One of the first things I remember panic-Googling at the start of the pandemic (during that is-this-really-happening stage of hoarding canned beans) was whether hand sanitizer could damage my rings. I hardly own any truly fancy jewelry — most of my collection is a sentimental mix of flea market finds and trinkets from travels — but one prized piece is a gold band topped with a baroque pearl from New-York-based, Canadian designer Wing Yau.
I had nightmarish visions of the small, perfectly imperfect pearl fizzing away under a glob of Purell, melting like the Wicked Witch of the West. So I stopped wearing it, along with all my other jewelry.
It was so easy to dismiss fashion during those dark, hard months of the pandemic’s rise. “Sweatpants forever!” many declared, either joyfully or with resignation. We have become so much more cautious: with the way we move through the world, but also in the ways we present ourselves. And so it would be tempting to assume that demand for fine jewelry — diamonds, precious stones, heavy coatings of 18-karat-gold — would have fallen off a cliff. The reality? Sales of fine jewelry are on the up. Way up.
“The interest in fine jewelry and engagement rings has definitely not died down,” says Katie Reusch, the marketing director at Canadian jeweller Birks. With jewelry stores closed, Reusch says that purchasing has solidly shifted to the web. “The average order value on our e-commerce has increased significantly. We’re in triple-digit growth,” she says.
Customers rapidly adjusted to doing their four- and five-figure jewelry spending online, with helpful hand-holding from brands like Birks in the form of virtual consultations. “We started selling diamond engagement rings online, which in the past was never something that we were thinking of, because we saw such an interest,” says Reusch, adding that shoppers were making the purchase during the pandemic or just doing research for a post-pandemic proposal.
The unwavering growth of fine jewelry over the past year can be read as yet another symbol of the pandemic’s economic imbalance. The women who are buying these things are the ones who can still afford to do so. Those who haven’t been financially squeezed and kept their jobs, or even saved money by not commuting or dining out, have been able to redirect their spending. Jewelry, long referred to as an “investment,” seems like a nice, sparkly landing place for one’s intact disposable income.
Simply put, some of us are buying jewelry because there’s not much else going on right now. “When we think of pre-pandemic luxury, the trend was all about experiential, like travel and dining out,” muses Reusch. “Creating those memories did shift to fine jewelry.” Maybe you had a milestone birthday in the middle of lockdown. Instead of going on a cruise or throwing a huge party, why not buy a fine watch or a diamond tennis bracelet? “I think people still wanted to be able to have something that could carry that kind of emotion,” says Reusch.
For Italian jewelry designer Bea Bongiasca, 2020 started with a lot of uncertainty and stress. “In Italy, we went into lockdown in March and everything was closed until May. Jewelry is obviously not an essential business,” says Bongiasca, who had to halt production and close her atelier.
Against all odds, Bongiasca says that the past year has been very busy. Her line mixes colourful, twisted enamel “vines” with gemstones to create playful, standout rings that loop around the finger in irregular ways. Bongiasca reasons that jewelry can be more personal than fashion, but it can also give you more bang for your buck. “You can wear the same ring every day, but not the same dress!”
Designer Ashley Zhang was also pleasantly surprised at the demand over the past year. “In March I was completely terrified,” says the New York-based Zhang, whose jewellers wanted to keep working and took as many tools home with them as they could. “But I’m very happy and lucky to say that my brand has been thriving,” says Zhang, adding that once she communicated realistic expectations to her customers and figured out a way to work with her jewellers at a distance, orders went up. “Life doesn’t stop; anniversaries, birthdays and other joyful celebratory moments will still happen,” says Zhang, adding that her engagement ring business grew as couples forced to scale down their celebrations decided to put the focus (and funds) on the ring.
My friend Susie got engaged in October. The pandemic travel restrictions meant that what was supposed to be a European getaway became a question popped under the starry Ontario skies of Killarney Provincial Park. “I admired the ring while he was still on one knee waiting for an answer. I eventually came to my senses and said ‘Yes,’” she recalls. And when it came to designing the ring in question, the process was done entirely remotely, with CAD renderings and PDFs instead of in-person consultations and complimentary champagne. “The overall process was very stressful, especially not being able to see the ring,” says Susie. In fact, it was while having to get her ring resized at a local jewelry shop that she realized how much she would have preferred a more one-on-one experience. The wedding bands, she says, will be designed in person.
Beyond engagement rings, which are clearly not going anywhere, Reusch says that we’re going to continue to experience a “shoulders up” moment in jewelry, with the impact of the Zoom screen having a lasting effect on jewelry trends. “Necklaces and earrings will be a big driver for us,” she says.
Even though the process of getting her diamond ring wasn’t ideal, Susie is in love with the final product. “I eat, sleep and work out with it on,” she says. “It makes me feel dressed up and special.” And that’s the power of these beautiful things: they hold treasured memories. More cynically, they also hold their inherent value better than a pair of Gucci loafers.
And as for that question I posed to Google all the way back in March 2020? Yes, hand sanitizer, especially rubbing alcohol, can permanently take the shine off those cushion-cut karats. So to all the recently engaged: Congratulations — but be careful out there.
Ashley Zhang antique sapphire band, $701, ashleyzhangjewelry.com
Sophie Buhai necklace, $1,425, ssense.com
Birks Splash diamond and sapphire necklace, $3,800, maisonbirks.com
Bea Bongiasca ring, from $680, matchesfashion.com
Maria Tash single earring, $1,200, matchesfashion.com
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