Invisible properties of objects can add as much value to fine jewelry as design, craftsmanship, and materials
Significant Objects, a literary and anthropological experiment Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn devised three years ago, took products from charity stores—an Elvis chocolate tin and a fortune-telling device, for example—and infused them with context, background, and purpose. The results: Objects that came with a story attached attracted prices far greater than their story-free counterparts. A “Hawk” ashtray rose from its original price of $2.99 to $101 at auction because of a tale that revealed Pentagon technocrats wore tie tacks when there was a new weapon in the works. “If you couldn’t get the über-geeks to wear your tie tack, your project wasn’t going to get off the ground,” wrote William Gibson in the piece’s accompanying tale. “You had to demonstrate that your weapon had fans and these guys didn’t wear T-shirts.” The writer imagined these men storing their tie tacks in something like this ashtray, and apparently, that was enough to inspire buyers to pay more for the piece.
The persuasive power of narrative has even earned advocates in academia. Last year, for example, Paul Bloom, a professor of cognitive psychology at Yale University, spoke to NPR about his research on “the origins of pleasure.”
As he told NPR: “Essentialism is the idea that there’s more to an object than its physical structure, and this more-ness, this essence, is what matters.So the physical features of a painting might be its color and its shape and its size, but the essence of the painting is the invisible history that gave rise to it.”
Bloom concluded that the backstory of a piece plays a much more significant role in the selling process than previously thought. “When shown an object, or a face, people’s assessment of it—how much they like it, how valuable it is—is deeply affected by what you tell them about it,” Bloom said in his closing remarks to NPR. “Pleasure develops, taste develops, and taste develops in part because of experiences.”
Retailers have undoubtedly received the memo. Over the past year, storytelling—or the act of educating customers about everything from the designer to the materials and even how the piece was acquired—has become a fast-growing movement across all luxury industries. “The importance of story and experience are probably the primary drivers of the most sophisticated luxury consumers,” says Gregory Furman, founder and chairman of the Luxury Marketing Council. “The No. 1 thing that keeps CEOs up at night is educating the customer and communicating price value—why does a product or a service command a premium price?”
The rise of storytelling comes from a shift in how consumers shop and what they value. Furman identifies four distinct types of consumers and how they’ve evolved over the years: an “acquisitive” customer, or one who likes to accumulate stuff; an “inquisitive” shopper who questions and weighs a product’s value; “authoritative” consumers—those who are educated about the products they are buying. And then there is the “meditative” group: “We in North America are meditative,” says Furman. “It’s got nothing to do with stuff. It has to do with a unique experience and sophisticated enjoyment of the product or service.”
Many luxury companies are weaving storytelling into their interactions with the consumer. Cruise line Royal Caribbean International now offers a chance to have longer stays at ports where cruise goers will be introduced to intimate cultural places, artisanal craft workers, or local vineyards. “All of the brands that are awake at the switch are doing this,” says Furman. Some brands are inviting their best customers out to lunch, cocktails, or similar insider-y events, he adds: “These experiences have a huge wow effect on clients and they keep telling these stories.”
Gucci has been sending customers to fashion shows, equestrian events, and the Cannes Film Festival. For big spenders, the Italian house is offering tours of its Florence workshop. Gucci’s goal is storytelling—“getting clients to understand how much history, tradition, quality, and passion there is behind our works means winning their loyalty,” CEO Patrizio di Marco told Bloomberg earlier this year.
Antique enamel, diamond, and ruby heraldic locket, circa 1880, once owned by Elizabeth Taylor (price on request, Fred Leighton)
In fine jewelry, the elements of a product—its design, quality, craftsmanship, the period in which it was made, its previous owners, and the materials—all tell a story. “It’s very important when we work with clients that we tell them the story of the piece,” says Greg Kwiat, CEO of vintage jeweler Fred Leighton. “It’s an intriguing, appealing, and unique part of what we do at Fred Leighton. The stories are so rich with multiple layers of ownership. And oftentimes these pieces have interesting provenances that placed them in important times in history. We have a piece that had previously been owned by Jacqueline Onassis. It was given to her as a gift by one of the sons of Aristotle Onassis. To hold that piece is to be a part of that history—and to have your connection back to Jackie O.”
Telling the story of a particular estate or vintage piece—understanding its style and putting it into context—enhances the overall buying experience at Tiny Jewel Box in Washington, D.C., according to CEO Jim Rosenheim. That’s why he holds daily 15-minute meetings with his salespeople to encourage them to get involved in what they’re selling. “I tell them, ‘Your job is not to sell jewelry. Your job is to give clients a good experience,’?” he says. The store has notched record sales during the first quarter of this year and repeat business is high; 70 percent of new customers transact a second time within 12 months. Both are a direct result of controlling the store experience, Rosenheim claims.
And even when not much is known about a particular piece, storytelling can be a meaningful part of the closing process. “Sometimes the customer wants to discuss what the stories could have been,” Kwiat says. “We’ll say, ‘We don’t know necessarily all the people that may have owned or handled this piece, but we know it would have been owned by someone important in this period.’ You can see the clients’ minds turning. They become a part of the story of the piece. ”
Another vital story to tell is that of the brand itself—its heritage, who founded it, its purpose, and how long the brand has been around. “Consumers look for products with real staying power,” says Milton Pedraza, CEO of the Luxury Institute. “It gives the brand a halo effect and the product investment value, especially for aspirational consumers. It has a story behind it and people are willing to pay more for that.”
Textured 22k yellow gold flower brooch once owned by Jacqueline Onassis (price on request, Fred Leighton)
Sometimes a brand’s story can be much more than its heritage. The DNA of the brand—what it stands for, its social causes, its ethics or philosophy—enhances a brand. Think Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign; Harley Davidson’s badass biker image that executives can co-opt on the weekends; Kenneth Cole’s socially provocative slogans. “If you communicate that clearly, you can carve out a position,” says Pedraza.
In the age of technology, where automation and online shopping have largely dehumanized the purchasing process, storytelling satisfies the consumer’s hunger for human interaction. Machines may be more efficient, but humans make the real difference, says Furman. In fact, technology has allowed companies like Burberry to take storytelling to a new level. The British label is attaching digital chips embedded with bespoke content to coats and bags in a bid to entice consumers to preorder future seasons straight off the runway. The chips activate short films that bring a product to life, telling the tale of its creation from sketches to runway edits. They also show a video of a customer’s name being engraved on metal nameplates that can be stitched into the linings of coats and bags.
Jewelry, meanwhile, lends itself to storytelling even better than fashion. “There’s an everlasting quality to jewelry; jewelry itself is meant to last,” says Kwiat. “And then the circumstances of its acquisition, where you were when you got it—that’s what makes jewelry so much more than adornment. It’s the objects that tell the stories of our lives.”