were eager to assimilate into U.S. culture, those of today are more likely to retain their own customs and hold to their Moslem, Buddhist, Confucianist, Jain, Hindu, Sikh or other religious beliefs. This opens new sales opportunities for jewelers who stock appropriate designs and keep in touch with gift-giving occasions tied to religious beliefs.

Even customers who don’t belong to an organized religion may consider themselves to be spiritual and want jewelry that conveys a spiritual message. Others may simply want a traditional symbol that combines art and religion in a sophisticated, designer jewel.

Selling the faith

Do you understand religion in your community? According to the Princeton Religion Research Center, the U.S. has about 500,000 places of worship serving more than 2,000 denominations, including independent churches and faith communities.

Fifty-eight percent of Americans say religion is very important in their lives, 32% say it’s fairly important and only 9% say it’s not important. Women and older Americans are more likely to consider it important.

But it’s not always easy to tap this market. Your competition for selling religious jewelry includes not only other jewelry outlets but also Christian book stores, Judaica shops, church and synagogue gift shops, New Age shops and any other specialty shops that cater to a specific “religious” group.

Here are some tips for competing with these outlets:

  • Church and synagogue bulletins, parochial school yearbooks and other such publications are a good advertising venue to build up a clientele for

  • religious (and other) jewelry. Rates are usually affordable, and congregants are likely to support merchants who support their house of worship.

  • Recognize the various gift-giving milestones of different religions. For example, Roman Catholics often give a religious medallion to commemorate First Holy Communion or a gift of jewelry upon graduation from Catholic high school. Protestants may give a gift to celebrate confirmation or when someone officially joins the church. Jews often give gifts of jewelry or fine pens for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and some congregations also hold confirmation a few years later.

  • If you have a clientele of a faith you’re not familiar with, read up on it before you make a blunder. Or ask your customers to explain their traditions and beliefs. Most are happy to educate you and are pleased that you think enough to ask.

  • Though Christmas is the ultimate gift-giving occasion in the U.S., be sensitive to the fact that not all non-Christians celebrate Christmas. Your efforts to equate a substitute in their faith can be offensive. The most obvious example is Chanukah. It has become assimilated into a Jewish version of Christmas, but it’s actually a relatively minor festival in the Jewish holiday calendar. Beyond small candies or sweets, it was not traditionally a gift occasion, but its December timing made it a convenient substitute for Christmas. Many Jews have adopted the gift-giving habit but find further attempts to “Christmasize” the holiday (blue Chanukah stockings, blue wreaths, stringing blue lights in the window, etc.) offensive.

  • Don’t overlook weddings as an opportunity for religious jewelry gifts, particularly for a devout bridal couple. Wedding bands may have a spiritual message, small medallion charms make good wedding party gifts or perhaps the groom will give his bride a diamond religious pendant.

  • A jewelry gift or fine pen may be an appropriate congratulations for a newly ordained minister or rabbi, especially now that many groups ordain women. (For a new priest or nun, it’s probably best to ask first because some orders take vows of poverty that may conflict with a gift of jewelry.)

  • Be aware of traditions, prohibitions and differences in religious symbols. A crucifix, for example, is the cross with the figure of Jesus and is popular among Catholics. Many Protestants choose to wear a plain cross instead. The Greek Orthodox, Byzantine and other Eastern rite Christian crosses differ from the western Christian versions. Islamic art forbids images of animals or people. The Amish and Mennonites dress plainly and could be offended by a gift of jewelry. Ultra-Orthodox Jews dress modestly, but most have no prohibitions against wearing jewelry.