Covid-19 accelerated change in the US jewellery sector, with retailers adopting digital initiatives and introducing innovative measures to cope with changing circumstances and consumer preferences.
Berge Abajian purchased online platform Aphrodites.com
A deserted New York with boarded-up windows during the lockdown
Susan Eisen, owner of Susan Eisen Fine Jewelry
The Vario system by Marcel Roelofs, used by Christensen & Rafferty Fine Jewelry
Video promoting Moriaty Gem Art’s YouTube shows
Crevoshay promotes its Endangered Treasury jewellery on its official brand page on Facebook
Earrings with chrome pyrope, Madeira citrine and diamonds by Caroline C, which saw greater demand for short earrings ideal for Zoom meetings
Virtual Tucson online event by Omi Privé
Gem-inspired face masks and (inset) multi-gem earrings by Tashka by Beatrice
This article first appeared in the JNA May/ June 2021 issue.
To say that 2020 was a challenging year for the US jewellery industry is an understatement. Between lockdowns, job losses, permanent store closures and physical isolation, it was a perfect storm. JNA looks at what the sector did to survive before the clouds cleared and the economy began to recover.
According to industry analyst Edahn Golan, US jewellery retailers lost US$4.76 billion in business between March and May, during the lockdown. “Yet jewellery consumer demand fully made up for that loss in the second half of the year,” said Golan, noting that by December 2020, sales reached US$13.23 billion, bringing the year’s total to US$62.68 billion. “Year-on-year, jewellery sales were flat, down 0.3 per cent – an impressive result by all accounts," he added.
Jewellery retail in the US comprises independent stores and chains of varying sizes. At one end of the spectrum is Signet – the largest US chain – owner of Jared, Kay Jewelers, Zales, JamesAllen.com and others. The jewellery giant reported fourth-quarter sales of US$2.2 billion, up 2 per cent year on year, largely due to a 71 per cent increase in online sales. Over the entire year however, sales fell by double digits due to the pandemic. Signet also closed 355 stores of a planned closure of 380 stores last year.
At the other end of the spectrum are independents. Although these retailers differed in their approach to the pandemic, one recurring theme emerged: We are living in a digital world, where an online presence is both a lifeline and a lifestyle.
One retailer who experienced Covid-19 personally is Susan Eisen, the award-winning owner of Texas-based Susan Eisen Fine Jewelry. In November 2020, she was diagnosed with Covid-19.
“Luckily, El Paso had just launched a pilot programme for the monoclonal antibody therapy, and I was offered the treatment,” she said. “Without it, I don't know how much worse I would have been.”
Coping with the pandemic from a business viewpoint was also daunting. Although the store had been online for 15 years, the lockdown afforded time to rethink her digital strategy.
“We began doing more things virtually, including Instagram Live, showcasing jewellery and watches. We also connected our phones to intercoms so that, when people came to the door, we could talk to them, see how we could help them, and schedule appointments,” she shared. “During this time, customers shopped for a specific purpose rather than impulse buying,” with diamond jewellery and engagement rings the bestsellers, Eisen added.
While the store is now open, the brand is increasingly working by appointment and experimenting with different types of customer service options.
Eisen is also continuing the store’s online presence, including engaging customers with YouTube videos and other social media activities designed to attract female self-purchasers.
Berge Abajian, owner of two Bergio boutiques in New Jersey, admits that the three-month lockdown caused a definite slowdown in business. “When the pandemic hit, I realised we needed to up our online game to help our brick-and-mortar,” said Abajian. His team thus increased activities on social media, especially Instagram, offering fine jewellery, handbags, and other accessories in the midrange to upmarket categories.
“Last year, many clients asked for less expensive everyday items, rather than one important piece,” the jeweller noted. This made him consider adding some lower-end merchandise.
“Although the high-end is still selling, I decided to look outside the traditional jewellery box. Serendipitously, the opportunity arose to acquire Aphrodites.com, a widely visited online site selling fashion silver jewellery set with cubic zirconia. With it, I could serve a wider range of customers, especially since online has become so important,” Abajian revealed.
And sales have not disappointed. One of his own silver designs sold 22,500 pieces after posting. Going forward, Abajian plans to adapt the Aphrodites platform to sell upmarket branded items under the umbrella of publicly traded Bergio International (BRGO). “E-commerce is indeed the future,” he concluded.
California-based Christensen & Rafferty Fine Jewelry is a successful partnership between two friends, Colleen Rafferty and Diana Christensen. “The new success story is that we are open,” mused Rafferty, after the lockdown. “Last year was difficult, but with PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans, we kept the staff paid. Everyone worked from home, and repairs and jewellery were hand-delivered to appreciative clients.”
While the company does not sell online, it is active on Instagram and Facebook, where major pieces are showcased. Among its marketing efforts during Covid was to feature different ways customers could style and refresh their jewellery. The Vario System by Marcel Roelofs, which transforms pieces into statement-making jewels, is a bestseller.
Believers in personal attention, the women also connect with clients through hand-written notes and phone calls. “We reach out to say they are in our thoughts,” Rafferty shared.
The company’s customers are mainly self-purchasers who want classic jewels, especially diamond drop earrings and other pieces “that looked good from the waist up on Zoom or could be worn with masks.”
Among their great pre-Covid successes were birthday nights, where the birthday girl’s friends contributed towards an important piece of jewellery. With the pandemic, the women are planning to offer these birthday celebrations virtually. Post-Covid, they will move towards appointments rather than walk-ins, said Rafferty.
When Moriarty’s Gem Art in Indiana locked down for four months, it gave the family business time to rethink its connection with customers. “We already had a good online presence, mainly Instagram, YouTube and our website,” explained marketing manager Jeff Moriarty, son of owners Steve and Nancy Moriarty, “but we wanted to see what more we could do.”
Since the company specialises in coloured gemstones, many facetted by Steve – a skilled lapidarist – they decided to create a live two-hour storytelling show on YouTube. This meant purchasing equipment, learning camera angles and creating a set. They marketed the event through email, text messages, the website and social media. The initial unscripted and casual show attracted more than 1,000 people, leading the team to offer it biweekly and then monthly. They also answered questions from viewers.
“Stories sell stones, and many who purchase from us bring their gems to be made into custom jewels,” added Moriarty. The bestselling stone? Tanzanite. In the jewellery category, rings and earrings are favoured purchases. Today, Moriarty’s online business has become so successful that the company now works with a third-party platform for payments for its online sales.
When the pandemic struck, Beatrice Matiash, creator of 20-year-old jewellery company Tashka by Beatrice, found another revenue stream. She was already making bejewelled fabric bags and umbrellas to complement her jewellery, so she ramped up to make gemstone-motif masks. “Since masks were so scarce in the beginning, they sold out as soon as we introduced them on social media. They became must-have accessories,” she revealed. Her mask customers became jewellery customers, so it was a win-win for Matiash, who donates a portion of the proceeds to five charities.
An avid user of Facebook “for her older customers” and Instagram “for the younger ones,” Matiash also occasionally does Instagram Live. In September, she launched her own e-commerce site, which has done well and is separate from her wholesale business. “I am so grateful we were able to create the e-commerce site. Without it, we would not have survived,” she said.
Paula Crevoshay, the creative force behind Crevoshay, quickly motivated her team to meet the challenges of coping with the pandemic.
“We increased our online presence,” she said. “In addition to Instagram, Pinterest, and my personal Facebook page, we added the Crevoshay Official business page that features the latest creations and even live video interaction with us.”
The brand also emails flipbooks, slideshows and short videos to retailers, who can customise them with their own information before sending to their final customers, continued Paula.
“We still all need the human element, so in addition to phone calls, we email virtual hugs, a piece of music or a funny picture to say ‘we are thinking of you and hope you are well,’” she revealed. Paula has seen two changes in buying behaviour. “Many of our single female clients have become quiet, while a few self-purchasers have been spending much more.”
Since Crevoshay’s jewels are one-of-a-kind fine art, she notes an increase in demand for her recently launched Endangered Treasury, featuring endangered animal designs, and Avian Treasury with myriad colourful birds. “People want to wear something that sends a positive message, especially in these difficult times,” Paula said.
When the pandemic hit, New York became a deserted city with boarded-up windows. “The pandemic has been terrible on everyone and some did not survive,” described Caroline Chartouni, owner of designer brand Caroline C.
Working from home, she and her team reached out to clients. “The personal touch is important, so we hand-wrote notes to say ‘hello’ and ask how they are doing,” she said. “We then started video chats, FaceTime, and Zoom, while learning 3D technology to better show the colours and details of the gems and jewels online.”
If customers want a piece, Chartouni’s team arranges for a courier to deliver it. “This process has been so successful that we will continue in the future,” she added.
In terms of styles, buyers prefer everyday pieces since they are not going out as much, especially studs and short earrings that can be worn with masks. Some investment pieces are still requested though.
Chartouni is not active on Instagram or Facebook, indicating that most new customers are referrals who are looking for one-of-a-kind pieces. “The pandemic will be over at some point, but in the meantime, it is important to connect with our customers in other ways,” she remarked.
California-based Omi Privé has always worked with retailers to educate consumers about a gemstone’s story. When the pandemic hit, Director of Marketing Natalie Rodrigues knew that these interactions had to quickly move online. Sales were down; uncertainty kept people from investing as usual. But thanks to the government’s Covid-19 relief programme, the company's staff worked from home.
“We launched a new website in order to include the brand’s history and the benefits of working with us,” revealed Rodrigues. “We also started Zoom meetings using a two-camera set-up to show details of the jewellery and gems.”
The company then purchased contact resource management software to help track clients, schedule meetings, organise social media, and make custom webpages. “One very successful venture was Virtual Tucson, where the landing page featured gems with photos, videos and certificates, and the client could request a one-on-one virtual meeting,” stated Rodrigues. In addition to social media, the company sent out a full-colour print catalogue of its products.
It all paid off—2021 is seeing a big increase in sales, with great interest in moonstones and Paraiba tourmaline.
Erica Courtney, owner of her eponymous California-based brand, was surprised how good business was in 2020. Although fearing the worst, she said, “Sales were good and across the board in terms of design. Since people weren’t travelling or buying a lot of new clothes, they spent on jewellery.”
Even before the pandemic, Courtney regularly called her retailers (all survived the lockdown) to keep track of which pieces their customers purchased, so she could propose additions to them.
In June, she did an in-store trunk show, with everyone masked. “It felt good to get out and meet people after the lockdown, and they were eager to buy,” she added.
While Courtney continues to work with retailers, she feels that the pandemic has resulted in new ways of doing business. “Being digitally active is important for stores and brands, and I decided to beef up my own Instagram. As a result, I sold 10 times more to private clients in 2020 than previous years,” she disclosed.
Going forward, Courtney intends to maintain certain collections for her retail clients, while increasing her brand’s presence on social media, selling directly to end-consumers.
The impact of the pandemic clearly accelerated the digital transformation of the US jewellery industry as retailers and manufacturers alike sought new ways to reach customers. Many enhanced their social media messaging; some emphasised appointments rather than walk-ins; while others created specific offerings in order to attract customers.
Will this transformation be the new normal? Most likely, yes. Even with brick-and-mortar re-opening, customers have grown accustomed to the convenience of shopping and connecting online, which has become both a lifeline and a lifestyle for the US jewellery sector.