Ever since De Beers launched its ‘A Diamond is Forever’ campaign in 1947 and Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ in 1953 women around the world have viewed diamonds as their ultimate objets de désir.
However, at long last it seems that many women are looking at other gemstones in jewellery store windows as well – a trend that could in fact be spurred on further by the current economic crisis.
Grant Hamid, the federal president of the Gemmological Association of Australia, has no access to local sales figures of gemstones in the last 12 months but says customers are demanding a greater range of coloured stones than ever before.
“People now have a much bigger variety of stones to choose from than 10 years ago,” he says. “They (customers) are demanding new varieties and new colours.
“The general feeling in the industry is that better quality stones are selling better than middle and lower quality stones.”
George Palas, managing director of gemstone wholesaler Facets Australia agrees that the demand for better quality coloured stones is growing.
“Tiffany’s and Bulgari’s recent promotions of coloured stone jewellery have impacted on general demand,” he says.
“There is a much higher awareness of coloured stones now,” he explains adding that aquamarines, tanzanites and violet, lilac and yellow sapphires have all been good sellers for his business in the last 12 months.
In addition although most engagement rings still feature diamonds as their central focus, Palas believes the move to coloured stone engagement rings has “already started”.
“A lot more customers are wanting coloured stone engagement rings,” he says.
“I think couples are choosing coloured stone engagement rings for two main reasons – a coloured stone ring is less expensive than a standard colourless diamond ring and more unique than a standard colourless diamond ring.”
Terry Coldham, the managing director of gemstone wholesaler Sapphex Australia is also happy with the current popularity of coloured gemstones.
He says the company experienced its “best months ever” of sales last year.
Colour in Fashion
“The popularity of coloured stones seems to have increased during 2008, and this applies to all types from the least expensive to the very expensive,” he says.
“There seems to be a demand right across the board for coloured stones from the traditional requirements such as a sapphire engagement ring to a large fancy cut coloured quartz for that piece of ‘bling’.”
Coldham believes a combination of the latest overseas jewellery and fashion trends and the “very traditional attitude most Australians have to jewellery” are the biggest factors that determine local gemstone buying patterns.
Although trends are difficult to predict Coldham is adamant that one trend that is definitely on the increase is “demand for untreated or ‘natural’ gemstones”.
Deborah Hamid, a co-director of Hamid Bros gemstone wholesaler with her brother Grant Hamid, says the business’s sales in the last 12 months have increased overall, with a noticeable spike in higher end goods as jewellers are increasingly requesting larger stones of fine quality.
“In a market driven by price-conscious customers, our clients are requesting high quality material in all price ranges, in preference to lower quality cheaper goods.”
“With a discerning consumer, the gap between low quality and high quality has widened, with consumers willing to spend extra to secure a quality that satisfies their individual persona.”
Deborah believes that the growth in coloured gemstones’ popularity has, to a greater extent, been led by fashion.
“In the last few years, fashion magazines both here and overseas have been full of colourful clothes, jewellery and make-up.”
Deborah says the trend towards more colourful jewellery is also reflected in the collections of large international jewellery houses such as Tiffany’s and Bulgaria, which have launched high priced advertising campaigns featuring coloured stones that have had a significant impact on local coloured stone demand.
Bruce Kaldor, the managing director of Rox Jewellery in Sydney’s central Strand Arcade, has specialised in bespoke coloured stone jewellery for around 25 years and is now enjoying its growing popularity.
“Coloured stones are our main product – diamonds are a distant second,” he says.
Kaldor says coloured stones are much more popular now than when his business first opened for trading.
“When we first started in business most people wanted rubies, sapphires and emeralds because they were the only stones they knew,” he recalls.
“Customers now know and want other stones – in fact more than 50 percent of our customers probably know what stone they are looking for before they walk in the door.”
He says stones currently enjoying a surge in popularity include aquamarine (particularly Mozambique aquamarine with green hues) and various coloured sapphires.
“I think people are more discerning with their purchases now. They want to know the inherent value of a stone and they want the colour to be good and rare or ‘rarish’.
“We encourage people to choose coloured stones rather than diamonds for their engagement rings,” he says.
However, he readily admits this is not an easy task as only a minority, albeit “a growing minority”, of customers choose coloured stones for their engagement ring.
“A coloured stone engagement ring is definitely not for the majority,” he says.
“You need a certain amount of confidence to make your own decision and pick your own coloured stone for your engagement ring when De Beers has marketed a ‘diamond is forever’ so effectively.”
Nonetheless despite the effect of such advertising campaigns Kaldor believes it is personal preference – and not marketing or fashion – that determines a customer’s choice of coloured stone.
“People buy the colours they like,” he says. “The final colour is almost always a personal choice – If people like red they buy red. If they like purple they buy purple. If they like green they buy green.
“When people are buying an expensive piece of jewellery they know that, unlike a pair of shoes, they can’t throw it out after a couple of years, so they choose what they genuinely like – because they know they will have to live with their choice for years.”
Martin Farkas, the managing director of Martin Rogers Jewellers in Adelaide, is also enjoying the growing interest in coloured stones.
He says his customers’ demand for good quality coloured gemstones in the last 12 months has been “strong”.
“There seems to be significant interest in larger gemstones,” he says.
“(Customers) seem to want rich colours and unique cuts – and want to use diamonds as enhancements rather than the focal point on their jewellery.”
“We have also found that there has been an increase in the demand for certified stones and believe that this has come about with the public awareness and demand for branded and certified diamonds.”
Meanwhile Rebecca Benvenuti, stock controller for wholesaler Bolton Gems, says that although coloured gemstones are always a “steady market” for the company there have been some major trend changes in recent years.
Ceylon sapphire, pink sapphire and ruby were enjoying continuing popularity while lesser known stones like
tourmaline, spinel and tanzanite were also growing in popularity “although presently they remain the choice of the
discerning buyer only”.
Benvenuti says the most significant gemstone trend was “impact jewellery” – “the incorporation of beautiful,
large, semi-precious stones in affordable nine carat and sterling silver jewellery pieces”.
The trend was visible at the JAA Australian Jewellery Fair in September where there was “an increase in large cabochon and cushion cut set rings and dramatic briolette earrings, pendants and necklaces”.
“Forward thinking manufacturers and designers are clearly seeing the need to promote a genuine gemstone alternative to fashion jewellery. This suits the present economic climate, as large semiprecious stones are affordable and readily available.”
Benvenuti expects to see “continued growth and development of ideas” in this area with an accent on blue topaz, amethyst, Mozambique garnet and peridot. She also expects to see growth in demand for pink sapphire.
“The interest in pink diamonds has grown recently but unfortunately they are not within every one’s budget. Pink sapphire is the affordable and beautiful alternative.”
Benvenuti says that education and availability are key factors that impact on local sales of coloured gemstones.
“We (Australians) simply are not well informed or exposed to the myriad possibilities in coloured gemstones.”
Monica Crofts from gemstone wholesaler I. Crofts has also enjoyed “steady” gemstone sales in the last 12 months with “some good sales in better quality stones”.
She believes customer buying trends are changing constantly with fashion.
“The biggest influences driving coloured gemstone sales in any country is advertising in fashion magazine and women who love coloured gemstones,” she says.
“Large gemstones and cheap beads from India and China have become fashionable, and trendy jewellers like Jan Logan have made jewellery using these ingredients which many others copy.”
The next 12 months
Grant Hamid believes current economic difficulties “may make some people more reticent to spend on luxury items” but is nonetheless confident that many will still seek quality products” as there are still many economic positives (eg lower interest rates, petrol prices, government bonuses, tax cuts, etc) for working Australians.
“Consumers with less money to spend may turn to more affordable stones rather than lower quality more expensive stones,” he says.
“For example someone who wants to buy a tanzanite but can’t afford it may purchase a purple sapphire instead.”
He says the option to choose a colour dependant on budget was a major advantage that coloured stones had over diamonds – particularly in tough economic times.
“Customers don’t have to buy a smaller, lower quality stone as they can choose to buy a higher-quality version of another type of stone instead.”
Deborah also believes that the slowing of the global economy will be felt in the Australian jewellery market place but is confident that the changing economic conditions will not pose much of a threat to quality gemstone jewellery sales which are more resilient to such forces.
She says the slowing economy will see a shift in demand from quantity to quality in jewellery purchases.
“People who buy handmade jewellery will want a high quality piece – something more lasting and less fashion driven.
“They are more likely to actively seek interesting and individual jewellery that is different to what their friends and colleagues have.”
If money is an issue, she says customers are more likely to opt for a really good version of a cheaper stone, rather than a poorer quality version of a more expensive one – ie they may chose a fine red spinel rather than a lower quality ruby or a high quality chrome tourmaline rather than a cheaper emerald.
“The price of gold is high so people have to weight up the cost of the stone in their jewellery carefully. The gold is largely a fixed cost, but they can always vary the cost of the stone.”
Coldham also remains relatively optimistic about the prospect for gemstone wholesalers and retailers in the year ahead.
“Everybody talks of a downturn in the economy and a drop off in consumer spending during 2009,” he says, “but so far we have seen little evidence of this.
“Like everyone else we are experiencing a sense of uncertainty in what the future holds, but we also believe that expectations of a downturn to some extent result from a media ‘build up’ to provide sensational headlines so to sell more advertising space.
“Unfortunately the predictions of ‘doom and gloom’ tend to have a self fulfilling nature. So what better way to brighten up your life than to buy a coloured gemstone? This is what we are working on and we are sure sales of coloured gemstones will continue through any downturn as they have in the past.”
Meanwhile Kaldor argues that although it is hard to predict exactly what will happen to the coloured stone jewellery market in the next 12 months he doesn’t believe it will slow down sales significantly.
“Coloured stones offer customers their preferred colours in almost every price range,” he says.
“They also offer prospective diamond buyers a more affordable alternative – they (prospective diamond buyers) can buy a similar sized stone for their ring design for a lot less or get a much bigger stone for the same price.”
* Image supplied by Martin Rogers Designer Jewellers