How designers are connecting to millennial jewelry shoppers more organically than ever
Today’s young adults communicate and consume differently than any other age group, so it makes sense that they shop for jewelry differently. A new crop of millennial designers is redefining the look and feel of fine jewelry by embracing a throwback aesthetic that prizes rustic, sustainable, and handmade over cookie-cutter glitz. With compelling backstories and a wide reach on social media, this new generation of designers is garnering attention—and sales.
“I strive to make jewelry that has timeless appeal even though it’s rooted in modern aesthetics,” says Vanessa Gade, a 34-year-old designer who started her company eight years ago.
Twine & Twig designers and sisters Elizabeth Stafford White and Jacquelyn Stafford Buckner
The San Francisco–based Gade says she sees a shift in how today’s consumers, especially those in her age bracket, relate to jewelry. “Today, especially, we’re so saturated in a consumer market and it can be easy to mindlessly purchase something,” she says. “When you’re surrounded by that and have so many options, you want to have a connection to the piece you’re purchasing. People want to know that what they’re choosing says something about them and reflects their values.”
This observation, in a nutshell, sums up the millennial buyer’s mindset. But what does that look like in a display case, or on an Instagram feed? Designers, retailers, and marketing experts weigh in on what millennials want when shopping for jewelry.
New designers are turning their backs on the polished and precise, instead creating work with a deliberately rough-hewn appearance.
“They look handmade, they look like a person made them, and I feel like that’s of value for people my age,” says Kate Ellen, the 33-year-old founder of Crown Nine in Oakland, Calif., where she sells the work of other young designers as well as her own. “I think when they can see that a human being made it, even if it’s irregular, they value that.”
Aperture Necklace in sterling silver on 17-inch chain; $176; Vanessa Gade, San Francisco; 858-229-9670; vanessagade.com
Ellen’s work pairs delicate, often angular lines with textured finishes that look hammered or resemble wood grain.
“There’s no machine—we’re not getting them from China,” says 33-year-old Jacquelyn Stafford Buckner, who cofounded Twine & Twig with her sister Elizabeth Stafford White, 36, in 2013. Their one-of-a-kind necklaces mix wood, suede, shells, and other natural elements with oversized beads.
“It is a kind of new generational thing,” Buckner says. “Now people are trying to get something a little more unique and original. Our generation wants that organic, raw look.”
Young buyers also want to know that getting the look doesn’t mean compromising their integrity. “Conflict-free stones and recycled gold are important to this generation because it turns your jewelry from a thing of beauty into a statement piece about who you are and what you stand for,” says millennials researcher and strategist Jason Dorsey.
“We built our business on this premise four years ago, and we still find that the demand for non-conflict jewelry and transparent sourcing continues to grow,” says Lindsay Daunell, co-owner of D&H Sustainable Jewelers in San Francisco. “Nowadays we have instant access to information when it comes to all facets of our lives, and we see that our clients also expect this to be true when it comes to their jewelry purchases.”
Pyramid Sand Casted Solitaire in 14k sand-casted gold with hammered textured band; $990; Kate Ellen Metals, Oakland, Calif.; 510-251-9000; crown-nine.com
Retailers can expect this to be an increasingly common customer trait as millennials’ spending power grows over the coming years. “This expectation for transparency is largely driven by the pervasiveness of instant rating and reviews for everything, social media addiction, and mobile technology,” Dorsey says.
Unlike generations that came before them, millennials are, for the most part, globally conscious consumers. “They’re not as selfish as everybody thinks,” says Christine Hassler, a Gen Y expert and speaker. “Millennials place a big value on making an impact and contributing to things that are important to them.”
Nonconformity Is the New Black
Millennials, of course, are the generation that grew up being able to customize something as basic as their morning coffee to the nth degree, so it’s no surprise that millennial designers place a premium on pieces that are as unique as they consider themselves to be.
“I think one of our biggest appeals is they’re all one of a kind, but all of the materials we use are all natural, so there’s always some variation,” White says.
One-of-a-kind earrings in platinum with 1.94 cts. t.w. pink sapphires and hand engraving; $6,700; D&H Sustainable Jewelers, San Francisco; 415-500-2550; dnhjewelers.com
The extra time and communication that go into creating a one-of-a-kind piece also help the customer form a relationship with the retailer or designer, says Daunell, who estimates that D&H’s custom design department accounts for more than half the store’s revenue. “I think millennials, and perhaps all generations, desire this more and more in today’s digital age.”
Today’s young adults are drawn to brands with compelling personal narratives. They don’t just want to buy a necklace or a pair of earrings; they want a backstory that reinforces the connection they feel with the piece.
“For example, the jewelry brand Alex and Ani—each bracelet has a story,” Hassler says. “You’re not just selling jewelry but selling a story along with it.”
At D&H, it’s clear that clients’ interest in jewelry grows exponentially once they know more about it. “I think this goes back to the idea of transparency in sourcing as well as the desire to support something meaningful—a local artist, an art form, an ethical commitment, and so on,” Daunell says.
By integrating a sense of storytelling into the sales effort, jewelers are fostering connections with their customers that have value long after the transaction is complete. “When we’re selling something that evokes so much emotion, it’s imperative that the brand have a conversation with the end consumer,” says jewelry veteran Daniel Gordon, sales manager and social media planner at Diamond Cellar in Columbus, Ohio.
Building Social Buzz
For many young designers, these conversations are taking place online. Millennials might be the first generation to grow up with the Internet, but they don’t see screens as a barrier to intimacy; so designers use social media to personally connect with customers in a way that would have been unthinkable years ago.
“I like the ability to give an insight into what goes on inside the studio, particularly on Instagram or Facebook,” Gade says. Snapping selfies at work, she develops a sense of intimacy by giving fans a behind-the-scenes peek at her creative process.
Prism moonstone necklace in 14k gold fill on 32-inch chain; $150; Leah Alexandra Jewellery, Vancouver; 604-771-7373; leahalexandra.com
After posting pics on Instagram, “I definitely notice an increase in sales,” says Vancouver-based designer Leah Alexandra. “It helps build the brand for retailers.… I’ve even acquired new retailers through Instagram.”
Retailers benefit when young designers have already built a pool of potential customers through these channels.
“In this time of innovation and instant access to information, it is really important to us that our designers are very responsive with regards to communication and lead time,” Daunell says. “We rely on our designers to be partners with us in meeting this new client demand.”