Fine jewelry always has been seen as a bit beyond the ebb and flow of the fashion cycle, the kind of pieces whose precious gems and metals generate sales despite social, economic or political upheaval.
During the coronavirus crisis, the category has held onto that reputation for resilience, but with a difference or two, courtesy of Instagram.
“Previously, there was a view that fine jewelry should only be brought in a classic jewelry store environment,” the Danish designer Sophie Bille Brahe said. “As Instagram continues to evolve and become a more important part of our lives, attitudes have changed, and that has been reflected in our sales and the increased interest in bigger diamond pieces online.”
And Instagram, and its fashion influencers, have “helped shift the narrative around fine jewelry,” said Myriam Attou, a Moda Operandi vice president of exquisite sales.
“It used to be too precious and was only to be worn on special occasions, but now it’s about stacking, layering, mixing heritage brands with young designers and expressing your unique style,” she said.
Beanie Major, a London-based jewelry consultant and stylist, agreed. “I think Instagram makes people much more adventurous, even when it comes to fine jewelry,” she said, referencing popular hashtags like #armparty, #neckmess and #earsperation.
Such changes — certainly abetted by retail closures in much of the world — have recently produced more jewelry sales online. Ms. Attou said her company reported a “remarkable, consistent demand” for fine jewelry, with online sales increasing 35 percent from January to May, compared with the similar period last year.
In April, Net-a-Porter had a 156 percent increase over its April 2019 jewelry sales, the latest numbers available, said Elizabeth Von Der Goltz, the site’s global fashion buying director. While company policy kept her from disclosing the amount, it was, she said, driven by a combination of classic fine jewelry by designers such as Lorraine Schwartz and Anita Ko, and experimental brands, including Loren Stewart, Jennifer Fisher and Carolina Bucci.
And De Beers Jewellers also had a sales increase online. François Delage, chief executive, said those sales had more than tripled from January to May, with higher engagement and conversion from Instagram.
So the pandemic has accelerated the shift to online shopping, even for costly jewelry. But what is a safe and reliable way to buy?
There are practical considerations to consider, especially if you are buying direct from an unknown designer. “Check out their website,” Ms. Major said. “Check out their terms and conditions; contact them directly if you have any questions; look to see if they have any reputable press — and if in doubt, don’t buy.”
Olivia Stewart-Stead, manager of Fitzgerald Jewellers in Canterbury, England, said the onus definitely was on the consumer to ask the right questions. “Try not to buy through rose-tinted glasses,” she said. “Instagram is a wonderful opportunity for a designer to present their jewelry in a way that offers a complete lifestyle, but it is too easy to make a flimsy piece look covetable.”
Annoushka Ducas, founder of the British jewelry companies Links of London and Annoushka, also stressed the importance of “doing your homework” and getting to grips with terms like gold vermeil and gold plate. (Both are plating methods, but sterling silver is the base of vermeil, while cheaper metals like steel or brass are used in standard gold plating.)
With George Floyd’s death and the increased focus on social and political issues, some of that homework may be on the company’s background. “A brand’s Instagram feed is often a good place to start if you want to see if a designer shares your values,” Ms. Major said. “My clients often want to buy a brand that feels like them. They want authenticity as well as aesthetic.”
Instagram feeds dripping with jewels can provide a welcome source of escape, but they also can be alienating and jarring now.
“My advice would be for people to remember that Instagram is a social platform and not necessarily reality,” Ms. Von Der Goltz said. “Everyone has the ‘perfect picture’ image they wish to portray online.”
More operational issues include ensuring that sizing is right. (Does the site even have a measurement so you can ensure that bangle is large enough to go over your hand?) And check the return policy, Ms. Stewart-Stead said, because many brands do not accept returns of pierced earrings for hygienic reasons.
There are other considerations that are harder to gauge on an Instagram feed.
“Jewelry never looks as good on a screen,” Ms. Major said. “It’s a very tactile product, and while video has been hugely helpful, I still think you need to get jewelry onto the body.”
A recent client, for instance, said she hadn’t anticipated that certain rings would not suit her hands, while another wanted to ensure an engagement ring would be comfortable enough to wear on her daily run.
Augmented reality would be a “game changer” for online sales, Ms. Stewart-Stead said. But, unlike the experimentation being done by some Swiss watch brands, the jewelry industry has not embraced the technology, simply because, brands say, it does not reliably convey the experience of trying on a piece of jewelry.
“At one point we did look into A.R.,” Ms. Ducas said, “but my work is very detailed, and texture is so important. That wasn’t reflected in the technology experience we saw.”
In contrast, she said, video has become integral to her brand’s online and social presence, often driving interaction as well as sales. “It’s become an invaluable tool to show how a piece looks when worn, or show how an earring moves or how it sits with another piece.”
Many jewelry brands have switched their Instagram strategy to interacting with customers and offering practical and personalized advice.
“Instagram has always been an important sales driver,” Ms. Ducas said, “but during lockdown it has also become a more intimate customer-service channel allowing for one-to-one messaging.”
Moda Operandi has used Instagram for master classes and live Q. and A.s with jewelry designers, and even arranged for designers to send personalized video messages to clients.
Mr. Delage of De Beers said that Instagram had also become a way to give advice. In March, for example, the diamond house introduced a “Brilliant Questions” series on Instagram’s IGTV, with experts giving advice to customers. “As society settles into its stride once again,” he said, “we expect more clients and more clients to engage with us in this way.”
And, in an effort to help prevent the spread of coronavirus, Ms. Major recently used Instagram Stories to demonstrate how to clean rings with a toothbrush. The video received thousands of views and was mentioned by British Vogue.
“I really love that people are taking time to slow down” she said, “and look after the things that are of significance to them.”