Selling Gifts of Love For Gays and Lesbians

If you are in the business of selling gifts of love, you can’t afford to be blinded about who loves whom in today’s world

“You want two rings that are the same?” the saleswoman said with a frown. “Why do you want two of them?”

I think of her sales technique now as “subtracting,” the opposite of adding-on. My partner and I bought the rings we wanted in spite of her. And we never went back to that store.

Now, nearly a decade later, jewelry as gifts of love among gays and lesbians are purchased more openly from jewelers who may or may not be aware of the gay and lesbian market niche in their current client base.

Two things are certain. If you are a heterosexual or “straight” business owner who has been successful in drawing repeat gay and lesbian customers, it’s because you’ve communicated your respect for their dignity and worth as human beings. And you have the potential to create business growth through target marketing.

Recognizing the customer: “Who knows how many gay and lesbian customers we had in the 1980s,” comments Mark Moeller, owner of the two-store R.F. Moeller Jewelers operation in St. Paul, Minn. “They didn’t come in and say, ‘Look, I’m gay.’ And frankly, we couldn’t see what we weren’t looking for. But with the greater awareness we have now, we realize we do have a very loyal gay and lesbian following.”

If you are in the business of selling gifts of love, you can’t afford to be blinded about who loves whom in today’s world. It’s the cultural assumption of mainstream America that every person is heterosexual or “straight.” That’s a false assumption.

Collecting data on the demographics of gays and lesbians in America is a complicated challenge. First, research regarding sexual practice creates unique demands for the researcher. Second, being known to be gay or lesbian has entailed varying degrees of risk in our not-so-distant history. Those risks have included potential for great loss: of social community, of employment, of family, of spiritual community and, in the extreme, of life.

The willingness to take the risk of being known to be gay or lesbian began in the U.S. with the Stonewall riot in 1969. At Stonewall, what started as just another police rousting of a fringe element at a gay bar turned into a cause celebre when gays and lesbians in New York City determined they would no longer tolerate being treated as if they didn’t count.

The book Untold Millions by Grant Lukenbill, from the Harper Business series in 1995, summarizes some of the best demographic research you can use to position your business for the gay and lesbian market. After reviewing the research literature available, Lukenbill concludes that the most reliable national gay and lesbian consumer population figures come from the Yankelovich MONITOR “Gay and Lesbian Perspective,” issued in 1994. That study clearly showed that, if asked, gay and lesbian Americans are willing to self-identify themselves as such “at levels up to 9% in large cities and 2%-4% in rural and suburban areas. This results,” says Lukenbill, “in a total self-identified national gay and lesbian population average of about 6% in the United States.”

What’s 6% of the population of your market area? Every age group, every ethnic group, every religious group and every economic group includes gays and lesbians. Become aware of that fact and you need not stumble when a potential client comes through your door.

Symbols in a gay-friendly store: At least five symbols have important meanings of self-respect and/or appreciation to gay and lesbian people (below). If you choose to invite gay and lesbian consumers, knowing these symbols may help you to recognize your customers. Additionally, providing these symbols in your product line or in-store decor communicates your recognition of your gay and lesbian customers.

Doubled gender emblems. Seeing the male symbol or female symbol doubled is a sure sign of welcome to a same-sex couple. Rings, pendants, earrings, tie tacs, cuff links and charms with these symbols may be worn.

Rainbows. From large flags to T-shirts to bumper stickers, the rainbow flag is readily recognizable to gay and lesbian consumers. There are several stories associated with the rainbow flag. “The association I like best is with the song ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ It’s the promise that somewhere over the rainbow there is a place where everybody feels at home,” says Tony Lowe, who operates Jewelry by Ponce in Laguna Beach, Cal., with his partner, John Ponce.

Jewelry by Ponce, which was in Victory magazine’s top 10 list of the largest and fastest-growing gay businesses in 1995, has built a niche with rainbow items, including rings, pendants and earrings. The store’s rainbow jewelry uses natural colored gems set in 14k gold, 18k on request and some platinum.

Inverted triangle. The triangle with its point down came to the gay and lesbian community through the horrors of the Holocaust, when gays and lesbians were forced into concentration camps and killed, along with Jews, Gypsies and others.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, California’s Reformed Synagogue, explains that some of her gay and lesbian congregants wear the Star of David in which one of the triangles is yellow, the color the Nazis assigned to Jews, and the other is pink, the color assigned to gay men. The inverted triangle, once a sign of oppression and death, has been claimed as a symbol used in celebration of gay or lesbian identity.

Lambda. The 11th letter of the Greek alphabet symbolizes balance or sameness. It’s been a gay/lesbian identifier since Stonewall.

Labyris. Sylvia Crannell, a worker-owner of Amazon Bookstore, the oldest surviving feminist bookstore (celebrating its 25th anniversary in 1996), explains that the labyris, a double-headed ax, is a symbol within the Women’s Movement and for lesbians. Found in excavations of ancient worship sites, the image is associated with the harvest. For many lesbians, it symbolizes independence, autonomy and power.

Gifts of love: If you equate “gay” or “lesbian” with sexual behavior only, you may not recognize the fullness of life enjoyed by many gays and lesbians who are in partnered relationships. In partnering, gays and lesbians experience and celebrate stages of the relationship very similar to the courtships and marriages of straight couples.

The language you hear from your gay and lesbian clients may seem strange at first, such as “when we were dating” or “I want to give this ring to my spouse.” In fact, becoming comfortable with hearing phrases you previously thought referred only to heterosexual relationships may be one of the challenges you face if you actively seek out the gay/lesbian market.

These different stages of a relationship each present sales opportunities. A same-sex couple, for example, may celebrate an anniversary that marks a milestone, such as when they met, when they became intimate, when they agreed to date each other exclusively, when they first began to live together.

Unless you have clearly communicated that you respect these clients, they are unlikely to let you know that a special event is being celebrated, let alone give you the date of their anniversary for your database. If a couple feels safe and respected in your store, though, you may be trusted with the story of the anniversary. One way in which a gay or lesbian couple differs from a straight couple is that the couple’s anniversary celebration may come before or not be at all related to a commitment ceremony or wedding.

One lesbian couple, Sherry and Devon, chose a new jewelry product specifically targeted to gays and lesbians that came on the market in May 1995. The Band of Infinity, the inspiration of Andrew Rakos, is handstamped in sequential order and produced in sterling silver, gold or platinum on request. Sherry and Devon chose gold. “The company was in the 5,000 series when we bought our rings. We were able to get the numbers 5241 and 5242. Both of us have 2-4, the date of our anniversary. It’s a beautiful ring and it was also a ‘stand up and be counted’ kind of thing for us.”

Rakos says the concept for the business came to him when he attended the Gay and Lesbian March on Washington. As happened following the more recent Million Man March on Washington, parade organizers and attendees came away saying the National Park Service low-balled the number of gay and lesbian marchers. “Each person counts and each person makes a difference,” Rakos says. The rings he offers are numbered so each buyer knows how many other gays and lesbians have already bought one. The company reached the 9,000 series within the first nine months of business.

A commitment ceremony is another gift-sale opportunity. Currently civil law doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage in the U.S. As of this writing, a case to be heard by the Hawaii Supreme Court may change that. However, several religious organizations, some mainstream and some not, have provided commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples. The Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson of the Metropolitan Community Church-Los Angeles has performed more than 350 Holy Unions and estimates that M.C.C. nationwide has performed several thousand. Rabbi Denise Eger has officiated at more than 300 ceremonies of commitment. Both say jewelry is almost always present in such ceremonies.

Wilson remembers one ceremony she performed for a lesbian couple at a country farm. Though some family members were not happy about this wedding, all came. A nephew who was the ring-bearer dropped one of the rings in a hay stack. The family joined in the hunt and when they found the ring, they were ready to join in the celebration and help with the blessing of the ring.

(For more information, Ceremonies of the Heart, published by Seal Press in 1990, recounts the stories of 29 lesbian union ceremonies, drawing on several religious traditions.)

Though U.S. law doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, some cities and municipalities do make provision for filing domestic partnerships with limited benefits. Greg Scorzafave of Goldsmith Jewelers, a 22-year-old gay-owned business in Key West, Fla., markets a unique add-on sale to the gay/lesbian customer. As a notary, Scorzafave is able to provide a certificate recognized in Key West acknowledging the couple’s commitment. Store ads include pictures of Scorzafave and his partner, John.

These aren’t the only occasions that call for gifts. Partners in gay and lesbian couples celebrate birthdays and holidays just as straight couples of similar economic status and ethnic background do. Rabbi Eger gave her partner 1-ct. diamond earring studs for her 40th birthday. “It was something I knew she wanted,” she explains.

Bill Farmer of Farmer’s Jewelry in Lexington, Ky., caters to a mainstream heterosexual clientele. Yet he recalls a recent Christmas in which his largest sale was to a lesbian professional for her Christmas gift to her partner. The gift included a high quality natural gem necklace and matching earrings.

A very common misconception is that someone with a child cannot be gay or lesbian. Many gays and lesbians have children. Some were conceived in the context of a heterosexual relationship before the gay or lesbian person’s “coming out.” Others were conceived or adopted in the context of a gay or lesbian relationship. These parent-child relationships also generate gift-giving occasions.

The four adult children of Elaine, a lesbian massage therapist, selected M.C. Ginsberg Inc. in Iowa City, Iowa, to design a special ring for Elaine. The ring includes the birthstone of Elaine’s partner, Vanessa, whom she married in a religious ceremony at a Quaker meeting, as well as the birthstones of her four children, two daughters-in-law and five grandchildren. Elaine plans to add a gem for her lesbian daughter’s partner soon. Should her other straight child take a partner, Elaine will add that gem as well.

While Mark Ginsberg was not specifically aware of Elaine’s sexual orientation when the ring was commissioned, he notes that the company does have an important gay and lesbian market segment in Iowa City. “We have advertised in gay and lesbian targeted publications for 12 years now without fear of reprisal or embarrassment. We are non-prejudicial here and act on social awareness,” he says.

Reaching out: There are numerous ways to reach gays and lesbians in your market area.

Advertising. Gay-owned businesses have the option of making a direct appeal to gays and lesbians. If you’re not ready to market directly to the gay/lesbian market, you may communicate openness in your general advertising. An oft-repeated notion in consumer marketing within the industry is “Diamonds are the perfect gift of love … from a man to a woman.” Consider that you can communicate openness if you say simply “Diamonds are the perfect gift of love.”

Or take a tip from Chivas Regal, Virgin Atlantic, Saab and Louis Vitton and advertise in publications aimed at the gay/lesbian market. These four companies and others each recently ran full-page four-color ads in Out, a national magazine for the gay/lesbian reader.

Supplier co-op money may help you to fund your advertising. Goldsmith Jewelers picked up the Artcarved line initially at the request of straight clients. When Scorzafave noticed gay couples also bought the line, he obtained co-op funding for advertising in the Advocate, a national high-end gay/lesbian magazine. Given that Key West is a choice vacation spot for gays and lesbians throughout the nation, a national ad made sense.

Barry Sullivan, president of Artcarved, relates this story. “Greg and John saw an opportunity because of their location to go nationwide with putting same-sex couples at ease when shopping for wedding rings. We provided the rings for photography and help on the creative side for a four-color national ad. This was part of our regular co-op program, available on the same terms to any customer of ours. Regarding product offering, we scaled a little higher than our average nationwide price point, and sales are coming in even higher.”

A look at the free newspaper rack in larger bookstores will help you to find at least one gay/lesbian-targeted newspaper for your market area. While these papers are found more readily in urban areas, many serve suburban locations or provide statewide coverage. Many gay/lesbian or gay-friendly churches have bulletins that accept advertisements. Gay/lesbian phone directories serve cities throughout the nation and accept advertising from gay-friendly businesses.

Sponsorships. Consider sponsoring or showing at gay/lesbian oriented events in your area, such as the Pride Parade and Festival (usually held in June to commemorate Stonewall), local Gay Games, the Gay/Lesbian Rodeo, gay/lesbian film series or nearby Women’s Music Festivals. Many urban areas have gay, lesbian or mixed choruses, bands, theaters and art galleries that provide advertising opportunities. Same-sex oriented radio programs may be available in your area. You also may sponsor readers at local gay, lesbian, or women’s bookstores.

Donations to non-profits. “Gays and lesbians tend to be activists with their money,” says Rabbi Eger. “They will not spend money where corporate dollars are used to oppress them, and they notice when companies are willing to be openly supportive of causes that matter to the gays and lesbians in the community. They reward such support with customer loyalty.”

High-profile health issues matter to the gay/lesbian community, such as support for AIDS research, hospice care and increased health and human services. “Breast cancer research and care is becoming increasingly important to lesbians as this disease ravages women,” says Rev. Wilson. Other support options include safety and self-esteem-enhancing gay and lesbian teen programs, gay and lesbian social centers and hotlines. If you seek a national consumer base, consider donating to the Human Rights Campaign and/or the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

Jewelers often tend to stay out of politics so as to show no favorites among customers. Deciding to appeal openly to the gay/lesbian market does have the potential to raise political issues. “Of course, you wonder how the heterosexual community will react if you have a male couple sitting in your wedding ring case selecting wedding rings,” says Paul Cohen of Continental Jewelers, Wilmington, Del. “If we do decide to pursue the gay/lesbian market as we have been considering, we need to think about how we react, how we respond. The more we consider it, though, the less we think we would be risking our main customer base.”

In-store treatment: In addition to the ring designed by M.C. Ginsberg, Elaine wears another ring. After she and Vanessa decided to buy rings for their fifth anniversary, their reaction to shopping for rings in the Glendale Galleria in the Los Angeles area was, “Jewelers are finally getting it. There were a few places where we were treated coldly, but most stores recognized us as a couple and readily showed us jewelry from their wedding ring selection.”

They eventually bought their anniversary bands at Ben Bridge Jeweler, chosen for the quality of the product and for how the sales associate treated them. “She was very gracious and we felt she would have spent the whole day,” Vanessa says. On the day they first shopped Ben Bridge, they bought earrings. Vanessa returned to the store twice specifically to buy from the same sales associate. Both have bought additional earrings there since.

The corporate culture of Ben Bridge provided room for the personal graciousness Elaine and Vanessa experienced. Herb Bridge, co-chairman of Ben Bridge, says the company has never specifically trained staff on how to treat gay/lesbian customers. Yet a corporate culture is informed by its leadership. Bridge, who retired from the U.S. Naval Reserve as a senior rear admiral and served in World War II and Korea, once consented to be a televised spokesman to turn back an effort that he felt would have compromised the ability of gays and lesbians to get or keep jobs. His wife, Shirley, led an $8.5 million fund-raising campaign to provide Seattle with the first hospice care facility for AIDS patients.

Bridge acknowledges the company has experienced rewards with loyal purchases from the gay/lesbian community. “That isn’t why we took those actions though,” he says. “Even during the 43 years I was in the Navy, I have always believed in civil rights. When Thomas Jefferson was asked about what he wanted in his epitaph, he did not list the honors he had received from his country. He listed what he had been able to do for others. Where we have been able to help others in these ways, we have been glad to do so.”

“The most important consideration for success in establishing your marketing outreach to the gay/lesbian market is the training of your personnel,” says marketing consultant Cynthia Cohen-Turk of Marketplace 2000, Miami, Fla. “One roll of an employee’s eye and the gay or lesbian customer will be lost to you. Training is extraordinarily imporant.”

Understanding how a gay or lesbian couple will reach the buying decision when shopping in your store takes attentiveness. “The Diamond Promotion Service gathered statistical evidence on whether the man or the woman in a male-female couple is more likely to be willing to spend more money,” says Mark Moeller. “You don’t know that with a same-sex couple. You have to pay attention to who is buying what for whom.”

Rabbi Eger, herself the daughter of a jeweler, laughs. “Wouldn’t it be great to see a De Beers ad that shows a male couple with the tag line ‘Surprise him on your fifth anniversary’?”

As Artcarved’s president says, “These are people in love who want to buy a ring. For jewelers, the demographics are outstanding.”

(First-time publication rights assigned to JCK.)

Author Charlotte Preston has been involved with the jewelry industry since 1985. She is an industry consultant to groups such as the JCK Shows and is a freelance writer for trade publications.

GAY/LESBIAN BUYING POWER

In his book Untold Millions, a 1995 HarperBusiness book, author Grant Lukenbill addresses the popular myth about the relative affluence of American lesbians and gay men. “Income among the American gay/lesbian population as a whole is slightly lower than that of the heterosexual population … While it is true that some dual-income, predominantly white, gay male households have incomes much greater than the national average, gay males had lower personal and household incomes than their heterosexual counterparts. There is, however, no substantial difference in income distribution between lesbians and heterosexual females; in both cases, female income is below that of males.”