If you’d been asked 10 years ago which sector of the luxury goods market was least likely to succeed online, fine jewellery would have been a contender. Too personal, too tactile, with too many potential pitfalls hidden in the complexity of a jewel’s materials, quality and authenticity. Above all, too emotive; where’s the emotion online? Yet against these odds, despite cynicism and resistance from the traditional jewellery world, it has proved to be a thriving sector of luxury e-commerce.
This spring, in a milestone move, Chanel Fine Jewellery launched its latest capsule collection, Coco Crush, in a three-week digital pop-up on Net-a-Porter. The collection – one cuff (£13,500) and five rings (from £1,400), in white or yellow gold, featuring the iconic Chanel engraved quilting or matelassé – was presented in typically elegant and playful Chanel style, with the cuff and bands animated. It was the first time Chanel had sold any product (aside from beauty) online, and it proved a huge success: the cuff sold out on the first day and the large ring shortly after. As well as Net-a-Porter, fashion e-tailers such as Moda Operandi are strengthening their jewellery offers, while online marketplace 1stdibs is making a big push into contemporary jewellery.
Pioneering online jeweller Astley Clarke is also entering a new phase of rapid growth. Founder Bec Astley Clarke grew up an “e-commerce baby”, cutting her teeth at Tesco.com. “Ten years ago I wanted to start a business in an underexplored market. The jewellery world wasn’t interested in online, viewing it as a catalogue business, but I knew the opportunities were there.” She also noticed that the UK jewellery industry was fragmented, mostly unbranded and had very little positioned between Bond Street and premium high street. Most importantly, only a tiny fraction traded on the internet. Drawing on a mix of digital competency, savvy brand building and an eye for style, Astley Clarke launched in 2006 with a collection of wearable contemporary designer jewels. “I felt strongly that the on-site experience was critical: the storytelling, communication and service; we had next-day delivery, beautiful packaging and well-trained staff.” An Astley Clarke own-brand collection came to the fore five years ago, when new creative director Lorna Watson set up the company design studio. Sales took off immediately, rising to 50, then 70 per cent of the business – this year it is only selling its own-brand jewellery.
Former fashion executive Tania McNab, founder of luxury lifestyle portal La Maison Couture, has found jewellery so successful online that she’s changing the focus of the site from homewares to jewellery. The popularity of her “Jewellery Room” – the site is conceived as a beautiful French château – has taken her by surprise. “In 2008, talking to luxury brands about selling online was like pulling teeth. By 2010, things had moved on, we added designer jewellery and developed a niche.” Now jewellery represents 60 per cent of her business and is constantly growing, especially internationally. It is her strong curatorial approach that attracts clients, she says, “selecting brands and putting them in a setting that’s a little more magical”.
Even stalwart heritage brands such as Bulgari, Cartier, Dior, Piaget and Van Cleef & Arpels acknowledge the growing importance of online sales, especially in communicating brand values and reaching new markets. Carmen Busquets, an early investor in Net-a-Porter, Moda Operandi and Astley Clarke, suggests: “Jewellers are moving faster towards online as they appreciate the global reach that traditional retailing cannot afford.” Tiffany & Co was one of the first luxury jewellers to have a transactional website (in 2000), which in 2013 was given a stunning, richly interactive design overhaul. Bulgari has transactional websites in Japan and the US, where it picks up Chinese clients, and recently launched a Click & Collect service through Selfridges.com. De Beers has operated a US e-commerce site for eight years. Last autumn it was mobile optimised. “Digital is a way for clients to be inspired and immerse themselves in the brand,” says CEO François Delage. “Our e-commerce has been working well in the US and we are looking to expand it to the UK market this autumn.”
Last month Chopard (which also does Click & Collect at Selfridges) launched a European e-boutique following the success of its digital business in the US, which launched in 2012. Last year saw a 50 per cent year on year increase in sales, made up mostly of iconic, core designs like Happy Diamonds, although the high-jewellery collections tend to be the most visited.
British jeweller Boodles, which adopted e-commerce in 2005, relaunched the site in 2012. James Amos, marketing director and nephew of owners Nicholas and Michael Wainwright, explains, “Ten years ago brands tried too hard to make websites sensational, beautiful. Now we realise that functionality is more important; customers want to move around with ease and simplicity.” Amos has seen online sales double in both of the first two years and he expects them to rise by another 50 per cent this year. Ninety-five per cent of online customers are first-time Boodles buyers. Last year an overseas male first-time client purchased a £65,000 item over the phone with the Boodles digital manager. The item was hand delivered and the same client went on to spend another £40,000 online. Amos admits that luxury brands have been “slow to the party” – mainly, he feels, because they’re run by an older generation, but once online business gets going, it quickly “starts to snowball”.
The most significant driver of this trend – apart from the usual elements of convenience and time – is the accessibility of information online. In sharp contrast to the normally opaque jewellery world, this has bred a new type of jewellery customer, one who is enlightened and empowered with knowledge and confidence. By dispelling the grand aura that often hovers around a visit to a fabled jeweller and by opening up and demystifying the whole subject, the internet has broken through one of the major barriers to buying precious jewellery.
Pre-internet, the jewellery customer, particularly the first-time buyer, was totally reliant on the salesperson for information (including price) or to retrieve a jewel kept in a locked showcase. Now everything you need to know – prices, gem quality, designer background – is available at the click of a mouse. And so for buying something as personal and valuable as jewellery, the internet can provide the perfect balance between transparency and privacy.
Jewellery designer Pippa Small, who sells online both on her own website and through Net-a-Porter, says that some women prefer to try jewellery on at home, in different lights, perhaps to go with a particular dress and without the pressure of someone watching. Far more than fashion, jewellery purchase is often long and considered: click, calculate and cogitate. Where once the client was on the back foot, now he or she is in the driver’s seat.
Certainly, so far as diamonds are concerned, accessibility of information and prices has revolutionised the market. But, says Tobias Kormind, managing director of online diamond jeweller 77 Diamonds, this has also commoditised it. “Initially, diamonds listed online brought much-needed transparency to consumers. This led to heavy price competition to gain market share and, inevitably, a downward spiral, lower quality and the lack of the kind of service expected with such an important purchase. Now the online market has somewhat normalised and the businesses that remain are stronger.” These include diamond specialists such as Cool Diamonds and Icecool Diamonds. Kormind, a former banker, launched 77 Diamonds in 2005 with third-generation diamantaire Vadim Weinig. The business has grown dramatically over the past five years, reaching almost £20m in sales in 2014. While a typical transaction is around £3,000, a new client recently spent over £140,000. The company now has an inventory of 500,000 diamonds, its own workshops and a Mayfair showroom, but, says Kormind, “online has ensured that the consumer is king”.
As well as making jewellery more accessible, e-commerce has stepped into the space that connects jewellery to lifestyle and fashion, a space left empty by traditional jewellers and now filled by a plethora of casually chic and slightly rebellious designer jewels. Fine jewellery has grown substantially every season since its launch on Net-a-Porter in 2012. “We’ve seen a shift in how fine jewellery is being purchased and worn,” says Sophie Quy, fine and fashion jewellery buyer at the site. “Women used to save their fine jewellery for special occasions, but now they want to wear stylish pieces every day. There’s been a realisation that fine jewellery needn’t be precious.” It is this new audience that seems to have fuelled the upsurge in online jewellery sales. At Net-a-Porter prices vary from £325 for Delfina Delettrez pearl and enamel Lips earrings to £38,500 for a Fred Leighton vintage diamond necklace. Choice is vital, another element that was lacking in conventional jewellery circles, but it’s the edit that really matters. “Our customers are early adopters and incredibly fashion savvy,” Quy continues. Which is why, in order to thrive, e-tailers must show themselves to have a very clear USP from the growing competition.
Moda Operandi differentiates itself by organising online trunkshows, presenting rarefied, little-known designers, from high-glam, Bollywood-inspired Farah Khan to cool conceptualist Nicholas Varney. By showing the jewellery a designer at a time, superbly photographed, set out on the screen in a more engaging, less catalogue-y style, co-founder Lauren Santo Domingo aims to create “an intimate shopping experience in a high-touch, one-on-one environment”. Moda Operandi only officially launched jewellery last August, but Santo Domingo “quickly realised that it was going to be a solid revenue stream for the website”. By the end of the year, fine jewellery represented over 10 per cent of sales, 26 per cent of which were to international clients. She plans to introduce six new fine-jewellery brands each month for the foreseeable future. “Our top‑tier customers, who once wore only the most established fine-jewellery brands, are now craving up-and-coming designers like Fernando Jorge, Sabine Ghanem, Noor Fares and Eugenie Niarchos.”
Busquets, who has also invested in TrustLuxe (a website introducing western niche brands to China), has seen online jewellery offerings steadily climb upmarket. “We see first-time buyers making a purchase of $4,000 to $7,000, then becoming repeat customers, spending $50,000 to $250,000.” More advanced technology is a major contributing factor to continued growth, she says: improved photography, 360-degree views, zooms, animation and especially videos, which entertain and bring the finery to life.
Customer service too has become far more sophisticated, with an easy returns policy that still works out “more cost effective than running a shop”, says Ben Holmes, general partner at Index Ventures, an investor in Astley Clarke. There are expert advisors and/or well-informed personal shoppers at the end of a phone or online at all times. The Tiffany & Co website offers phone or email contact with its diamond experts, while Net-a-Porter’s personal shoppers travel all over the world to private appointments.
Unexpectedly, bespoke fine jewellery has also found a place online. It’s part of Astley Clarke’s business, and John Ayton, chairman of Annoushka, tells of a very loyal client in the US who has never set foot in an Annoushka store but commissions special, personalised designs. He sees this trend as yet another sign of the breakdown of preconceptions of the typical online jewellery client: “Today, the online customer is the same as the store customer.” In other words, they don’t dumb down for digital or vary their offering. “Recently we sent a single £150 Frost stud to an existing customer and a £15,000 Dream Catcher cuff to a new customer, both online buyers in Australia.”
Shaun Leane says his e-commerce website, launched in 2002, can initiate the start of a “courtship”, leading to a bespoke order. And while representing only five per cent of his annual sales, it is also undoubtedly a growth area, with these online sales growing 27 per cent in the first quarter of this year. He also sees e-commerce as an excellent educational platform, giving the buyer time to reflect and digest information that can otherwise seem overwhelming.
The demand for bespoke via e-commerce taps into what Ayton calls the “scarcity factor”, another important driver of online sales, and one that’s particularly pertinent to jewellery’s role as a powerful style signifier. While high streets and shopping malls have become increasingly homogenised, with the same brands in every fashion capital, online shopping delivers a sense of discovery by giving access to little-known, innovative designer jewellers from around the world, and one-of-a‑kind or limited-edition jewels.
Does all this spell the demise of bricks and mortar jewellery shops? Far from it. As is the modern condition, customers want it both ways. In fact, “omni-channel” is the new buzz phrase, meaning that e-commerce is most successful when backed up by traditional shops, as the latter give customers additional confidence. Along with its small London boutique, Astley Clarke has concessions in Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty, and worldwide wholesale partners, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Hong Kong’s Lane Crawford. Moda Operandi has its London Belgravia showroom, and Net-a-Porter has special rooms for EIPs (Extremely Important People) in London, New York and Hong Kong. It’s a multidimensional approach that seduces customers of all shopping inclinations and connects the chain of influences that ultimately persuade a client to purchase. In this respect, social media can also play a huge role, particularly Instagram, which increasingly sparks the e-commerce impulse buy that then allows the consumer to reflect at leisure in their own home.
Ultimately, though, while e-commerce can maximise storytelling, connectivity and convenience, it’s the jewellery – the style, quality and, above all, individuality – that counts. The medium is no longer the message. Bec Astley Clarke has the final word: “Online was the new channel and we had great reach. We were ahead of the game. Now we’re back to playing by the old rules: who has the best jewellery, distributed in the best way.”