For a period of time over the last 18 months, there really was little else for a luxury brand to do but wonder what its value was. City centres were ghost towns, airports were shuttered and the world sat at home and waited.
But with people unable to spend money on so-called luxury rivals such as holidays, experiences and clothing, fine jewellery started to emerge as something worth investing in. All luxury brands had to do was convince consumers to use their computers to buy it.
Céline Assimon has been CEO of De Beers since September 2020. “We launched our new global website in April last year, during the first lockdown. Debeers.com now offers an extended jewellery range, including high jewellery, up to $250,000,” says Assimon. “We also increased delivery capabilities to 15 markets, added French and Chinese versions. As a result, our digital business has more than tripled.”
Assimon was far from alone in realising that refining De Beers’ online presence had to be a key strategy. According to global management consultancy Bain & Co, online shopping for luxury goods has soared, doubling its share of the market to 23 per cent up from 19 per cent last year.
This leap has also contributed to a rise in third-party retail sites dedicated to fine jewellery. In the space of a few months, Once, Finematter and Omneque all opened their virtual doors.
However, buying luxury online is something the west has struggled with. Unprepared or reluctant brands are now being forced to play catch-up. “We are probably more conservative when it comes to using technology in our day-to-day life, but also most brands were just not offering these services,” explains Assimon. “The pandemic has accelerated the digital trend for essential shopping as well as for luxury items, and now we see a lot of requests for services such as live chats and virtual appointments. We now have the technology and trained brand ambassadors to provide this.”
Digital’s gain has been bricks-and-mortars loss, particularly in western markets. At the entry-level point of the jewellery market, US-focused Signet Jewelers committed to closing 100 stores in the fiscal year that started on February 1. Bucking this trend is mainland China. The demise of global travel caused neighbouring Hong Kong and Macau to be the worst luxury-retail performers worldwide, seeing their markets shrink by 35 per cent to €27bn. Conversely, the mainland’s market grew by a thumping 45 per cent at current exchange rates to €44bn.These mainland Chinese consumers are doing much more than keeping luxury coffers full – they are driving the direction the fine-jewellery industry is taking. They are also significantly younger than their European or American counterparts, with 79 per cent under 40; 56 per cent post-1980s or Generation Y/Millennial, and 23 per cent are even post-1990s or Generation Z.
For the post-1980s group, this means growing up as China was establishing itself as a superpower, so they look to luxury purchases as a way to flaunt success, according to a report by management consultant Martin Roll. For the post-1990s generation, Roll suggests that being the products of China’s single-child policy has led this group to “seek out more individual or customised products and expect digitally enhanced shopping experiences”.
This is also a group for whom, both in China and globally, sustainability and provenance are increasingly important, something the mined diamond industry’s reputation struggles with. Mining natural diamonds is destructive, an estimated 250 tonnes of earth has to be excavated for every single carat of diamond. A total of 111 million carats were mined last year (compared to 142 million in 2019), and some mines are now so huge they can be seen from space using Nasa’s Terra satellite.