Buy Your Next Tiara Online

Over the last two decades, online shopping has expanded into just about everything, from automobiles to mascara, renters’ insurance to peanut butter.

But luxury retailers, at least initially, clung to the belief that their clients expected an exclusive experience. Jewelers in particular treated the sale of their most luxurious creations (generally anything priced at more than $50,000) as a sacrosanct ritual marked by certain traditional elements: a private salon, white gloves, velvet-lined trays, Champagne.

Not anymore.

Entrepreneurs keen to reinvent the experience of buying high jewelry for the digital age have been leading the transformation, with some of the best-known heritage houses not far behind.

At the end of last year, for example, the online luxury marketplace Farfetch organized a three-way virtual jewelry appointment for a Parisian high jeweler, a client and a stylist based in California (Farfetch would not provide any details — not even the client’s gender).

At the jeweler’s flagship boutique in Paris, the brand turned the cameras on models wearing a selection of jewels customized to the client’s preferences. By the time the video presentation was complete, the client had purchased an eight-carat diamond necklace.

(Bubbly was on hand to toast the deal, naturally. In advance of the call, Farfetch had dispatched a bottle of the client’s favorite vintage.)

“It was almost like being at the brand’s atelier at Place Vendôme,” said Jamie Freed, global vice president of Farfetch Private Client, a loyalty program for customers who spend at least $12,000 a year with the retailer.

“People are really longing for experiences to go along with significant purchases,” Ms. Freed added. “It makes it feel a lot less transactional than just adding to cart.”

Even before the pandemic, retailers such as Farfetch and Threads Styling, a chat-based fashion commerce platform that introduced a dedicated fine jewelry Instagram account in March, had begun to question the value of face-to-face contact during sales.

Much of the clientele now buying high-end jewelry is scattered around the world, and is more interested in the kind of convenience and hyper-personalized customer service offered online than at in-person sessions, said Samina Virk, Threads Styling’s global chief marketing officer and head of U.S. operations. (Age also could have something to do with that digital preference: She noted that more than 80 percent of the company’s clients are millennials or members of Gen Z.)

Then came the pandemic, forcing even the most traditional jewelers to abandon in-person sales in favor of a platform-agnostic omnichannel strategy — what e-commerce specialists call a seamless retail experience across different “channels,” such as social media and phone and in a physical store.

“The boundaries between what used to be separate channels no longer define retail,” Céline Assimon, chief executive of De Beers Jewellers, wrote in an email.

Like many of the other major houses, “we used to launch our high jewelry collections during Couture Week in Paris, and host clients and journalists in our salon,” Ms. Assimon wrote. “The collection would then travel to our key markets, where we hosted private appointments and events for our local clients.

“In 2021, given travel restrictions, we chose a hybrid format,” she continued. “In January, we unveiled our new high jewelry collection, Reflections of Nature, through a virtual presentation on debeers.com.” The collection then had a live introduction in China, with events in several cities, and is scheduled to be in the United States in October.

Ms. Assimon said the pandemic’s restrictions prompted the house to accelerate its expansion into a digital retailer. “We launched virtual appointments, which allow clients to discover our jewelry in a real in-store experience with our brand ambassadors, but from home,” she wrote. And “we use any digital platform preferred by our clients — FaceTime, Zoom, WhatsApp, WeChat — so that we can connect with them in a meaningful way.”

That kind of digital-first thinking dovetails with the findings of a report published last month by the online platform Business of Fashion and the consulting group McKinsey & Company. Over the next five years, according to the report, online sales of fine jewelry are expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 9 to 12 percent — three times that projected for the fine jewelry industry overall.

Jewelry “has long been about the magic of exploration and try-on,” Tyler Harris, an associate partner at McKinsey who leads the company’s fine jewelry work globally, wrote in an email. “But the pandemic changed that. Fine jewelry players across the globe were forced to very quickly embrace digital with everything from scaling video appointments to shifting resources to e-commerce teams. Perhaps most importantly, the pandemic proved that customers are willing to buy fine jewelry digitally.

“With consumer behaviors shifting, we expect by 2025 that online purchases will be 18 percent to 21 percent of the market, up from 13 percent in 2019,” Ms. Harris added.

Eager to capture their share, high jewelry brands are going all in on technology.

In 2020, Bulgari introduced an app using augmented reality so clients could “try on” its Barocko high jewelry pieces, which sell for $100,000 to $20 million. The brand used that platform this year for its new collection, called Magnifica.

Last fall, Cartier set up a dedicated video studio at its Fifth Avenue mansion in New York, part of a global effort to find new ways to connect with consumers in a pandemic.

“We realized there were still plenty of opportunities to enrich these connections with our clients, keeping them engaged and inspired and helping them celebrate their special occasions, whether via FaceTime conversations, bespoke in-home experiences or virtual appointments,” Mercedes Abramo, chief executive of Cartier North America, wrote in an email. “Via private, one-on-one viewings, clients could see close-up views of new creations and hear firsthand from various experts from the Cartier workshop and the Cartier archives.”

Last year the jeweler also hosted its first livestreaming show on Alibaba’s Taobao Live during the Chinese retailing giant’s 11.11 shopping festival, the online event that reportedly drew more than $70 billion in sales. The show featured more than 400 Cartier watches and jewelry items, including a necklace valued at $28.3 million, according to the Business of Fashion/McKinsey report.

Of all the experiences made possible by technology, however, the ability to offer customized, one-on-one styling services — over platforms such as WhatsApp and WeChat — may be the most appealing for high-end jewelry consumers.

“We have personal shoppers at the end of every chat,” Ms. Virk of Threads Styling said. “It makes us much more accessible. Curation and convenience — that’s the ultimate luxury.”

And it’s not limited to big spenders.

In September, the jewelry industry veteran Rosena Sammi founded The Jewelry Edit on the premise that access to styling advice should be democratized. The website offers a selection of pieces from $50 to $4,000, with an emphasis on creations by Black and Asian designers, as well as those focused on sustainability.

“Our store is like any store — you can just buy,” Ms. Sammi said during a recent video call. “But the real magic is if you engage. We’ve developed an algorithm to measure your face and suggest earrings and we combine that with a stylist. You can tell them about your job and lifestyle, or send a pic of the dress you’re wearing.”

That level of personalized attention is especially important in the estate and vintage realm, one of the last bastions of the jewelry trade to embrace digital — although that is slowly changing, too.

In December, Amanda Zuydervelt, the founder of the luxury concierge service Stylebible and a former executive with Compagnie Financière Richemont, introduced Omneque, an online platform for secondhand jewelry found and vetted by two London-based vintage jewelry experts, the historian and author Vivienne Becker and the gemologist and former auctioneer Joanna Hardy.

“Even though the jewelry is vintage, we wanted to ensure that it would rival the look and feel of new,” Ms. Zuydervelt said on a video call last month. “Because that’s what was missing in the secondhand space. The customer service, the packaging — it’s the luxury experience.”

On a later video call, Ms. Hardy reflected on the power of technology to push “antique jewelry into a whole new realm of awareness.”

“Jewelry is all about the human stories,” she said. “But digitally you can see the front and back of the pieces, you can talk over WhatsApp about them. And even if it’s over Zoom, there’s a far more personal element than seeing it in an auction catalog.”

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