The market for same-sex marriage and commitment jewelry heats up
With same-sex marriage now legal in nine states as well as the District of Columbia, and with the issue likely to be addressed in the near future by the Supreme Court, wedding jewelry for same-sex couples is moving from a niche market into the mainstream.
“We’re definitely seeing an uptick,” says Matthew Rosenheim, president of Tiny Jewel Box in Washington, D.C. “Gay marriage passed in the district, and we’re starting to see people take advantage of it. A lot of people come in excited to celebrate the fact that they can get married.”
As a growing—or possibly still untapped—demographic, same-sex wedding jewelry is an area designers and retailers say they can’t afford to overlook.
Tradition Meets the Unconventional
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Designers and shop owners alike say that tradition dies hard; just like straight couples, most gay and lesbian couples want rings to symbolize their union. “Rings are a very powerful symbol,” says Rony Tennenbaum, a New York City–based designer who focuses on the same-sex wedding market with his contemporary, clean-line jewelry.
That said, Tennenbaum observes that same-sex couples might not feel bound to follow convention in their marriages or commitment ceremonies. “The rings usually are different than traditional engagement and wedding rings,” he says. “They really want to find something that’s atypical. The gay community—they’re really trendsetters, they’re early adopters.”
Designers and retailers who do a lot of same-sex wedding business say they’ve fielded the occasional request for cuff bracelets, keychains, and even a tiara intended as wedding jewelry. Some couples may opt for a sort of compromise—e.g., wearing rings on chains as necklaces. But this is relatively rare. Tennenbaum estimates that only a handful—5 percent at most—of his customers want to mark their wedding or commitment ceremony with something other than rings.
The Engagement Ring Question
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“The main difference is same-sex couples will more often buy matching bands,” says Cherry LeBrun, owner of De Novo in Palo Alto, Calif. “We don’t really see them buy engagement rings.”
Deborah Finn, owner of Deborah Finn’s Rittenhouse Jewelers in Philadelphia, says she notices a gender-based difference when it comes to engagement rings. “Men don’t do the engagement rings,” she says. “Women—we like the rock.” Female couples often will get matching engagement rings, she adds.
Tennenbaum encourages couples of both genders to embrace engagement rings as well as wedding bands. “When I went out and started this niche, it really was to define engagement and wedding rings.… It’s not yet an established etiquette,” he says. On the question of engagement rings for two men or two women getting married, “that’s one of the things I promote,” he says.
“I do a lot of work with stacking rings,” says Philip Crangi, a New York City–based designer. It’s an unconventional alternative that lets same-sex couples appropriate the engagement ring tradition on their own terms. Crangi says both male and female clients have asked him to design engagement rings as well as wedding bands.
“For male couples, usually I’ll make each of them a simple ring that’s like the engagement ring and then the wedding band,” he says. “I’ve done some female couples where both get diamond engagement rings and then wedding bands.” One of his signature pieces—a forged iron band lined with gold—is a popular look with both men and women, he adds.
Going Beyond the Band
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The trend for one-of-a-kind pieces, which designers say has become more prevalent in the bridal category in general, is especially strong for the same-sex market. “I’m seeing a trend toward custom bands. More than the other sectors, they really seem to like something custom,” says Finn, who specializes in custom work.
“The desire for people to imprint their own personal style is an overall trend,” says Rosenheim. “We’re definitely seeing it take hold with gay and lesbian clients as well.”
So even if engagement rings aren’t part of the nuptial plans, says Finn, there are other ways savvy retailers can grow their business beyond just wedding bands: tapping into same-sex couples’ desire for unique pieces, for one.
For her female clients, pendants are popular. “A lot of times, what I’ll do is a custom disc necklace and put their birthstones together in it, or a gemstone rainbow.” Male couples, she says, prefer cuff bracelets or keychains that incorporate paired birthstones as a complement to wedding bands. “A lot of men like color but they feel it’s too feminine to wear,” she says. An understated matte gold keychain inset with gemstones “allows the men to wear color without being too feminine.”
Pierre-Yves Paquette, a designer based near Montreal, specializes in mixed-metal creations and the Japanese mokume-gane technique, which gives jewels a wood-grain appearance. His most unusual request, he says, was for a sterling silver tiara for one half of a female couple—a piece that referenced the first time the two women met.
Rolling Out the Welcome Mat
Retailers say catering to same-sex couples isn’t all that big of a jump from traditional bridal jewelry sales, but there are a couple of key distinctions. “In dealing with same-sex couples, your dynamics are different,” Tennenbaum says. “What I always try to explain is that as a retailer you’re used to everyone knowing their role.” But with same-sex couples, he says, you can’t make assumptions about what will or won’t be important to them. (The difference of opinion over engagement rings is a good example of this.)
Even figuring out what to call this market can be a challenge. Jewelers tend to refer to it as wedding or commitment jewelry. Commitment is a more event-neutral term—which can be a plus or a minus, depending on how aggressively an owner wants to court this demographic. The semantics often are dictated by whether gay marriage is legal where the store is located, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule. Just don’t use the gendered term bridal.
A crucial factor is how the jewelry is displayed, Finn says. “When the couple comes into the store, have a welcoming, relaxing, open atmosphere. I have a showcase specifically for same-sex couples,” she says. “I have two men’s rings or two ladies’ rings together as a pair. That makes a big, big difference, customers have told me.”
LeBrun says all her displays are by designer, so she doesn’t have a designated “bridal” section that might put off same-sex couples.
According to Paquette, the real key to succeeding in the same-sex wedding market is remembering why the customers are in your store in the first place. “For me, it’s not much of a difference” between gay and straight couples shopping for wedding jewelry, he says. “It’s two individuals who want to show their love.”