The cornonavirus has stopped the fashion industry in its tracks, upending supply chains, closing retailers and forcing customers to reevaluate their purchases. But there are categories that are still seeing some spending — and it’s not just toilet paper, disinfectant and yoga leggings.
The jewelry market, where buying is linked to emotions, is another one bucking the retail apocalypse. Talismans for protection, diamonds for a birthday, or a simple friendship bracelet with a written mantra are pieces packed with a sentimental punch, and in the new normal, those customers who still can are opening their wallets.
“Jewelry has always been personal, and customers at this tumultuous time are looking for meaningful and enduring keepsake pieces,” explained Joanne Teichman, cofounder and managing director of Texas based retailer Ylang23.
“Our customers are gravitating toward pieces that presumably are making them feel good,” she said bluntly.
Some of life’s most important moments are marked with jewelry, but as social distancing mandates have transformed the U.S., perennial springtime events are being adjusted. Birthday parties, graduations, engagements and Mother’s Day celebrations have been reimagined using videoconferencing technology like Zoom or Skype.
“Jewelry tends to be an emotional purchase. There is either a sentimental or emotional connection or simply, people want to treat themselves to something that will make them happy and to look forward to wearing,” said Elyse Walker, founder and chief operating officer of Elyse Walker and Towne by Elyse Walker, the California-based retailer. “We know their families, birthdays and special occasions,” she said, adding that while the brand is checking in with clients, first and foremost they are making sure they are safe and healthy.
“Everyone of the 35-plus designers I work with have a sentimental piece in their collection,” said Melissa Geiser, fine jewelry buyer at Stanley Korshak, when asked about her jewelry assortment.
Foundrae designer Beth Bugdaycay, who built her brand with talisman-like pendants steeped in mythical symbolism, explained, “It’s a time of transition. And it’s during difficult times that people are often more motivated to engage in finding what speaks to their heart and fulfills them; to align better with their life purpose, to show gratitude for things that they might have taken for granted.”
The designer said the cultural slowdown has helped her team take extra care when discussing ideas with Foundrae’s clients. “I would say the uptick we are seeing is the amount of time that people can spend being really thoughtful about their purchases,” she mused. “So, I think the exchanges have been really personal.”
In such uncertain times, jewelry with the theme of protection, healing or a sense of peace has “become elevated,” said Stanley Korshak’s Geiser. “People love to have something they can ‘feel’ — whether it is to feel the weight, to touch a pendant, or to look at a ring that makes them ‘feel’ good or remember a special time in their life.”
Teichman agreed, adding, “Sentimental or protective pieces by designers like Retrouvai — our favorite is her flying pig which signifies anything is possible; Foundrae; Lito, and Marlo Laz are helping people stay grounded during this challenging time.”
Ylang23 closed on March 17 and since then, Teichman has seen a bump in online sales nationally and a 400 percent increase in Dallas online sales, where the retailer is headquartered.
According to the Ylang23 cofounder, her team has been shipping a lot of Cathy Waterman, who she called “an eternally optimistic and warm designer, and one who has always been at the center of love and sentiment. Her branch initial charms have been particularly coveted. One of our customers ordered a longtime favorite last week — the Child Charm. She had her grown daughter’s name engraved on the back to signify this time and how much she missed seeing her.”
Robinson Pelham creative director Vanessa Chilton offered another case study in how her customer is thinking during the pandemic.
“A father, who was recently separated from his family and is currently self-isolating, bought his four daughters two Orb hoops and Ear Wishes each to remind his children that he is always thinking of them and [they are] with him in spirit,” Chilton said. “The discussion with the client was not only about which styles they might like, but also the significance behind each [all of the pieces in this collection have an associated meaning]. I love that he chose to send them joy, happiness, bravery and hope rather than any ordinary gift.”
Talisman-adorned jewels, with icons of protection and luck — evil eyes, Hamsas or four leaf cloves — date back to the world’s oldest cultures. “They have a long history in the world dating back to ancient Egypt,” explained Rosanne Karmes, designer of jewelry brand Sydney Evan. “The eyes are against people giving you a bad eye, even by accident. Envious looks, jealousy or straight out wishing you harm….I feel the same holds true for the Hamsa and the color red keeps you from harm.”
The designer said she has seen an increase in sales of her protection pieces over the last two months. “There is also an increase of many of my other charms that are very happy and meaningful, like my iconic love, happy faces, flowers, also my lucky charms — horseshoes, wishbones, ladybugs,” she said.
Simple friendship bracelets, originally from Central America, channel a nostalgia from youth, and now during the pandemic when many are apart from friends and loved ones, can offer an inexpensive way to highlight human connection.
“Our jewelry is an uncomplicated indulgence, where, on the other hand, diamonds seem way more complicated,” said designer Roxanne Assoulin, whose colorful friendship style bracelets employ simple messaging like Just Breathe, One Day at a Time, Love Is All, or This Too Shall Pass. “It is designed to lift one up, to make one smile, to provide a distraction, to share with others, to celebrate one another, to celebrate ‘we.’ It’s to remind us, that even in these most challenging times, we can take a moment to connect and to find joy.
“It’s never the jewelry itself that has the meaning, it’s only the wearer that can define what it means to them,” Assoulin said. “My mom’s jewelry feels way different to me than it may have felt to her. It’s more sentimental. Whereas for her, it may have been more about fashion, about power dressing. Who knows?”
The emotional response to jewelry is a narrative leveraged in countless ads, like De Beers’ ubiquitous “A Diamond Is Forever” campaign, which has shaped consumers’ understanding of the precious stone since the Seventies. Just before the pandemic, Cartier, whose Love collection is built on the ultimate emotional connection, launched a film update to its “How Far Would You Go for Love” campaign rolled out on digital channels. While the French jewelry house doesn’t share figures, the Love collection is understood to be the driver of the brand’s business.
While person-to-person retail has been on pause for over a month, buyers say transactions are happening on online channels. Walker’s team has been doing business via texts, e-mails and Instagram where her clients DM her team to request product. “Engagement has increased since everyone has been staying home and are on their phones,” she explained, adding, “Most important to us, we want our clients and friends to know that we are thinking of them. That is truly where are hearts are at, at the moment.”
Geiser said texting or phone calls have always been a core part of client outreach for her team, and now they are experimenting with video calls, which she called an “elevated text” as a way to replace face-to-face contact.
She explained that her clientele is purchasing pieces they have been looking at for some period of time. “For example, an evil-eye ring from Loree Rodkin, that gives the wearer protection or long sapphire strands from Ray Griffiths.”
Social media marketing has been adjusted, too. “We have worked very hard on our messaging and to highlight more lifestyle, authentic and humanistic content, like our Safe at Home features with our staff and stylists. Right now, even though we are distancing, people want to connect, feel that they are a part of their community and know that they are in our thoughts,” Walker said of their current messaging.
At Stanley Korshak, Geiser has taken to Facebook and Instagram with posts about each designer she stocks, telling stories about how she met them, or why she loves their jewelry, adding personal thoughts about each one. “They all have an interesting story to tell. Which I think is crucial when connecting customers with designers.“
Teichman has enlisted her daughter Alysa, Ylang23’s director of business development, to take the lead on demonstrating how to style some of jewelry the retailers carries on IG TV. “Our messaging always includes acknowledgment that this is a turbulent time, but that the occasions are there and jewelry brings joy,” she said.
“During these hard times, we believe it’s so important to lead with a sense of humor and empathy,” Teichman added.
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