What Do Today’s Fine Jewelry Consumers Want?

We spoke directly to fine jewelry consumers and they told us design, value, and personalization are top priorities this holiday season

As the saying goes: The customer is always right. In the early 20th century, that sentiment turned the prevailing philosophy of caveat emptor (buyer beware) on its head and paved the way for the majority of retail interactions today, which place the highest priority on the customer. Too often, however, industries don’t hear enough from the shoppers themselves. JCK canvassed fine jewelry consumers across the country and asked what’s on their holiday wish lists, what value means to them, how they conduct their jewelry research, and whether they’ll be spending more this holiday season than in years past.

A few common themes emerged, regardless of where shoppers lived: Logomania appears to be waning and bling for the sake of bling is a thing of the past. Favored price points are all over the map—there was no shame in coveting pieces priced in the low-to-middle range, or, for that matter, those priced sky-high. Luxury watches are popping up on many wish lists, as are staples—diamond earrings and hoops, primarily. Also captivating today’s fine jewelry shoppers: one-of-a-kind and vintage items.

Oyster Perpetual Submariner, 40 mm, stainless steel and 18k yellow gold; $13,400; Rolex, Geneva; 800-36-ROLEX; rolex.com

Validating the industry’s movement toward story­telling, consumers are coveting items that have a history. “I’m 48 now but I started at 32 collecting my jewelry from Fred Leighton,” says New York City entrepreneur and socialite Trish Backal. “I like everything to look vintage and old. As much as I love Leviev—and I love these things—I’d rather [my jewelry] be vintage and hot and sexy. I want one-of-a-kind. I want something that’s been around the world like an antique piece of furniture.”

For some shoppers, provenance is most appealing, while others say edgy design and uniqueness outrank brand names. Colin Parker, the general manager of Parker’s Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram in Penticton, British Columbia, is a self-proclaimed shopping fiend.

Bliss Lau added her clients’ shared birthstone, topaz, to this diamond engagement ring. “Colleen felt very connected to the natural forms of vines, but likes the juxtaposition of hard geometric forms,” Lau says of the bride-to-be’s inspiration.

“I buy lots of shoes and lots of clothes, and I buy jewelry for myself and some for my mom,” he says. Parker recently shelled out $15,000 for a stainless steel and gold Rolex Submariner, but has no qualms buying less expensive pieces if the look is spot-on. “You can buy a $1,000 Gucci jacket and people will comment more on the pair of pants I bought at Target,” he says. “To me, it’s not about name brand or price, it’s about finding things that look good.”

Coralie Wickens, a San Francisco–based publicist and mother of two, says she favors the work of jewelry designer Federico de Vera because of his high design standards (she does not represent him). De Vera buys artifacts from his travels, takes them apart, and reconstructs new pieces; they appeal to Wickens because of their handmade quality.

“Every Christmas, I give my husband a wish list and he sticks to the list,” says Wickens. “It’s always jewelry. It’s never anything else.”

For this rose gold amethyst ring for stylist Ted Gibson, Lau looked to the Parthenon: “I felt that building represented a kind of perfect aesthetic beauty as does he in his work with hair.” Gibson’s instructions? “To make it beautiful.”

Wickens starts her research in August by contacting de Vera, establishing a budget—usually around $1,500—and requesting images. She narrows the choices to one or two favorites and places them on the list. “[My husband] does an email exchange and the deed is done,” she says. “[De Vera’s] compositions are so unique, I know that there’s probably not going to be another person running around with the same piece.”

Wickens trusts the email exchanges with de Vera and says she loves the convenience of not having to physically go into shops. “I’ve never made a bad choice,” she says.

More and more, consumers as sophisticated as ­Wickens are putting a price on relationships with the designer or retailer, particularly if they receive personalized service. According to the New York City–based Luxury Institute, pentamillionaires—defined as men and women worth $5 million or more—say the best way for salespeople to build lasting relationships is by making them feel comfortable, communicating honestly, earning trust, and recognizing them on store visits. And more than half of ultra-wealthy women who purchase jewelry say they appreciate handwritten thank-you notes.

Lau going over just a few of the multiple personalized sketches she supplies for her customers

“Relationship selling is not something exclusive to markets like high-end automobiles, real estate, and wealth management services,” says Luxury Institute CEO Milton Pedraza. “Even in luxury jewelry and fashion, relationships cultivated by trust and an understanding of customer preferences can help boost both the frequency and size of sales.”

Heeding the call, Bliss Lau, designer of an eponymous fine jewelry line, is breaking down the barriers between jewelry-maker and customer. Lau spends a significant amount of time interacting with people who commission her to make customized pieces. She encourages them to flip through jewelry design books and place Post-it notes on the pieces they like. She then asks them detailed questions about what they like about each piece and starts to sketch. She generally gives each customer a minimum of 10 sketches.

Pearl coil bracelet; $340; Miriam Haskell, NYC; 212-764-3332; miriamhaskell.com

“Consumers see the industry industrialize and there’s some backlash,” says Robin Meason, a Paris-based publicist who represents Bliss Lau. “They want something customized and made with superior craftsmanship.”

Well-heeled customers are equally concerned with value as they are craftsmanship. They ask themselves a number of questions before making a big purchase, according to JCK’s informal poll. Will the workmanship last for generations? Can I get a similar price if I were to sell it? Is the silhouette classic enough to last?

Miriam Haskell gold earrings; $260

Wickens buys jewelry with her daughters in mind—just as her mother and grandmother did for her. Similarly, if Backal adores a piece and knows she can get the same amount of money for it if she were to sell it, she’ll buy it. “That’s why vintage is good,” she says. “I’ll get the same money at a sale.”

Kim Heyman, a New York City–based philanthropist and mother of three, places most of her attention on value. “A lot of jewelry is overpriced for what it is,” she says. “That’s why I mix a lot of real with costume. My friends don’t know the difference.”

At the moment, Heyman has her eye on pearl bracelets and dangly earrings at Miriam Haskell. Four-carat diamond earrings at Leviev and Graff are also on her wish list—as are emeralds. “I’m liking the green,” she adds. She’s also in the market for a new watch and has begun the research process—which includes everything from visiting retail establishments to browsing various brands online. “I do a lot of research on a major piece to the point where I can go crazy,” she says.

Romantic seed pearl bracelet; $600; Miriam Haskell, NYC; 212-764-3332; miriamhaskell.com

The Internet has allowed people like Parker, who lives far away from any big city, to shop the world and compare prices. His three go-to sites are Hautelook, Gilt Groupe, and eBay. As for his recent Rolex purchase, he ended up buying it from International Gems in Surrey, ­British Columbia, where he was able to avoid the sales tax.

Looking ahead to the fourth quarter, consumer confidence related to holiday spending appears strong. Nearly every consumer JCK interviewed said they were more upbeat this year than in years past. Many spoke of their own rebounding businesses, while others said they have become better at managing their finances. Others noted that the luxury consumer never went away.

Miriam Haskell gold chandelier earrings; $500

The latest figures available from the Commerce Department indicate that Americans upped their spending in June by $59.4 billion—an increase of 0.5 percent, the fastest pace in four months. The National Retail Federation expects confidence to improve as the pace of recovery accelerates in the second half of 2013. All this bodes well for fine jewelers this holiday season. And if the statistics don’t convince you, consider the anecdotal evidence: “I’m the most confident I’ve ever been in my life!” says Heyman.