Walk into many jewelry making factories around the world – maybe even most – and you’ll see Least Common Denominator design processes take place.
You’ll meet him in conference rooms, where retail shoppers examine designs they saw at the jewelry show in Las Vegas, Hong Kong, or Basel; ask if the manufacturing team can remove their favorite looks from the shows.
You will see it in the offices, where a designer’s work is selected by the sales staff, which suggests that a few more diamonds on the halo, or on the shoulder, or a blackened metal, or a more pointed claw, are required; that these are the items that seem to be selling in the market.
Then the top seller brings the designs back to his desk and comes back a day later with images pulled from a Google search, cut and taped together to show what he thinks they should sell.
Here’s a simple rule of thumb about market value to consider: If all the products on the market are essentially the same, then the only thing a customer will care about is the price. Once customers only care about the price, the market begins to bleed the value. What is left after this happens? Simply the sum of the parts; in this case, the market value of precious stones and precious metals. After that, bringing the market back to a state of added value is extremely painful, if not impossible.
What happens when innovation disappears?
It’s not even new news. The jewelry industry has been following this path for some time.
The results are visible in an independent retail segment that struggles to compete with online sellers and non-traditional jewelry sellers. It’s tempting to dismiss the struggles at jewelry retail as being the same as the struggles at all retail – and to some extent they are – but doing so ignores a corollary problem. Walk into any jewelry store anywhere and you’ll likely see the same cases full of solitaires, solitaires with halos, solitaires with double halos, diamond studs, and three-stone rings. Yes, there will always be a demand for basic jewelry, but have we become too. . . good . . . basic? Consumers have been trained to expect that they won’t see anything new or different in jewelry, so they conduct comparative research online and negotiate prices.
The jewelry industry has a jewelry manufacturing sector that does not innovate. Yes, there are pockets of innovation – you’ll see them featured in this column in the weeks and months to come. But the overriding goal of the jewelry making industry has been to perfect the pumping of parts, the mechanization of what was manual labor for nearly a millennium, and the reduction of labor costs. Which, come to think of it, should really get your head scratching. When the item you make is $ 700 gold, $ 2,800 in gems, and $ 80 in labor (and that’s before the United States started exporting jewelry jobs ), how much can a business gain by focusing so much energy on reducing labor costs?
What are the added value opportunities?
Please don’t get me wrong. No manufacturer should spend more money on labor than is necessary for their branding strategy, and working to improve efficiency and reduce errors is extremely important work.
But is it possible that the jewelry industry has thrown all its eggs in the efficiency basket? Is it possible that he focused 100% on reducing production costs and increasing production, and in the process did not take into account this other extremely important aspect of added value: the design?
At some level, the industry knows it has lost something important. Retailers and manufacturers have tried to draw attention to customer service as a differentiator. The problem with that is excellent customer service is now a minimum standard necessary to compete. Once something is expected, it no longer adds value.
Thousands of companies around the world make jewelry, both for their own distribution efforts and for other brands. Yet a handful of jewelry brands manage to gain recognition among consumers. Meanwhile, poll after poll shows that good design is a priority for millennials – from clothing to electronics to kitchen accessories, design matters. Considering that this is the fastest growing jewelry buying demographic, the industry needs to take note.
So what about the design?
Design is a discipline, just like engineering, marketing or accounting. Yes, starlets and babies in trust with money to spend may decide to become jewelry designers, but just because it is said to be so doesn’t. There is a reason that Tiffany & Company jewelry is so attractive. Beyond the marketing and manufacturing machine, at the heart of the brand, are the designers; people who study and practice the art of creating something functional, beautiful and balanced, something that pleases the eye and stimulates the senses like a perfect dish pleases the palette. Harry winston didn’t become famous because he could get his hands on exquisite diamonds (although it didn’t hurt). It was his weird sense of the design of the setting around each diamond that set him apart. David Yurman became a power in part because they created jewelry for the mass market without ever losing sight of the importance of design. David Yurman and his co-founder wife Sybil are both working artists, and this sensibility continues to be at the forefront of the business they created.
None of this is to say that there are no brilliant jewelry designs for sale. The jewelry industry is filled with independent designers producing small lines, and this work is exceptional. The problem is, these creators rarely have the capital to hit the market. It is nearly impossible for them to break into the jewelry retail business, and going directly to the consumer is prohibitively expensive (it’s easy to set up a Shopify site, but there’s no guarantee that anyone will ever visit it). Most independent designers survive by selling between 10 and 30 stores – barely enough exposure to create a lasting impression on consumers. If manufacturers were smart, they would tap into this talent pool.
Creating a fondness for design is not an easy thing to do in organizations that have never thought of this way before. This requires hiring experienced design talent and investing in the development of design teams. It means taking risks to create new looks, and not just complying with popular tastes. It means working hard to define collections and learning the art of merchandising. It means developing an understanding of the difference between good design and great design, or learning to trust someone to guide this part of the product development process.
A sustained and explicit focus on design would surely help create more differentiation in an ocean of similarity. And that’s the kind of added value that consumers are willing to pay for.