While the jewelry industry pulls its collective hair out over mined versus man-made diamonds and millennials, it is time to change the conversation and talk about another gem perfectly suited to the next generation luxury jewelry consumers.
Pearls are a natural, organic, environmentally-sustaining and virtually-renewable gem. Pearls come in all shapes and colors, play well with other gems, metals and materials, and can be quite affordable compared to gemstones. What is more millennial than that?
Prized throughout history, pearls have waxed and waned in popularity in the contemporary jewelry market, says Hedda Shupak, editor of the Centurion newsletter. She believes pearls are having a fashion moment now, but “definitely not your traditional strand or even a stud earring look.” Millennial’s interest is in designs that “avoid the ‘mother of the bride’ look,” says Maria Then, creative director at The Product Collective serving the jewelry industry.
The natural beauty, luster and uniqueness of pearls in thoroughly modern, not-your-mothers’ style are on display in the recent winners of the Annual International Pearl Design Competition. The winning one-of-a-kind American designs are now on a three-city road tour sponsored by The Cultured Pearl Association of America (CPAA). This is the first time that the winning designs will be available for sale at retailers.
Max’s in Minneapolis is currently hosting the display through December 7, headlined by Adam Neeley’s President’s Trophy winning Rivoli earrings that combine golden South Sea pearls and cream-to-white akoya pearls with diamonds in a gold setting.
Pearls are ready for a comeback
If you were to design a new jewelry category for millennials from scratch, pearls would be it . They are 100% natural and the only gem that grows in a living creature. They are renewable, unlike mined gemstones, which once removed from the ground, no more will ever be formed.
Each pearl is unique, one-of-a-kind. And unlike gemstones which are mined, pearl production preserves the natural environment, not to mention that pearls are grown in farms where workers “mine” the riches of the sea, not labor under oppressive often dangerous conditions common in mining operations.
“From natural to Akoya, South Sea and Tahitian pearls, one can find a different world far from the typical, ‘scarred earth’ mining operations,” says Mark Snyder, jewelry industry consultant. “Pearls of all kinds are a born-in-the-sea sensation to be enjoyed, while making a personal statement based on the wearers’ tastes in style, color, size and origin.”
The jewelry industry has been too slow to respond to the changes brought about by the millennials, their casual lifestyle and heightened consumer consciousness, reflects Jaimie Polk, consultant to the industry and founder of 21C Jewelry Solutions. And she further stresses these trends may have started with millennials, but they have been picked up by the culture at large.
“Everybody is thinking about these things more than ever before,” Polk says. “People aren’t buying things without consciously thinking about where it came from, why they want it, why they desire it and how they will use it.”
“The jewelry industry is a story business,” Polk continues. “We are an industry of storytelling about what we do, about what we sell, about what we make and how we make it. Pearls are a tremendous opportunity. They are appealing luxury items with a great story . It is a missed opportunity for a lot of folks in the industry that haven’t told that story well.”
Business of pearls
Everyone in retail knows that something new, different and unique can spark consumers’ imagination and capture their dollars. Pearls could be the ticket for many jewelry brands, designers and retailers to bring something fresh and new to the market.
For too long the jewelry industry has been putting all its eggs in one basket, diamonds, ignoring the potential in pearls. Today only about 2-3% of retail jewelers’ sales are generated by pearls, reflects Jennifer Heebner, executive director of the CPAA, while at least half of the industry is devoted to diamonds. “Pearls represent a huge economic opportunity for retailers.”
Pearls are estimated to reach $1.3 billion in sales in the U.S. this year and the overall cultured pearl market could exceed $16.8 billion worldwide by 2022, according to Research and Markets.
Pearls have a PR problem
One thing holding back pearls is that jewelers simply lack expertise in the category. To overcome that deficiency, the CPAA has launched an online specialist training course called “Pearls As One,” developed by Jeremy Shephard, an industry expert and founder of PearlParadise.com. “Pearls are misunderstood,” Heebner explains.
The course is designed to bring knowledge of cultured pearls to jewelers, designers and influencers. “Our challenge is to help consumers understand that cultured pearls are real pearls that just had a little help at the beginning,” Heebner says.
“Not enough of the public understands pearls and not enough sales people have a passion for pearls because they lack education,” she continues and hopes that the online course will fix that. So far 50,000 people have taken the “Pearls As One” training, Heebner shares.
“We have to do a better job calling attention to pearls. That is our challenge,” Heebner says.
Opportunity is to make pearls everyday wearable
Another challenge is that the jewelry industry has been slow to adapt traditional pearl designs to the tastes of today’s more casual lifestyles. 21C Jewelry Solutions’ Polk says the pearl strand business, which has historically been the pearl industry’s bread-and-butter, “has just gone away.”
Polk points to the diamond industry as having solved a problem that still confounds the pearl industry. “The diamond industry has figured out how to make diamonds a part of everything living,” she says. “They have focused on a few key styles that women can wear when going to the gym, to the office or when wearing jeans. The pearl industry hasn’t done that yet, although there are a few people who are getting there.”
Those leading-edge pearl designers are mixing pearls with different gemstones, beads, metals and textures like suede and leathers. Given the vast shapes and colors available in pearls, designers are finding inspiration in exploring, combining, contrasting and intermixing pearls to create totally new expressions. “That is the critical thing with regards to pearls; make them relevant and everyday wearable,” Polk says.
In the International Pearl Design Competition, the Popularity Award winning entry by Camilla Marcondes Lima of Camilla Marcondes LLC illustrates just such a casual design crafted of bamboo tubes, freshwater pearls, leather straps, a mother-of-pearl button. This award was based on the number of image likes received on the @PearlsCPAA Instagram account. Marcondes’ piece received more likes during the voting than any of the other finalists.
Traditional jeweler takes to pearls
The Texas-based James Avery jewelers has discovered the new opportunity in pearl fashion. With 83 branded retail stores, a company website, as well as selling through 200 Dillard’s locations, James Avery has grown its pearl business by 25% over the past twelve months by exploring more casual styles to complement the traditional interpretations of pearls it has always offered.
“We are a traditional jewelry brand and have offered traditional expressions of pearls for a very long time,” Jim McCullough, the company’s chief operating officer explains. “But we have introduced more casual-looking pearl designs, like pearls combined with turquoise, and pearls with tassel designs or textured rope accents. These have created excitement among customers by offering them a more casual interpretation.”
From CPAA’s Heebner’s perspective, too many major jewelry retailers have been slow to recognize the opportunity in pearls or explore new styles and expressions of pearls. “The bigger retailers still treat pearls like a basic category and are not doing much that is exciting.”
Heebner mourns the loss in 2009 of Tiffany’s retail experiment into pearls with the closing of Iridesse, its five-year and 16-store venture devoted exclusively to pearls. “It was such a good idea, but the market wasn’t ready for it,” she says and adds, “The opportunity may be there now.” Tiffany still offers pearl jewelry, but its styles skew toward formal and traditional, not casual or everyday.
Meanwhile, 21C Jewelry Solutions’s Polk sees an exciting opportunity for jewelry brands and retailers that explore a new lifestyle approach to pearl designs. “How do you wear pearls with Lululemon clothes? How are they worn with business casual fashion? If I were a jewelry company or retailer, I would be rushing to figure this out.”