What Do Women Want?

Surveys of jewelry consumers reveal that more than 80 percent of jewelry purchasers are women, and 70 percent of those buy jewelry for themselves. Cathy Calhoun, owner of Calhoun Jewelers in Royersford, Pa., recalls a client who came in to restyle some existing jewelry and bought 10 more pieces for herself.

Surveys don’t tell the whole story, so we asked jewelers from different sections of the country to tell us what women actually buy. We also asked women friends and family members around the country to tell us their preferences.

So, what types of jewelry are women buying for themselves?

“Big!” says Judith Arnell, owner of Judith Arnell Jewelers in Portland, Ore. “Something with a lot of bling. Women will sacrifice the quality of the stone for size, even if it’s only a third of a carat more.” If they can’t afford a big diamond, women choose pieces with multiple diamonds to give the illusion of a bigger stone.

“Earrings are a staple,” says Calhoun, who cites items like small diamond hoops and three-prong stud earrings. “I sell them as soon as they put them on,” she says.

For Eve Alfillé, owner of Eve J. Alfillé Gallery & Studio in Evanston, Ill., bracelets are close behind earrings and rings. Alfillé often suggests bracelets initially, and once hooked, women frequently buy more than one. “We are talking about serious bracelets, from $2,000 to $3,000,” Alfillé says. (In my straw poll, bracelets were ahead of earrings and all other types of jewelry. “I love bracelets and rings,” wrote one respondent. “Probably because I can see them!”)

Women tend not to buy classic styles, says Jan Fergerson, one of five women who own Ford, Gittings & Kane, in Rome, Ga. Fergerson says most women prefer fashion jewelry. “The things that go in and out of style,” she explains. “Men are afraid of that.” Tracy Rein-hart, of Rummele’s in Green Bay and Appleton, Wis., agrees. “Women want fashion-forward, contemporary designs,” she says (Most of my respondents, of all ages, said they preferred “arty” or one-of-a-kind pieces.)

But Becky Beauchine Kulka, owner of Becky Beauchine Kulka Fine Jewelry in Okemos, Mich., observes that women in her area won’t spend a lot of money on “really high fashion or diamond pieces [they] can pick up as a knockoff.”

Women want versatility in their jewelry says Liz Chatelain, of MVI Marketing in Paso Robles, Calif., such as earring jackets that can be worn as drops and rings that can be worn with or without a wrap of diamonds. “Anything that gives her the feeling of a change from day to night, or that she can color coordinate with an outfit,” Chatelain explains.

Although there’s almost nothing women won’t buy for themselves, there is one category they often leave to their men, Beauchine Kulka says. “Very rarely does a woman buy a watch for herself.”

Women even buy themselves expensive jewelry for occasions traditionally reserved for receiving gifts from others. “I had a good customer buy a huge diamond bracelet for herself for about $6,500,” says Calhoun. “She said, ‘This is for me for Mother’s Day.’”

Other than large or sentimental stones, women love buying diamonds. “Women want lots of little diamonds all over the ring,” says Arnell. “They want minimal metal and two or three rows of micropavé going down the sides.” Retailers say square emerald cuts are enormously popular. “Circle pendants are still big, and diamond bracelets are a huge self-purchase gift,” says Fergerson. In fact, if a piece isn’t set with diamonds, says Alfillé, women often bring it in to have diamonds added.

That doesn’t mean colored gemstones are left behind. “Colored stones are much more attractive to women [than diamonds],” says Chatelain, citing MVI’s client research. Given the choice and opportunity, she says, “I think women would buy many more colored stones.” But there’s no solid data on which colored stones sell best. Women seem to buy everything. (Among the colored stones mentioned by respondents were amber, carnelian, garnet, jade, labradorite, lapis, opal, topaz, and tourmaline.)

For Alfillé, anything blue green sells well. “Mint tourmalines, Paraíba of any origin, beryls, unheated aquamarines where the green hasn’t been taken out. Even women who don’t like the color green like this color,” she says. Large, inexpensive moonstones also sell well for Alfillé.

Down the highway in Chicago, another color holds sway, according to Andrea Mattei, owner of Judith Ansteth Jewelers. “Pink is the most popular color,” she says, citing rubellite, rhodolite, and pink sapphires.

For Reinhart, in Wisconsin, tanzanites have slowed down. “I can’t tell you the last time I sold a tanzanite.” Not so in Georgia, according to Fergerson. “Tanzanites have been big,” she says. Fergerson’s customers also like large, brightly colored stones such as citrines and peridot.

Gemstone bead strands—tourmaline, peridot, topaz, and iolite mixed with gold beads—are popular, says Reinhart, but Alfillé has a different take. “Long strands of jade and lapis interspersed with symmetrically placed, plain, round gold beads are so ’70s,” she says. She frequently restyles them for customers.

Pearls are ever popular. For Reinhart, fashion pearls sell. “Pearls in a pendant on a chain with diamonds or sapphires,” she says. For Fergerson, larger pearls (10–11 mm), often in choker-length strands, are strong sellers. And customers love black Tahitians. “Tahitian black pearls are so sexy!” one woman wrote.

As for metal choice, Beauchine Kulka says it depends on stones and design. Women like white metal with their diamond jewelry, but yellow gold sells better in more fashion-oriented styles, she explains. In other areas of the country, preferences vary. “Gold is definitely coming back,” says Reinhart, in Wisconsin. But in Portland, Ore., says Arnell, “Women still want white and white and more white.”

What do women not want?

“Herringbones are dead,” says Reinhart. “No one would be seen wearing herringbone now,” agrees Beauchine Kulka, or “anything like the old gold rope, anything with baguettes, anything out of the ’70s or ’80s.”

“Waterfall rings,” says Calhoun. “Women don’t want anything that looks like an old-fashioned cocktail ring.”

“Marquises,” says Arnell. “I couldn’t sell a marquise in any color. Pear shape is next on the list and so is a clunky yellow mounting.”

“A plain gold wedding band,” says Fergerson. “I can’t tell you the last time I sold a plain band. Women like the wedding band to make a statement.”

“Mabe pearls,” says Alfillé. “The mabe pearl earring is a clear indication the wearer is not in the fashion mainstream.” Alfillé cites another category to skewer:“Dome rings, the ones with multitudinous small stones, look as though your mother-in-law should be wearing them, especially on her pinkie.”

How much women spend depends more on age than geography. Women in their 20s and 30s view several hundred dollars as a lot. “It’s the market between 30 and 55 where the money is spent,” says Chatelain. “After 55, the amount of money spent on jewelry drops.”

“On things they can wear every day,” says Reinhart, women will “very comfortably spend up to $1,000.” For purchases above this amount, most women will consult with their partner, says Beauchine Kulka. Calhoun and Mattei think the cutoff is between $1,500 and $2,000. But it can be “as much as $8,500,” says Calhoun.

“There is always an upper limit to what a married woman will buy for herself, dictated by the psychological boundaries of the couple’s relationship more than by actual finances,” says Alfillé. In her experience, women who work for themselves are less likely to seek approval.

In reality, there is no upper limit. Fergerson has seen some women spend as much as $50,000 on themselves. She says jewelry is “our tool or car or boat” and notes that hunting season is her best selling season. “Women will say ‘that doesn’t cost as much as what he’s spending on his hunting trip. I can do that.’”