For too long, pearl jewelry has been an afterthought for jewelers, a category of a few necklace strands and earrings they felt compelled to carry, but nothing to get excited about. That is starting to change.
Pearls are having their fashion moment, spurred on by designers like Dolce and Gabbana, Prada, Givenchy, Dior, Versace, Miu Miu and Chanel showing pearls on the catwalk.
And pearls are not just for the ladies anymore, as Dior, Alexander McQueen and Ryan Roche are decking out male models with pearls. For that, they can thank designer Marc Jacobs who calls his Mikimoto pearl necklace his “good luck charm.”
More jewelry designers are discovering the versatility of pearls as shown in the recent winners of the Cultured Pearl Association of America’s annual pearl design competition. Winning top honor this year was an earring design from Tariq Riaz featuring some 100 Akoya pearls accented with emeralds.
Combining pearls with other gemstones, like diamonds, sapphires and turquoise, was a trend this year, with seven of the ten winning designs mixing them up. Even the Natural Diamond Council acknowledges how pearls and diamonds play well together.
“There is a romantic and dreamy look to diamonds and pearls. These are qualities everyone always wants to capture in their jewelry, particularly now,” said Jennifer McCurry of Marissa Collections, noting the sparkle of diamonds and the glowing luster of pearls perfectly complement each other.
Up until now, pearl jewelry has been an underserved market, says Marty Hurwitz of market research firm MVEye. “Pearls are nature’s perfect gem, natural, renewable, sustainable and growing them enhances the ocean environment. There is tremendous interest in pearls among consumers. Jewelry retailers need to catch up.”
In conjunction with the Cultured Pearl Association, his firm just completed a benchmark study of consumer preferences for pearls among 1,000+ fine jewelry buyers aged 25-to-55 years of age. Survey respondents were qualified as having made a $200+ purchase in past three years.
Millennials want more pearls
The survey found interest in pearl jewelry is particularly strong among the millennial 25-to-35 year old demographic. Specifically, 42% of millennials are very likely to request pearl jewelry, as compared with only 19% of 46-to-55 year olds.
Some 24% of millennials are very likely to buy pearl jewelry for themselves versus 10% of 46-to-55 year olds and some 47% are very likely to buy pearls as a gift, compared with 16% of 46-to-55 ear olds.
When asked if they would consider pearls for themselves, 47% of millennials raised their hand, while only 16% of the oldest consumers said yes.
Of particular note is that while awareness of cultured pearls is very high (81% recognize the term), only 60% of consumers are aware that pearls are a renewable, sustainable resource.
This presents the biggest challenge and opportunity for the pearl jewelry market. “The interest in pearls is there, but retailers need to take a deeper dive into the category, learn more about them and present more varieties and exciting designs to consumers,” says Jennifer Heebner, executive director of the Cultured Pearl Association.
Retailers have everything to gain by showcasing more pearl jewelry, as the profit margins are higher in pearls than in diamonds, Heebner explains. And she says when shopping for diamonds, consumers can easily price shop based upon cut, quality and size, but pearls are not so easily compared.
“Colors in pearls vary so much. Each pearl is a one of a kind. It’s really hard to compare one pearl to another,” she says.
Pearls for brides
A major finding in the survey is that 36% of millennials will consider a pearl as the center stone in an engagement ring with another 40% saying they might give it a go.
This was a welcome surprise to Heebner and Peggy Grosz, a Cultured Pearl Association board member and senior vice president of Assael, a fine jewelry company specializing in pearls. Assael supplies Neiman Marcus, Mitchells, Richards Jewelers and about 100 more fine jewelry retailers with pearls.
“We’re seeing more interest in bridal,” Grosz says, but she adds a caveat. “Pearls do not do well when exposed to soap, lotions, perfumes and household chemicals, so they aren’t suited to wearing on the hand all the time. But then a pearl center stone is much more affordably replaced.”
Grosz describes the renewed interest in pearls as a “Pearl Revolution,” explaining the pendulum is swinging back from the ostentatious bling of other stones to the “understated elegance” of pearls.
“Yes, there has been much excitement around colored gemstones, but pearls come in so many colors and each has a special color undertone that make them special,” she explains.
“They complement your skin tone and complexion unlike any other stone. Depending upon how they are set and worn, a designer can coax the color from a pearl. And they come in so many different shapes, styles and lengths. You are never overdressed or underdressed with pearls,” she continues.
Pearls make for sustainable jewelry business
Two-thirds of the fine jewelry consumers surveyed own at least one piece of pearl jewelry. Pearls are the third most popular gem for self-purchase, after diamonds and sapphires and the second most popular after diamonds to give as a gift.
The bottom line, as the report states, is: “The pearl trade does not have to sell consumers on cultured pearls, because they already like, have and desire them.”
Pearls are a uniquely sustainable gemstone that can help jewelers grow a sustainable business. What’s needed is jewelers must expand selection, learn more about pearl’s powerful sustainability story and communicate it more effectively to their customers. It’s a story that millennials, in particular, are eager to hear.
The opportunity is there for jewelry retailers and consumers are ready and waiting for more pearls.
“More work needs to be done to show how pearls have come a long way from the small, white pearl strands grandma used to wear to a world of shapes, sizes, colors and prices to satisfy every taste and budget,” the study concludes.