Why is buying fine jewelry in the Western World such an intimidating and utilitarian experience? A beautiful piece of jewelry is sensual, romantic, seductive. Why do we feel like we’re purchasing expensive light bulbs instead of a circlet of dazzling diamonds? We can learn a lot from the bazaars and the souks in the Mideast.
Two of the most magical places in luxury retail are the Gold Souk in Dubai and the jewelry section of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. The window displays are opulent. There is nothing restrained about the presentation, unlike the minimalist Tiffany windows or vitrines at Bulgari. These Middle Eastern bazaars are the meeting grounds of testosterone and estrogen, resulting in a unique mercantile representation of desire. There is a sheer physical smell of the power to buy here, and there is a visceral joy in being the retail host for luxury and craftsmanship. Contrary to Western stealth wealth, the souks exhibit a certain sensuality; part dress-up, part princess-complex; and an explosion of both insatiability and satisfaction. The whole experience is wrapped up in life’s emotional punctuation marks. Acquisitions from the bazaars celebrate milestones, even those as simple as adding another gold bangle to the collection for no reason at all other than the ability to do so.
The ancient tradition of the Gold Souk merchant has joined the 21st century with web addresses and carbonated beverages that have replaced sweet tea as the preferred drink to get the prospective customer to sit down for awhile and view the merchandise. One merchant explained to me that you can’t drink carbonated beverages quickly, and thus the bubbly beverage serves the purpose of holding the customer longer. The merchants have also recognized the social evolution of women buying jewelry for themselves. One Middle East jewelry chain hosts wedding showers and birthday parties where women gather privately after hours to try on all that glitters. Whether it’s tea, carbonation or private events, the toughest battle is getting people in the door.
Adornment In Transition
The concept of everyday adornment here in the Western World is in flux. Beyond the rock on your finger and solitaire around your neck, where do Americans wear their Chocolate Diamonds? We live in a dress-down, utilitarian culture. Just as the open-office plan has made daytime fragrance unfashionable, most of us have very few red carpet occasions to attend. Working women, just like their male counterparts, have settled into uniforms. With few exceptions, corporate employers frown on overly stylish clothes at the office. The prevailing protocol is to blend in. This is not good news for the jewelry business, let alone the fashion designers.
So Who’s Buying?
Historically in the West, the jewelry business has been about selling men metaphorical keys. These are keys to the front door; keys to the hearts of their women, i.e., public statements of their honorable intentions; keys to the back door, i.e., testaments to lust; or finally, the keys to get out of the doghouse, seeking redemption from bad behavior. The lack of sensuality in store design and experience, compared to the souks, is palpable.
The affluent jewelry market is being transformed. Most high-end players are still surfing and getting rich on the demands of wealthy Asian, Eastern European and Middle East consumers. Many of these customers have “refugee” memories buried in the back of their brains. Enter the revolutions; exit the family jewels as a compact transportable form of wealth.
But times are changing in the adornment business. Tiffany just re-launched its Champs-Elysees outpost, while its 57th Street iconic flagship is being reconceived. Tiffany’s net sales were up the first quarter of this year by 13%. They also reported improved operating margins that pushed earnings up by some 50%. The robin’s-egg-blue box may be the world’s most recognizable color. The new store in Paris is gorgeous with custom furnishings, top to bottom. No one here is talking about the cost of construction. It is a Peter Marino world, where money is loaded into a conceptual spray gun. It must be an obscenely fun design job. And closer to the bazaars in creating an environment that motivates you to load up on baubles.
Yet the core American Main Street business of selling jewelry is struggling. The Mom-and-Pop shops compete with online merchants for the Millennials who are buying engagement rings. The largest one, Blue Nile, educates young customers well before a sale is made. Blue Nile is democratic with products that start at three figures, moving up to six. In an era in which so many of us are socially intimidated by the merchandise showcased in an off-putting higher-end retail environment, combined with what we perceive to be an aggressive sales staff, Blue Nile is a pressure-free place where we can shop side by side in our pajamas.
The problem is that Main Street jewelers have not adapted to the changing market. The basic design of the store hasn’t changed. Glass vitrines are typically waist high and we must stoop over to get a good look. In a shopping world where self-service rules, we are not invited to browse. The overly-brilliant lighting tends to be suspect. The impersonal displays that make stones and metals dazzle don’t reflect what flatters human skin tones. If you are an inexperienced buyer, you can get lost in the displays, and since the price points are deliberately obfuscated, sticker shock can become a heart-stopper. If you are a woman shopping for yourself, one of the most glaring frustrations is the lack of full-length mirrors. You are not buying keys to hide in your pocket; you’re expressing your personal style, for which jewelry is integral to the entire outfit or look.
The Main Street jewelry store is due for reinvention. It needs to be more fun. The mix needs to reflect a higher, more diverse sense of design. Why not add selected accessories such as scarves and bejeweled phone cases? How about a sparkly cosmetic bag? It needs to provide a sensual, seductive environment. And a memorable personalized experience. For starters, why not tea and carbonated beverages? The souk serves up hormones, emotion and joy. Can Main Street do the same?