The ubiquitous engagement ring is the centrepiece of many jewellery marketing and branding strategies. Thankfully, the rate of popularity and perceived necessity of ‘putting a ring on it’ continues to strengthen.
This is particularly noteworthy given the enormous societal changes influencing the purchase of engagement rings such as the push for marriage equality, increased focus on gender equality and prevalence of second and subsequent marriages. So why does the engagement ring endure and how can jewellers keep abreast of these changes to ensure the future of this very special ring is, ahem, set in stone?
All love is equal
The biggest pending change to hit the engagement ring sector in recent years is the increasing push for marriage equality. Countless polls show the majority of Australians now support marriage equality and instead of signalling the end of the traditional marriage fairy tale, it’s expected that marriage equality will open new markets for jewellers as more couples than ever choose to mark their commitment to each other with an engagement ring.
Signifying the weight of the social crusade behind marriage equality and its impact on the jewellery industry is Tiffany & Co’s international ‘Will You?’ advertising campaign. The campaign, launched last year, features a same-sex couple alongside six other “distinctly modern” couples.
Closer to home, Sydney-based Mondial by Nadia Neuman states, “All love is equal” in an advertising campaign that features two same-sex couples. Director Nadia Neuman says the mainstream focus on marriage equality is encouraging same-sex partners to purchase engagement rings as a symbol of commitment and in the hope that local marriage laws will change to allow same-sex marriage.
“Even though it’s still not legal – crazy, I know – there has been a tangible shift in mentality due to all the talk and support surrounding it,” Neuman explains. “So much discussion about equal rights has the gay community believing in ‘forever’. There is a reignited sense of pride in the lesbian-gay-bisexual-trans-and/or-intersex (LGBTI) psyche and with that comes pride and strength within their relationships. As such, our shop has experienced a dramatic increase in same-sex couples wanting rings, and they’re not even referred to as commitment rings anymore.”
Crucially, the traditional diamond engagement ring is popular but not always the first choice of same-sex couples who don’t necessarily share a historical connection with the stone.
“There have never been any pre-conceived ideas about gay marriage,” Neuman says. “This means no expectations, no traditions, no sticking to the rules. There are no dreams of white wedding dresses and traditional ceremonies because there were never allowed to be. People love sentimentality and tradition but no one feels the need to comply. This means people can do whatever they want with their rings and, boy, we’ve had some fun ones.”
Khay Amani, managing director of K. Amani Fine Jeweller in New Zealand, agrees. “It’s brought about a new type of thinking in terms of how you go about the act of committing to another person for marriage,” she says.
“Same-sex couples aren’t necessarily going to go for a diamond engagement ring. They might go for a promise ring, which are really popular. I also have guys coming in and getting cufflinks made for each other instead of buying engagement rings,” Amani explains.
As for who wears an engagement ring, the good news for jewellers is that both partners will often choose to put one on.
“Sometimes we have female same-sex couples come in and both will want a ring, while for other couples one of the ladies will get the ring,” says jewellery designer Nicole Donaghy from Larsen Jewellery. “At the same time, we also have male same-sex couples who both want rings but they may be more like a wedding band rather than traditional engagement-style with one diamond.”
George Bakoulas, general manager of Melbourne-based Australian Diamond Company, comments that he’s noticing a similar trend.
“The big one we’re seeing is the same-sex market, especially lesbian couples who want to buy two engagement rings,” he says. “From our perspective they are a very important relationship – it’s a very lucrative market for us.”
Amani cautions that the persistent gender pay gap, which hovers at around 18 per cent, affects the spending power of female same-sex couples.
“A female same-sex couple’s income is going to be less than a male same-sex couple and I see that time and time again,” she says. “If a female same-sex couple comes in for rings, they may set a budget that’s fairly tricky to work with compared to a male couple coming in with no problems as far as budget is concerned.”
When a man loves a woman
Compared to their Baby Boomer mothers, female Millennials enjoy far greater equality with their male counterparts. More women gain university degrees and participate in the workforce than ever before. When it comes to tying the knot, an increased proportion of women now retain their maiden name and many women eschew traditions like having Dad walk her down the aisle. There are even ‘man-gagement’ rings, in which a woman gives an engagement ring to a man; however, most independent, modern Australian women still expect their men to propose with a ring that typically costs around $5,000, according to consumer organisation Choice.
“It’s so entrenched in our idea of what love is, what marriage is, and it’s about that fairy tale story that everyone still loves,” Karl Schwantes, managing director of Xennox Diamonds in Brisbane, says of the male proposal. “We’re not ready to break away from that and it’s a trend that will keep going for a long time. People may make changes but the symbolism behind it will always remain. Most women grow up thinking about the time they’ll be proposed to with a ring on their finger.”
Bakoulas says rather than considering the gender implications, most couples are attracted to the engagement ring as a symbol of commitment. Donaghy agrees, but says status can be a significant motivator.
“There’s still a segment of society that look at the engagement ring as a status symbol and the number of carats is a statement of wealth or position in society,” she says.
That’s not to say young people today want the same size or type of rock on their finger as previous generations. According to the jewellers who spoke with Jeweller, many couples are looking past diamonds to coloured gemstones and if they do choose a diamond, it’s likely to be a big one.
“The trend at the moment is moving to bigger diamonds,” Schwantes states. “Over the last 10 or so years, I’ve seen the average engagement ring diamond size double. Over the last year we’ve had a 65 per cent increase in one-carat-plus sizes. People today factor in a larger budget when it comes to choosing their engagement rings.”
Bakoulas says rings that stand out from the crowd are trending.
“A few years ago people were traditionally looking for under a carat, whereas now we’re starting to see people purchasing larger carat weights,” he says. “We’re also starting to see people exploring other gemstones as well, not just diamonds. People are choosing sapphires and other gemstones to not be the norm.”
Coloured gemstones like sapphires and rubies now make up about 40 per cent of Amani’s trade, which she believes is because diamonds often have a bad image among Millennials.
“Things like a negative view of De Beers or how diamonds are acquired, blood diamonds or just an understanding that diamonds aren’t as rare or expensive as they should be are pushing Millennials away from diamonds,” Amani says.
For women heading down the aisle for a second or third time – 28 per cent of marriages each year, according to social-research business McCrindle – coloured gemstones are also increasingly popular. However, engagement rings for this segment are less about romance and more about practicality.
“As for second marriages, women definitely want to steer away from convention,” Neuman says. “They’ve been there and done that and they want to get the ring they’ve always wanted. Usually after a few years of practical living – kids, school and dental bills – they get themselves a ring that’s really ‘them’ and they’re usually at a stage where they know what that is.”
Bakoulas agrees the second time around is a totally different experience for both men and women.
“We see people have a real emotional attachment to the piece first time around and they’re very fussy about what they want,” he says. “People who come around for the second time aren’t as fussed because they’ve been there, done that. They’re looking for a ring to symbolise their relationship and they don’t really mind what it looks like.”
All of the jewellers interviewed for this story agree that retailers who ignore these segments of the engagement ring market do so at their own peril. There’s also strong consensus that overtly targeting same-sex couples won’t alienate heterosexual couples, especially as research conducted by Galaxy Research on behalf of Australian Marriage Equality finds a greater proportion of young people – those who form the bulk of the engagement ring market – support same-sex marriage.
“For the first timers and same-sex couples, it’s about the story and talking about the emotional aspects of purchasing an engagement ring,” Bakoulas says.
“With people who are going around for the second or third time, it’s more about convenience. They can look at a wide range of rings and choose something they like. The messaging needs to be different – one is more around building the story of the relationship and the other is more about the selection you offer.”
Ultimately, while the sorts of rings and the types of relationships in which they’re exchanged may change, engagement rings are likely to endure as a symbol of commitment for generations to come.
“I cannot honestly see any good reason for it to change,” Neuman says. “The exchange of rings has been around for centuries. It’s a beautiful, symbolic and meaningful exchange of promises and commitment that I hope remains for centuries to come.”
This can only mean good things for jewellers.
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