Why Bridal Jewelry Retailers Are Getting Personal

Let the Four C’s fall where they may: Today’s most compelling and progressive bridal retailers place a premium on personalized service

Walking into the Catbird Wedding Annex in Brooklyn feels a little like stepping into the bedroom of a preternaturally sophisticated teenager, circa 1982.

A hot-white neon sign reading Oh My Stars hangs over a curvy-legged vintage cabinet. A crystal chandelier, simultaneously shabby chic and punk rock, teased into the shape of a sailboat occupies the front window. Pictures of iconic counterculture couples, including Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg and Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, are tacked casually to the walls with gold pushpins.

Vintage-inspired engagement rings—from brands including Satomi Kawakita ­Jewelry, Lauren Wolf Jewelry, and 1909 by Erica Weiner—are displayed in tall, narrow cases opposite an antique hanging mirror bordered by an ornately embellished frame that embodies the shop’s irreverent, retro decor scheme.

A customer peruses Erica Weiner’s vintage (and vintage-inspired) treasures.

The Wedding Annex, which opened late last year, is an offshoot of Catbird, the influential jewelry and gift shop in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. The satellite outpost exclusively targets brides “looking for something different,” says wedding ring consultant Jessica Miller. The shop’s most popular pieces are “nontraditional rings with a bit of an edge,” says Miller, citing solitaire styles in rose gold with gray and black diamond centers.

Founder Rony Vardi and buyer Leigh ­Plessner opened the Annex to grow a bridal business that blossomed out of a citywide craze for the brand’s fine fashion selections. The retailer all but invented the trend of stacking thin gold rings (Catbird recently partnered with J.Crew on a selection of basic stackable rings), and the store helped stoke the current obsession for midi (aka first-knuckle) rings.

The retailer is one in a growing cadre of ­jewelry and jewelry-centric stores ­reinventing the bridal market by putting the bride—not flutes of Champagne, gratis valet service, or even diamonds—in the forefront. By appealing to her individuality and aligning branding and the in-store ­experience with her lifestyle, many nontraditional bridal sellers are relating to brides on more personal levels.

Urban outposts like Catbird and Stone Fox Bride, another edgy New York City showroom (read about founder Molly Guy, this issue’s cover girl, here), certainly attract fashion-focused shoppers. But retailers taking offbeat approaches to bridal jewelry sales possess wide-ranging appeal.

John Durgee

Erica Weiner
Left: Erica Weiner’s storefront in Manhattan’s Nolita; right: Weiner enlisted a ceramicist friend to create the glazed cones that show off her rings

The trend toward ­customization—and away from, to some extent, ­prefabricated designs—has been riding high for half a decade now. Brides and grooms are seeking out jewelry that feels personal and precious, not Kardashian-style flashy.

Money Matters

Catbird founder Rony Vardi with buyer and general manager Leigh Plessner

What’s fueling the shift? For one thing, true flash is no longer an option for many 20- and 30-somethings. The typical U.S. bride and groom, averaging 29 and 31 in age, respectively, according to XO Group Inc., has weathered rocky financial terrain: unemployment, wage stagnation, and a pay scale that hasn’t kept pace with the rate of inflation.

The most recent U.S. Census figures show millennials earned roughly $33,883 a year between 2009 and 2013—around $3,500 less than those their age made 15 years ago; in 2000, the mean income for the demographic was $37,355.

The 200-square-foot Wedding Annex, just around the corner from the Brooklyn original

San Francisco–based wedding planner Alicia Falango of Alicia K Designs says the stats have contributed to a shift in wedding style. When parents are chipping in to help cover costs, the wedding, dress, and jewelry tend to be “timeless and elegant,” she reports. But “hipster weddings,” complete with food trucks, DIY food, and edgy dresses and jewelry, are on the rise in a big way, she says. “Hipsters are everywhere, and they want their event to look and feel like them.”

Because money is tighter for millennials, it makes sense that they view the ring purchase through a different lens. When your budget is $1,000, weightier diamonds are no longer an option, and the Four C’s sometimes take a backseat to design. Often, choosing a ring becomes about hunting for a unique style—something everyone else doesn’t have. 

A selection of Catbird-designed engagement rings

“The notion that your engagement ring is going to cost two months’ salary doesn’t really seem to be a thing anymore,” says jewelry retailer Erica Weiner, whose New York City store is a go-to for stylish brides on a budget (her ­private-label rings are also sold at the Catbird Wedding Annex). “A lot of brides who come to us don’t want that formulaic experience and don’t need proof that their husbands can spend that kind of money. I think it’s all about choices and feeling like your choice is carefully considered.”

Unique, So Chic

Tiara band, Grand Tiara band, and Tiara Curve band with 0.1–0.2 ct. t.w. diamonds in 14k gold; $925–$1,750; Anna Sheffield, NYC; 212-925-7010; annasheffield.com

When grooms come in, Weiner says, they almost always say the same thing: “I’m looking for something totally unique.” They rarely leave disappointed; the shop sells fantastic mourning jewelry from the 1800s (as bridal jewelry), along with recycled gold bands and Art Deco–era diamond solitaire rings with “lots of filigree and elaborate, lacy settings.”

Designer Anna Sheffield, whose chic and sparse New York City boutique is beloved by the downtown set, started out in fashion jewelry, but debuted a full-fledged bridal collection in 2011. Black diamond and moonstone yellow gold rings, often incorporating small colorless diamonds, are among her signature styles. “We do a lot of black diamonds and are seeing an increase in semiprecious stones as well.”

Rings are shown in cases that look more like old coin or curio cabinets than jewelry displays. Inside, rings share space with rustic-looking rocks and ancient animal tusks.

Marketing Value

“I truly saw the need for [rings] that are outside the norm but still classic,” says Anna Sheffield of her bridal line.

Anna Sheffield, Catbird, and Erica Weiner do most of their marketing on social media—and Sheffield and Catbird, in particular, have earned fans and followers on social media by posting reams of whimsical, eye-catching content to Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.

The tone of posts hailing from the trio of stores is always loose and slightly offbeat. A recent Facebook post from Catbird, showing a gold necklace, read, “A necklace for a girl who cries when she’s happy—eyes shining brightly, one joyous, luminous tear falling down her flushed cheek.”

Anna Sheffield’s Instagram is peppered with jewelry worn nonchalantly, architecture, cool manicure designs, and snapshots of friends. The designer, who personally pens all her social media content, says Instagram and Pinterest are the store’s most effective methods for luring new clients.

Anna Sheffield opened her store, on New York City’s Lower East Side, in October 2013.

Rony Tennenbaum, who creates rings for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender couples, uses social media to reach his demographic by posting touching photos of ­client ­weddings, plus the occasional charming dog-with-a-diamond-ring shot. But he’s also become a subject expert by writing for LGBT publications (he then reposts his articles to Facebook and other platforms). And by speaking at events such as the LGBT Wedding Expo, Tennenbaum is literally meeting his clients where they are. “Appearances, radio interviews, and talk shows are important for promoting my collection,” he says.

Cultivating an air of informality around a potential purchase of fine bridal jewelry is a through-line with many unconventional retailers. There will always be brides who want the full-tilt luxury jewelry experience—sales associates clad in suits, Champagne chilling on ice, and all. But shoppers looking for a low-key alternative will find a mélange of options these days.

For Catbird’s Vardi, creating an intimate atmosphere of ­“informal sophistication” at the Wedding Annex was crucial. “You don’t feel this sense of everything being hands-off,” she says. “Things are meant to be touched.”

Anna Sheffield three-stone Hazeline ring in 14k yellow gold with 1.2 ct. champagne diamond center and 0.25 ct. t.w. diamonds; $10,500 Anna Sheffield Moonstone Bea ring with moonstone and 0.14 ct. t.w. diamonds in 14k yellow gold, $2,500, Bea commitment bands in 14k yellow and rose gold with 0.06 ct. t.w. diamonds, $1,100 each