If you have jewelry on your holiday shopping list, “Do your research and start early,” said Stuart Robertson, vice president of Gemworld, the publisher of a gemstone pricing guide based in Glenview, Ill.
Jewelers and industry experts around the world say a lack of inventory and price increases are virtually guaranteed this fall, driven by the unexpected demand that caught the industry by surprise last year. And that forecast has been further complicated by shipping delays and labor shortages much like those facing businesses such as Starbucks and BMW.
It is a far cry from spring 2020, when the pandemic brought the gem and jewelry supply chain to an unprecedented standstill. Mines stopped producing, governments stopped exporting, lapidaries stopped cutting, dealers stopped trading, factories stopped manufacturing, and retailers stopped ordering.
Yet consumers never stopped buying.
The strength of their demand for fine jewelry, the category made with precious metals and gems, helped much of the industry quickly regain its operational footing this year — even in April and May, when the Delta variant fueled a surge of Covid-19 in India, a major hub of the global diamond trade.
Now, however, with demand showing no signs of waning, and little prospect that shipping bottlenecks will just disappear, industry experts are advising shoppers to budget extra time and money for purchases, especially when it comes to diamonds.
“Everybody’s been surprised by demand for more expensive and larger pieces — it’s mind-boggling,” said Sam Sandberg, chief executive of A. Jaffe, a New York-based engagement ring manufacturer and president of the Plumb Club, whose 45 member companies include the world’s largest jewelry suppliers. “A carat is passé now; it starts at two carats.”
Example: The pearl-and-five-carat-oval-diamond engagement ring presented to Ariana Grande by Dalton Gomez, now her husband, in December.
On a video call last month, the De Beers executive director Stephen Lussier said that in 30 years, he had “never seen a quarter like Q2 ’21.” His comment was based on a Mastercard spending report that showed, for example, that jewelry sales in May were up more than 200 percent year over year (and while brick-and-mortar stores may have been closed in May 2020, internet sales were robust).
“Supply is tighter than what people might be used to, and demand, particularly in America, is extraordinary,” Mr. Lussier said. “There will be some pressure on pricing, and in certain categories, retailers will have to work harder to find the diamonds they want.”
Shruti Chhajer Ranka, the creative head of Shruti Sushma, a luxury jeweler based in Ahmedabad and Bangalore, India, is one of them. “I am working on a design with one-carat oval diamonds of the same color and clarity,” she wrote in an email last month. “It has taken me six weeks to procure half of what is required in the design, which otherwise would take me not more than two weeks.”
Jewelry set with colored stones may be even more difficult to find — and more costly — because mines around the world have had production delays that are now cascading through the sales pipeline.
In March 2020, the British mining company Gemfields suspended operations at its Kagem emerald mine in Zambia, known as the world’s largest-producing single emerald mine, and at its Montepuez ruby mine in Mozambique. Production was not restarted until March 2021, so “neither produced new gemstones for a year,” Adrian Banks, Gemfields’ managing director of product and sales, wrote in an email.
For context: In 2019, Kagem yielded 208,500 carats of premium emerald, and Montepuez, 81,270 carats of premium ruby, the company said.
(And while lack of production might mean that buyers face delays in getting that perfect emerald necklace or ruby earrings, gem miners and brokers in East Africa, the world’s most significant gem-producing region, have faced much bigger problems over the past year: “When borders were closing, it became clear that in these rural, isolated subsistence communities, you get to food insecurity very quickly,” said Monica Stephenson, founder of Anza Gems, a Seattle company that specializes in gems from Kenya and Tanzania.)
Dealers based in trading hubs such as Voi, in southern Kenya, have suffered from both a lack of quality gems and the disappearance of overseas buyers. “I was in Voi three to four weeks ago,” the Kenyan gem cutter Marvin Wambua said during a Gemworld webinar in early August. “We had a buying session, and it was very bleak because we hardly saw anything of interest.”
The disruption has extended to the rest of the colored-stone trade. “Not only are mining centers at muted activity, product is not getting out, cutting centers have their own issues — not able to make finished goods — and a lot of large manufacturers can’t fulfill orders,” said John Ferry, founder and chief executive of Prosperity Earth, a demantoid-garnet mining company based in Madagascar.
At Signet Jewelers, based in Akron, Ohio, executives have decided to start the holiday shopping early this year. The company is the largest jewelry operation in the United States and one of the largest in Britain, with about 2,800 stores in both countries, primarily under the banners of Kay Jewelers, Zales, Jared, H. Samuel, Ernest Jones, Peoples, Piercing Pagoda, Rocksbox and JamesAllen.com.
“Some of the product offerings that we historically would have waited to bring in a couple weeks before Thanksgiving, we’ll bring in earlier,” said Jamie Singleton, president of the Kay, Zales and Peoples brands at Signet.
While decorating before Halloween may seem like sales overreach, retailers say it really is intended to avoid the frustration that last-minute shoppers are likely to face, and the crowded stores that would make social distancing impossible.
Many jewelers, particularly at the high end, are allocating their time and resources differently, trying to hedge against future lockdowns or staff shortages.
“This holiday season, I’m making more investment pieces than lower-ticket items, because I value the time my team is putting in, and I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” said Andy Lifschutz of Los Angeles, the designer of Andy Lif Jewelry. “We’re finishing up a statement pendant with a 25-carat flawless Madagascar aquamarine. In the past, I might have made 10 link bracelets that retail for $1,500 instead of that one piece, but this year I’m focusing on the one.”
It is true that the size and portability of the jewelry industry’s materials mean that it has not faced the same monthslong transport delays as industries moving bulkier goods. (“If we buy $2 million of stones from a cutter in Sri Lanka, it’s a shoe box,” said Tom Heyman, a partner at Oscar Heyman, a 109-year-old jewelry manufacturer in New York.)
But for many designers, shipping has been a daily challenge. “The bottleneck is actually Europe,” the designer Ananya Malhotra said during a video call from Chennai, India. (She divides her time among Miami, London and India, where her line of gem-set jewelry is manufactured.)
“Pieces are going out of India, but flights are getting canceled, so instead of going directly to London, they have to go through Germany,” Ms. Malhotra said. “Or flights from London have to go through this crazy rerouting. We’ve had to put someone on the job just to handle logistics.”
Jewels are not the only things getting stuck. “Shipping items such as cases, shopping bags and point-of-sale displays, which are delivered by sea for reducing our carbon footprint, was more challenging, due to the significant reduction of maritime lines,” Hélène Poulit-Duquesne, chief executive of the Parisian high jeweler Boucheron, wrote in an email.
There has been one upside: Navigating the logistical complexities of the past year and a half has prompted many designers to create contingency plans.
“After the first time they closed us down for two to three months in Italy, there was no more, ‘Maybe it will be fine,’” the Italian designer Bea Bongiasca said during a video call from her studio in Milan. “Last fall, we completely saturated our factory with orders. And because the brand is growing, it actually was the right amount.”
Other designers are placing smaller orders more frequently with their suppliers to ensure a steady flow of materials. “We need to order several weeks in advance and need to be constantly monitoring stock levels, which was never really an issue before,” Sia Taylor, a London-based jeweler, wrote in an email.
Then there are the labor shortages that have plagued businesses worldwide. “Like everybody else, we cannot find people,” said Christopher Slowinski, founder and owner of Christopher Designs, a New York-based manufacturer of diamond engagement rings. “I’m constantly running ads for jewelers and not getting any response.”
“Demand is good,” Mr. Slowinski said. “But how can we sell what we don’t have?”
Jean-Christophe Babin, Bulgari’s chief executive, has experienced a similar problem with productivity. At its manufacturing facilities in Valenza, Italy, government-required social-distancing mandates have forced the company to stagger jewelers’ work schedules.
Bulgari could have sold far more jewelry in the first half of 2021, “but we found ourselves slower than expected to get back to 2019 levels,” Mr. Babin said on a video call in early August.
“My concern is not only the end of this year, but also 2022,” he said. “I believe that the very strong demand we see in watches and jewelry, it won’t stop there. Like in many post-trauma eras — wars, pandemics — people want to live fully, and in order to live fully, that means indulging.”
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