Fine Jewelry’s Era of New Modesty

Fine Jewelry’s Era of New Modesty

11/23/2020

Welcome to the era of new modesty.

The current crisis has hit the jewelry industry with a double whammy. Ordinary economic downturns typically lead to a moment of shrewdness and minimalism in luxury shopping. But even then, people still go to dinners or parties. Now with hardly any formal galas, big weddings or other special occasions on the calendar due to the coronavirus, jewelry is rushing to adapt to unprecedented times — catering to those seeking high-end items for the stay-at-home lifestyle.

Retailers say that jewelry ranks high among purchases for women who remain employed — seen as a safe store of value and a bright spot to mark this difficult time. But there seem to be some unspoken guidelines women are now shopping by. The jewelry that’s selling is discreet and wearable for every day — emotional, value-driven pieces that are not too glitzy or opulent and are transparently produced.

“We are seeing so many women buying for themselves, saying, ‘I need something that makes me feel better, I need a special moment.’ They don’t want to wear something ostentatious, it’s not right to present that on Zoom, they don’t want to go around the house in big diamonds. There’s this new appreciation for intimacy and naturalness in jewelry,” said Twist co-owner Paul Schneider, whose company has seen an overall growth in sales for the year — primarily attributed to a spike in online orders.

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“People aren’t traveling and they’re not dressing up and buying party clothes or amazing handbags. But for some reason, jewelry feels appropriate — it’s personal,” said Schneider. 

The Pacific Northwest retailer, with physical stores in both Portland and Seattle as well as a robust online business, said that its ethos of selling independent jewelers with artful designs and an appreciation for handmade imperfections is why their business is excelling. “If we had been doing really blingy pieces, I know we would have trouble. I just don’t know who is buying that right now. We aggressively increased our buy this year for that reason,” Schneider said.

Twist has seen success with gold charms from labels like Foundrae, delicate pieces by Cathy Waterman and Pippa Small, artful necklaces by Judy Geib and fresh designs from emerging designers including Castro Smith and Marie Lichtenberg.

Some fashion trends that were ramping up before the pandemic appear to have accelerated during lockdown. An awareness toward transparently made and ethically produced jewelry was already becoming popular before the pandemic, but retailers said that shoppers now almost see this as a prerequisite.

Finematter, a multibrand jewelry e-commerce site based in Copenhagen that launches Tuesday, has based its assortment on what its founders consider a new kind of global modesty: Transparently produced products and a quality-over-quantity mentality.

“I think there is modesty in this change of philosophy toward conscious consumption,” said Finematter cofounder Mie Ejdrup. “Consumers require a new kind of transparency from jewelry, considering where it’s from, the whole provenance aspect — if the gold is recycled, where the stones come from and how it’s produced,” she said. This has also played a role in how Finematter has photographed pieces for its launch, with care toward not excessively Photoshopping models or product.

Waves of minimalism were already hitting the runways before COVID-19, seen in collections including Bottega Veneta and Prada. Moda Operandi cofounder and chief brand officer Lauren Santo Domingo said this has been top-of-mind for her team of buyers at the e-commerce site in the lead-up to the holiday season.

“We talk a lot internally about how, through fashion, we can predict trends in fine jewelry because it’s further behind. Women were already wearing tone-on-tone, looser silhouettes, more masculine suiting and shirting —eventually jewelry follows suit. We are seeing jewelry simplify and become more modern. That fits this new way of dressing, but what was coming already in the pipeline has been accelerated. So if a woman was on the fence between a floral dress and men’s wear-inspired shirting, this pandemic probably flipped her over the edge,” said Santo Domingo.

She highlighted colorful enamel pieces by Eera and Bea Bongiasca, turquoise and coral designs from Irene Neuwirth and gold earrings set with small diamonds from Fernando Jorge as some of Moda’s bestsellers — popular for their upbeat, whimsical nuances, but not too obvious in their use of precious materials. A fun bauble that’s casual enough to wear to the grocery store, if you will.

Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s have spent the pandemic ramping up their online auctions, and reaching a new, younger audience in the process. At Christie’s, there has been a concerted effort toward offering classic designs for auction online — introducing the concept of bidding to a new generation of jewelry collectors, particularly as people seek out hobbies to enjoy from home.

“As we go into this Zoom world, we have noticed that the staple pieces are doing well. We had an icon sale in October that was a sale of commercially recognizable pieces — Cartier “Love” bracelets, Van Cleef Alhambra pieces, the things people recognize. That sale performed so well, people are in the market for staple pieces they can wear in a more casual setting, things that aren’t dripping in diamonds and stones,” said Caroline Ervin, associate vice president of jewelry for Christie’s.

She added that Seventies gold pieces from Bulgari have been performing well and that, conversely, more glitzy designs are declining in value in the auction market. “In the past year there has been somewhat of decline for more ostentatious, diamond-heavy, platinum and white gold chandelier earrings or big necklaces that we would see at galas. Those aren’t happening and I think those pieces aren’t performing as well as we have seen historically,” said Ervin. 

Sterling silver, a fine metal with a certain casualness and lower price than gold, is finding new popularity with younger consumers. Sophie Buhai, an independent jeweler based in Los Angeles who specializes in sterling silver designs inspired by midcentury minimalism, said that her product is resonating. “Sterling is an interesting material because it is a precious metal but isn’t as expensive as solid gold and it has a sophistication that I think can be a very elegant,” she said.

“My jewelry is subdued and discreet, and I think people are wanting to wear jewelry at home. Our brand has always been one that whispers, and doesn’t yell — I think that is more how people are adorning themselves right now,” said Buhai.

She likened the appeal of shopping with a small brand such as her own to “the experience of going to a farmers’ market versus going to the supermarket,” nodding to the personal nature of buying small — a plus in times when people’s social interactions remain at a minimum.

But concurrent with what other jewelers are seeing, storied American label Seaman Schepps said that clients are not so much sensitive to price as they are to the general aesthetic of what they are buying today.

Schepps president Anthony Hopenhajm said that wealthy consumers appear careful to not parade around in glitzy jewelry, given the ongoing pandemic and associated economic crisis. “I think people are sensitive today. Our clients are well-off, they are not worried about paying their rent but have to be sensitive to wear something that’s elegant, tasteful and politically correct. Even in challenging times, people are buying — it helps to be a brand that’s wearable,” he said.

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