The Paradox of Choice, Editor’s Letter, March 2013

Have you ever heard of the famous jam study? Conducted in 1995 by Sheena Iyengar, a professor of business at Columbia University, the study took place at a California gourmet market, where Iyengar and her colleagues set up a table offering samples of Wilkin & Sons jams. They alternated between displaying six types and 24 types of jams. Regardless of the setup, customers sampled two jams on average, and they each received a $1-off coupon for the jam.

“Here’s the interesting part,” The New York Times wrote in a 2010 article mentioning the study. “Sixty percent of customers were drawn to the large assortment, while only 40 percent stopped by the small one. But 30 percent of the people who had sampled from the small assortment decided to buy jam, while only 3 percent of those confronted with the two dozen jams purchased a jar.”

The upshot: The greater the choice, the less inclined people were to choose. They feared their choice would be the wrong one.

The sprawling AGTA GemFair floor

I think about the jam study every time I stand on the floor of a trade show. When I attended last month’s American Gem Trade Association GemFair in Tucson, Ariz. (the subject of our News Gems opening story), I watched designers and retailers shop the show with enviable confidence. Evidently, no amount of choice can overwhelm years of experience and the conviction that comes with knowing your customers. (But my heart goes out to newbies!)

As you’ll see in “Letters to a Young Designer,” the four designers who gamely participated in this issue’s thought-provoking experiment—we asked them to write letters to their younger selves, doling out the wisdom they wish someone had passed down to them when they were starting out—were drawn to jewelry as if it were the only choice around.

The ring-heavy hand of British journalist Nicholas Foulkes

I’m thrilled to report that retailers who voted in our sixth annual Jewelers’ Choice Awards were equally comfortable making selections when faced with this year’s outstanding entries. Be sure to check out the 49 winners.

One category deserving special note is men’s jewelry, a subject we’ve expanded on in this issue’s spotlight, “Guy & Sell: the Booming Men’s Jewelry Market.” The trends that contributor Cathleen McCarthy highlights—particularly leather bracelets in rock ’n’ roll styles—are apparent to anyone who spends time among men of a certain youthful age, who seem remarkably comfortable with the concept of male adornment.

Then again, age has nothing to do with it—or so I learned in January, when I attended the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva and happened to sit down next to the seasoned British historian, author, and journalist Nicholas Foulkes. I recognized him from the image I’d seen on book flaps, and knew he belonged to the great tradition of English eccentrics, but I wasn’t prepared for the bold array of gentlemen’s rings that lined his knuckles.

I surreptitiously reached for my iPhone and pretended I was sending a text as I snapped a photo of Foulkes’ outstretched hand beside me on the couch. His rings—sculptural, gem-set, and bearing enough yellow gold to serve as a safeguard against the vagaries of print journalism, should he need it—were impressive, to say the least. The perfect choice, indeed.