Reviving Aspirations

An important element in promoting gems and jewelry over the years has been instilling aspirations to ownership of ever better jewelry. De Beers, for one, has always held that developing such aspirations—diamond addiction, they would call it—is a key part of their marketing.

This is a well-conceived notion, and it plays a part in those primordial urges we all get in coveting certain objects, whether it is an Aston Martin, an iPod, or a Rolex.

A report in Women’s Wear Daily about the Basel show got me thinking about this. The article described elated watch manufacturers who said it has been an incredible time for them. They said things like, “If you haven’t made money in the last couple of years, it’s time to quit,” and “Four years ago, to sell a $100,000 watch was an event. Today, it’s just another sale,” and “There is no resistance in terms of price anymore.” I recently saw a Hublot ceramic watch advertised to sell for $160,000, a stunning price even though it has all kinds of attributes. It is clear that watches are booming like never before, and the aspirational urge for watches is to be envied.

I raise this because of repeated comments I hear about jewelry sales being “weak” or “soft.” The contrast with watches is troubling. The issue is a bit more complex than it appears. We know that great brand building by watch companies is part of it; there are good margins to spend on promotion, and there is also an infatuation with technology and complication.

But it isn’t just jewelry. Here are a couple of comments I heard recently.

A dealer in antique china reports that business has died, and it has nothing to do with the economy. He says few people with money today have a good appreciation for the objects he carries. They prefer McMansions and exotic vacations.

An art expert tells me that he was having a great time lately working with an émigré elderly couple from Seattle who came to New York for the first time to buy old masters art works. This expert was enjoying it, because old masters are relatively underpriced these days for lack of buyers.

An antique furniture dealer, exhibiting at the Palm Beach Jewelry & Antique show, said sales were mostly in the very high price ranges. Little else sold. He too said that he no longer sees many experienced and knowledgeable buyers.

An independent dealer in antique jewelry says business has slowed over the last years, and she adds that her competitors say the same thing. The reason? Few people understand what she has to offer.

We can see some common threads here that go beyond jewelry: Our society no longer favors broad education in the liberal arts; there has been a dumbing down of the content we receive in newspapers, TV, and books; and the nouveaux riches seem to show distinctly materialistic tendencies. Conspicuous consumption is definitely in, especially for the super rich.

Worse yet, big brands in everything from handbags to autos are constantly touted in the fashion media, and we are inundated in lifestyle advertising for these competing luxuries. I think Bulgari may have figured it out. Its renovated store in New York has huge windows and an open, inviting appearance. Tiffany, across the street, looks introverted by comparison.

At the root, we make it hard on ourselves. Too few stores show aspirational pieces. Too few make a commitment to showing fine design and educating the public. I find too many stores terribly boring, probably because so many jewelers are concentrating on selling the same old things.

Are we so preoccupied with squeezing out profits that we forget we need to sell aspiration as well?