Digital Interactions Are Just Part of a Jewelry Sale Now

Digital Interactions Are Just Part of a Jewelry Sale Now

May 26, 2023

It has been more than a year since Covid-19 restrictions faded away in most parts of the world, but some fine jewelry brands are finding that their customers’ pandemic shopping habits are here to stay.

For example, Antonio Irizarry, who owns a consulting firm in New Jersey, now feels comfortable inquiring about possible purchases through WhatsApp, the popular encrypted messaging app owned by Facebook’s parent company, Meta.

In early 2020 Mr. Irizarry became interested in a 2.65-carat Old European cut diamond engagement ring offered online by Hancocks, a vintage and contemporary jewelry shop in London. He began using WhatsApp to communicate with Guy Burton, a diamond specialist who is a member of the family that owns Hancocks.

“There were questions that I felt more comfortable sending via WhatsApp,” Mr. Irizarry said in a phone interview, contrasting the experience with in-person shopping. “And it was useful to have a running record that I can still go back to, comparing different stones — especially when I was shopping around.

“Eventually we did a video call and I decided to go for it,” he said.

The purchase was Mr. Irizarry’s first using WhatsApp. Since then, he has bought cuff links and a pair of earrings from Hancocks through the same process, and has used WhatsApp to communicate with watch retailers in Europe. “It’s definitely easier now I’ve done it once,” he said.

As for Hancocks, several such sales that year prompted the company to add a WhatsApp link to every product on its website. The company declined to be specific about figures, but it said 20 percent of its sales are now initiated through WhatsApp, compared with less than 10 percent before the pandemic.

“It has increased international sales by a significant amount because it removes the formality of email and allows you to establish rapport quickly,” Mr. Burton said in a phone interview. “It gives us a better success rate than any other channel, such as email or phone calls.”

The global luxury jewelry industry weathered the economic turbulence of the pandemic years well, growing to $28 billion in 2022 from $22 billion in 2021, according to a report by the consulting firm Bain & Company in collaboration with Fondazione Altagamma, the trade association of Italian luxury goods manufacturers.

The report’s authors noted that luxury spending last year was still geared toward products, as tourism and business travel had not yet returned to prepandemic levels. And, they wrote, brands were benefiting from “the multi-touch point ecosystem that the industry has developed,” referring to the combination of digital and personal interactions that many customers now experience in the process of making a purchase.

Threads Styling, an online personal-shopping service based in London with a presence on both WhatsApp and WeChat, said the communication tools have helped its fine jewelry business increase in recent years. And while its average fine jewelry sale online is 3,000 to 4,000 pounds ($3,734 to $4,978), Alyse Chirumbole, the company’s director of fine jewelry and watches, said established clients have used WhatsApp to buy high jewelry worth what she described as “millions.”

Nouf Alzamil, who works in technology and lives in Saudi Arabia, has been shopping with Threads Styling since 2012; she said she now makes most of her fashion and jewelry purchases through the platform, messaging her personal shopper “once a week, or more” and buying fine jewelry “four or five times a year.”

In 2019, her Threads personal shopper helped her to buy a Patek Philippe watch that wasn’t available locally; now, she said, she is likely to be inspired by styled jewelry shoots and selections of “trending” items that Threads posts on social media.

“Probably 60 percent of the time I buy something directly because Threads suggested it; the other 40 percent of the time, I have seen something I like, and I’ll ask my shopper to source it,” she said in a phone interview. Recently, she said, she bought a necklace by Loquet, as well as jewelry from Shay and Kamyen, two brands that she discovered on Threads.

“I definitely think Covid accelerated digital shopping among my friends,” she said. “In Saudi Arabia, we don’t have as many options for shopping in person, plus nobody wants to spend a lot of time indoors anymore. So it’s good to have someone who can discover new brands and inspire you.”

She said that she is happy to buy fine jewelry based on pictures and videos, although “anything £20,000 or above, I would want to see in person.”

A De Beers public relations director, Sally Morrison, said that personal shoppers have long communicated directly with their clients via text, but “now that behavior is on steroids.”

De Beers, for example, has expanded its Virtual Home of Diamonds — a by-appointment service using high-definition cameras, lighting and props to show jewelry to as many as six clients at once. The service, created in 2021 at its London flagship, is now offered at stores in New York and Hong Kong; there are plans to add it in Shanghai later this year.

And the watch and jewelry retailer Mayors, which has 14 stores across Florida and Georgia, recently increased the size and the staffing of a boutique-like studio in its Fort Lauderdale headquarters that it established last year for live video calls with clients. From May to December 2022, the company said, 500 sales were made using the studio.

“Clients are more confident with shopping virtually now,” said Katie Reed, vice president of marketing at the Watches of Switzerland Group, which bought Mayors in 2017. The company would not disclose the increase in the studio’s size, but said it has added two full-time employees to the studio’s original three-person staff.

Fine jewelry has been sold online for years, with brands such as Brilliant Earth and Chupi offering “virtual try-on” functions that allow customers to position images of jewelry on photos of hands or wrists or necks. But until recently, jewelry makers at the highest levels of the industry had maintained that the scale, movement and craftsmanship of their pieces were too difficult to convey through such digital tools. Some brands, however, are now being lured by advances in virtual reality.

In a video interview, Olivier Reza, chief executive of his family’s high jewelry brand Reza, said he used the pandemic downtime to create a virtual experience on the company’s website that he called “better than a store.” A potential customer can now use her smartphone to scan a QR code and then go the “virtual try-on” section of the site to “put on” any one of the 38 pieces found there.

Mr. Reza noted that the virtual reality function is more advanced than superimposing static images, as the jewelry is automatically scaled and positioned, and will move with the customer in real time. The feature is used by a quarter of the visitors to the website, he added.

While Mr. Reza would not disclose details, he said that online-only transactions now account for 20 percent of his sales and he expects the proportion to grow: “When I explain what I’m doing to people over 60, they look at me like I’m crazy. But 20- or 30-somethings are like, ‘Yes, of course.’”

Even with the rise in digital sales, however, not everyone is convinced that the days of the boutique are over.

“Jewelry is still an item people like to touch and try on in real life,” Alexander Thiel, a McKinsey & Company partner based in Switzerland, said. “We have seen a significant increase in omnichannel journeys: People are browsing, being inspired and chatting with sales assistants online, but the final purchase is usually still a physical one. People still expect that uplifting shopping experience.”

He also had his doubts about virtual reality being more than a niche marketing effort. “One reason is demographics: The early adopters of V.R. are teenage gamers, not the people who shop at Cartier,” he said. “It also comes back to the experience: the special service, the glass of Champagne, the serotonin boost. The technology needs to advance quite a bit in order to replicate the emotional aspect and bridge the trust gap.”

As Ms. Morrison of De Beers said, “A certain sort of customer is always going to want to feel a diamond in their hand. There is a magic that could never be replicated in a purely digital experience.”

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