We’ve all seen the numbers that say the American jewelry industry is contracting.
In the third quarter of 2018, the Jewelers Board of Trade (JBT) found that 226 U.S. jewelry companies closed and only 51 opened. These numbers are roughly equal to last year and show that the industry continues to consolidate. And yet, more may be happening than it seems.
When I spoke to Portland Jewelry Symposium a few weeks ago, my presentation presented similar statistics. Subsequently, Eric Braunwart, owner of Columbia Gem House, made an intriguing point: lately he has been contacted by many young jewelry designers and retailers, who usually seek him out because his business deals with responsibly sourced and fair trade gemstones. He found that most of them are not listed in industry standard references like the JBT.
“We probably get two or three new accounts a week,” he says. “I would say maybe 10 percent of them are on JBT’s radar.”
In fact, some haven’t even heard of the industry credit scoring group.
“They say, ‘We’ve never heard of JBT. What is that?’ They don’t care, they pay everything with credit cards.
Founder Wing Yau adds that being listed on JBT “rarely shows up,” and she doesn’t understand why it would need to be listed.
These companies also sell in unconventional ways, explains Braunwart. While some started on Etsy, they now do a lot of business on Instagram. When they sell in physical locations, it’s often in galleries or in their own custom space. But it seems to work for them.
“Some of them do a lot more business than I do,” he says. “One that we started with six months ago. They were making a pendant and wanted 300 stones for a 90 day supply. Now they buy 1,000 every 45 days. This is the speed at which some of them are growing.
They can also capture market share from the traditional firm.
“We’ve all wondered if the market will ever revert to traditional brick and mortar stores,” says Braunwart. “But I think a lot of it goes to this new type of retailer.”
All of this raises some interesting questions: We have traditionally called someone a jeweler if they have an established store or location. And yet, there are clearly jewelry companies doing big business on platforms like Etsy, Instagram, and their own sites. But they don’t necessarily fit into standard industry categories. And, it turns out that some are okay with that.
Seattle-based business owner Aran Galligan Jewelry Checklist and another Portland Symposium attendee, listed her business on JBT after a vendor said it would charge her extra if she used a credit card. (Before that, she hadn’t heard of it.) Still, she doesn’t expect many young designers to follow suit.
“I’d much rather pay for everything with a credit card and not have to worry about the different lines of credit,” she says. “Plus you get points.”
She does most of her business online, some through Etsy, but mostly through her site. It also has a physical showroom. She says her niche – affordable, eco-friendly jewelry – has “exploded” over the past two years, so much that she is worried about oversaturation.
Her business, which is now six years old, started in part as a reaction to the traditional jewelry industry, she says.
“I didn’t agree with that,” she said. “I didn’t see myself in it. I wanted to create something for people like me.
It has particular problems with the way the industry sources its materials.
“One of the things that really struck me about the Portland Symposium was that when [attendees] talked about responsible sourcing, they talked about it from a point of view, that’s how you attract millennials, not that it’s the right thing to do. It was very insincere. The youngest want authenticity. This is the problem that a lot of young people have with the industry: it seems dishonest, very corporate.
Said Braunwart, “When you sit down and talk to these people, it’s just so different. I don’t think the industry has caught up with them yet. They don’t want to be part of the old stream. As far as traditional industry is concerned, it is a kind of underground economy.
(Image courtesy of Aide-Mémoire Bijoux)
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