The Jewelry Industry’s Design Dilemma

If consumers don’t see meaningful differences, what else is there to look at but price?

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Step into many jewelry factories around the world – maybe even most – and you will see the lowest common denominator design processes unfold.

You’ll find it in boardrooms, where retail buyers examine creations they’ve seen at the jewelry show in Las Vegas, Hong Kong or Basel; ask if the manufacturing team can knock down their favorite looks from the shows.

You’ll see it in offices, where a designer’s work is set apart by sales staff, who suggest that a few more diamonds on the halo, or on the shoulder, or blackened metal, or a claw more pointed, are needed; that these are the items that seem to sell in the market.

Then the top salesperson takes the designs back to his office and comes back a day later with images pulled from a Google search, cut and pasted together to show what he thinks they should sell.

Here’s a simple market value rule to consider: If all products on the market are essentially the same, then the only thing a customer will care about is price. Once customers only care about price, the market begins to lose value. What is left after this happens? Simply the sum of the parts; in this case, the market value of precious stones and precious metals. After that, bringing the market back to a value-added state is extremely painful, if not impossible.

What happens when innovation disappears?

It’s not even news. The jewelry industry has been following this path for some time.

The results are visible in an independent retail segment that struggles to compete with online sellers and non-traditional jewelry vendors. It’s tempting to think of the struggles of jewelry retail as being the same as the struggles of all retail – and to some extent they are – but that ignores a corollary problem. Walk into any jewelry store anywhere, and you’ll likely see the same cases filled with solitaires, solitaires with halos, solitaires with double halos, diamond studs, and three-stone rings. Yes, there will always be a demand for jewelry basics, but so have we. . . Good . . . basic? Consumers have been trained to expect to see nothing new or different in jewelry. So they do comparative research online and negotiate prices.

The jewelry industry has a jewelry manufacturing sector that does not innovate. Yes, there are pockets of innovation – you’ll see them described in this column in the weeks and months ahead. But the overriding goal of the jewelry manufacturing industry has been to perfect the pumping of parts, the mechanization of what was manual labor for nearly a millennium, and the reduction of labor costs. Which, when you think about it, should really make you scratch your head. When the item you make consists of $700 gold, $2,800 gems, and $80 labor (and that’s before the US started exporting jobs in jewelry), how much can a company gain by focusing so much energy on downsizing? costs?

What are the opportunities for added value?

Please don’t get me wrong. No manufacturer should spend more money on labor than necessary relative to their brand strategy, and working to improve efficiency and reduce errors is extremely important work.

But is it possible that the jewelry industry has thrown all its eggs into the efficiency basket? Is it possible that it devoted 100% of its attention to reducing production costs and increasing production, and failed to take care of this other extremely important aspect of added value: design?

At some level, the industry knows it has lost something important. Retailers and manufacturers have tried to draw attention to customer service as a differentiator. The problem with that is great customer service is now a minimum standard necessary to compete. Once something is expected, it no longer adds value.

Thousands of companies around the world manufacture jewelry, both for their own distribution efforts and for other brands. Yet, a handful of jewelry brands manage to be recognized by consumers. Meanwhile, in survey after survey, good design is a priority for millennials – from clothing to electronics to kitchen accessories, design matters. Considering this is the fastest growing demographic of jewelry buyers, the industry needs to take notice.

So what about the design?

Design is a discipline, just like engineering, marketing or accounting. Yes, starlets and trust fund babies with money to burn may decide to become jewelry designers, but just because it’s said to be the case doesn’t mean it is. There’s a reason why Tiffany and company jewelry is so attractive. Beyond the marketing and manufacturing machine, at the heart of the brand are the designers; people who study and practice the art of creating something functional, beautiful and balanced, something that pleases the eye and stimulates the senses like a perfect dish pleases the palette. Harry Winston didn’t become famous because he could get his hands on exquisite diamonds (although that wouldn’t hurt). It was his uncanny sense of how to design the setting around each diamond that set him apart. David Yourman became a powerhouse in part because they created jewelry for the mass market without ever losing sight of the importance of design. David Yurman and his co-founder wife Sybil are practicing artists, and that sensibility is still at the forefront of the business they created.

Bree Richey’s Circle Flower Earring is an example of exceptional design.


Does the jewelry industry have a design problem? The jewelry industry needs to focus more on creating quality design – agree or disagree?

None of this is to say there aren’t brilliant pieces of jewelry for sale. The jewelry industry is full of independent designers producing small lines, and this body of work is exceptional. The problem is that these designers rarely have the capital to get to market. Breaking into jewelry retail is nearly impossible for them, and going direct to the consumer is prohibitively expensive (it’s easy to set up a Shopify site, but there’s no guarantee anyone will ever visit it). Most independent designers survive by selling between 10 and 30 stores – barely enough exposure to create a lasting impression with consumers. If manufacturers were smart, they would tap into this pool of talent.

Creating a design bias is not an easy thing to do in organizations that haven’t thought this way before. This requires hiring experienced design talent and investing in developing design teams. It means taking risks to create new looks, not just pandering to the most mainstream tastes. It means doing the hard work of defining collections and learning the art of merchandising. It means developing an understanding of the difference between good design and great design, or learning to trust someone to guide this part of the product development process.

A sustained and explicit focus on design would surely help create more differentiation in a sea of ​​similarity. And that’s the kind of added value consumers are willing to pay for.