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Diamonds in a rhinestone world: How jewellers are holding fast

Pricier products from retail’s apparel segment are often described as an ‘investment purchase’, but finance professionals would disagree on most counts – except when it comes to fine jewellery. In the world of jewellery retail, however, not all that glitters is gold, and magpie-eyed shoppers will find an offering at every price point. Jenny Ling shares more.

September 19, 2019 | News

Necklaces, earrings, bracelets, rings and other jewellery items aren’t like other retail SKUs. Like other apparel-adjacent products, they’re subject to fast-moving consumer trends, but many pieces hold their value as they’re passed through generations. Expensive but near-ubiquitous, their sales are encouraged by cultural rituals that make them an unavoidable purchase for many. They capture and focus opinions about love and money in a way no other product does.

The New Zealand market isn’t just about big rocks like Elizabeth Taylor’s famous multi-million dollar gems, either. There’s something for everyone in today’s jewellery market. 

Big retail chains like Michael Hill coexist with smaller, family-owned jewellery stores and a plethora of boutique designer brands.

There is still a healthy market for craft jewellers in New Zealand, many of which create bespoke jewellery for individuals. 

The rise of fashion and costume jewellery - much of which is sold online - has made accessorising with a bit of bling much more affordable for consumers.

But jewellery businesses have had to adjust to big changes in the industry as factors like travel, the internet and globalisation have threatened to dent its diamond-hard casing.

Technology too, has changed the way in which pieces are made, with many of today’sgraduates venturing into computer-aided design, and there is a rise in ‘ethical’ jewellery to meet consumer concern about where precious metals and stones are coming from.

Overall, however, the industry is in a healthy state.

A recent report suggests a strong demand for fine jewellery has led to revenue growth in New Zealand.

A September 2018 Ibisworld Report puts the industry revenue at NZ$642 million, employing 2322 staff through 349 businesses.

Annual growth between 2014 and 2019 sits at 3.2 percent and profit margins are projected to improve over the next five years, as the industry continues to grow, the report says.

Statistics New Zealand’s Annual Enterprise Survey -  New Zealand’s most comprehensive source of financial statistics covering almost 469,000 businesses - backs up this data.

The survey provides annual information on the financial performance and position for industry groups operating in Aotearoa. 

The most up-to-date figures show there were 354 jewellery businesses employing 2350 people in 2017. Those businesses made a total income of $586 million and made $89 million profit.

The Ibisworld report classifies fine jewellery as products that are mainly made of precious metals like gold and silver, or jewellery that contains precious or semiprecious stones.

Fashion jewellery, on the other hand, is generally made from cheaper materials, and is often imported, which means the industry encompasses a broad range of products aimed at different consumer demographics.

The jewellery category also includes watches and other services such as jewellery repair, cleaning and resizing, while some retailers sell giftware and crystal.

Jewellers Association of New Zealand spokesperson Greg Harford says the varying types of jewellers have been in the market for a long time and continue to complement each other to meet customer demand.  

“Customers continue to appreciate traditional jewellery but, at the higher end of the market, are looking for more bespoke options. We're hearing that there is a clear trend towards demand for high quality jewellery, and demand for easily wearable pieces, often in a minimalist style.
 

“Different customers want to have their individual needs met, and they will shop a range of stores to get the best jewellery to match their wardrobes and lifestyles.”

Harford says there is strong competition in the jewellery sector, both domestically and offshore.  

Customers often purchase jewellery when they travel, meaning that Kiwi jewellers need to be winning the hearts and minds of their customers, he says.

“In the fashion jewellery market, there is strong international competition using online channels. The big change... is the increasing use of online channels for both researching and purchasing jewellery. Internationally, we are seeing significant volumes of jewellery being purchased online, and we expect this is happening in New Zealand as well.”

Major players in the industry include Pascoes The Jeweller owner James Pascoe Group and Michael Hill International, which operate branded retail chains throughout the country.

Michael Hill International owns the brand 'Michael Hill' retail jewellery chain.

There are 300 Michael Hill stores in Australia, New Zealand and Canada employing over 2700 personnel as at June 2018.

Michael Hill diamond buyer Emily Vukovac says this year the company is celebrating its 40th birthday, and is “still going strong, providing exceptional quality jewellery and service to the New Zealand market”.

But jewellery trends have changed significantly over the past five years, she says.

There is now a focus on finer, more delicate pieces rather than thicker chains, however, it is also on trend to wear fine and thick together.

“In the past you would avoid mixing different types of metals like silver and gold and precious gemstones, however, now it is encouraged. The main drivers of jewellery trends are celebrities and fashion influencers, as you would with any other fashion item. We are noticing that consumers are wanting to personalise their jewellery in different ways, whether it be through an initial pendant or through our stacker rings. They follow trends but want to express their own individual style too.”

Vukovac says another change is that Kiwis are increasingly taking authenticity and sustainability into account when purchasing jewellery.

The company is a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), a standard-setting organisation that has been established to advance responsible ethical, human rights, social and environmental practices throughout the diamond, gold and platinum group metals jewellery supply chain.

“This is a major factor in the hearts and minds of our consumers as we can see more customers asking how our jewellery is sourced,” Vukovac says.“Quality and provenance are our first priorities at Michael Hill. They’re the reason we’re active members of the Responsible Jewellery Council, and why we’re committed to using responsibly sourced, natural diamonds in our work.”

But perhaps it’s the focus on family, with the craft so often passed down through the generations, that makes the jewellery industry so unique.

Grieve Diamond Jeweller staff.

Grieve Diamond Jeweller was first established in Hastings in 1934 and is now in its fourth generation of family ownership under Robert Griffiths and his son James.

The business offers giftware and crystal, plus watches and branded jewellery, but its main focus is on fine jewellery. 

One of its strengths is its ability to design and make fine pieces of bespoke jewellery in-house, and it can also directly import gemstones such as diamonds, sapphires and rubies from overseas.

Grieve Diamond Jewellery was named as New Zealand’s supreme Top Shop at Retail NZ’s 30th Top Shop awards held at Auckland’s Sky City in 2017.The business also scooped up the Small Retailer Omnichannel Award.

The Griffiths attribute the company’s success to the team’s dedication to customer service and commitment to ongoing training.

“You’re always learning all the time, but it is a fabulous industry to work in,” says Robert Griffiths. “The bulk of the items we sell are bought by somebody to give to somebody else, so that’s a really nice thing to be part of.”

James Griffiths says the business has been in town 85 years “so there’s a lot of loyalty there”.

It’s a very family oriented business, he says, with James’ mum Barb and wife Kyleigh involved in sales.

James says the biggest changes he has noticed over the years are the increase of online shopping and travel.

Travel in particular has made things difficult for those in the industry. 

“It’s easier and cheaper to travel now than it was 20 years ago,” he says.

“There’s so many people travelling overseas, and that’s often when partners are together and make the decision to buy jewellery. Travel has taken up a huge percent of disposable income.”

Though online shopping has changed the way some people shop, you can’t beat good service and knowledge, James says.

“People want to be sure what they’re getting is quality, that’s the difference between the retail store and online - you can touch the product. Even though you may be able to buy cheaper online, you can’t get the same service. That’s what we do better on; that’s where we can make the difference.”

Jayesh and Usha of Rachna's Jewellery and Fashionware.

Rachna’s Jewellery and Fashionware is another well-established family-owned jewellery business.

With stores in Wellington and Auckland it specialises in gold jewellery and fashion jewellery, with quality 22 carat gold pieces selling alongside colourful costume jewellery such as necklaces, earrings, bangles, hair accessories and anklets.

Rachna’s was founded in Fiji in the 1920s by the late Nanji Kanji who was a master in handcrafted gold jewellery. This knowledge was then passed down to his son, the late Samji Nanji.

In 1987 the family immigrated to Wellington and brought along the gold business, which was later expanded to include Indian fashion.

Today the business lies in the hands of Samji’s son, Jayesh and his wife Usha.

Jayesh, who was 24 when he took over the running of the business, says Rachna’s takes pride in catering to a diverse clientele.

Over the past three decades the business has grown into multiple facets. 

With 2013 marking 25 years of establishment in Wellington, the family expanded the business into Auckland, opening a store in Mt Roskill in 2014. 

Jayesh says ethnic jewellery appeals to a wider group of women now, including Kiwis and those from the Pacific Islands and the Middle East.

“Everyone is interested in ethnic jewellery now; it’s really enjoyed by the wider community.

“Ethnic jewellery is more vibrant in colours and brightness; people like to buy vibrant jewellery to go with the costumes they wear.

“People buy garments and accessories for Bollywood theme parties which are popular in New Zealand. People like to dress up in Indian styles and wear jewellery. It’s very multicultural.”

Rachna’s also provides services like gold jewellery valuations, jewellery trade-ins, cleaning and repairs and Usha provides mehndi (henna) and wedding decorations.

Jayesh says he has noticed a shift in consumer taste over the years, with women moving from chunkier pieces to finer and detailed jewellery.

Technology has made this possible, he says, and it’s also made jewellery more affordable.

Fashion jewellery, while less expensive, has an important place in the market, he says.

“All women like to wear nice dresses, and they want nice jewellery to go with it. They like our necklaces and earrings, as the pieces are unique and one of a kind.”

Amy Cunningham and Ben Clark of Benjamin Black.

Family connections also run through jeweller Benjamin Clark’s successful business in Nelson.

Clark, the son of a watchmaker,often dabbled in his father’s workshop as a boy, and was a regular sight at the local markets, where he sold his lovingly crafted wares.

Clark was just 16 when he embarked on his jewellery career; he snapped up an offer of an apprenticeship under the helm of internationally acclaimed Nelson gold and silversmiths Jens Hansen.

That’s where Clarkdeveloped a distinctive style shaped by his love of both classical and contemporary design, and his affinity for traditional gold and silversmithing techniques.

“I’ve always been good at hands-on creation and repairing things. With jewellery it’s such a broad field so you’re constantly learning new things and there are new technologies you can try. You never stop learning. That’s one of the things I love.” 

Clark had been working in the industry for seven years when he spotted a gap in the market for ethically and handmade jewellery “that wasn’t fine and dainty like everyone else was doing”.

Now 30, he co-owns Benjamin Black Goldsmiths with his partner Amy Cunninghamin Nelson. 

The couple initially started out with the Benjamin Black collection creating engagement and wedding rings, and engraved signet rings, and have since expanded to include Black Matter, a demi-fine fashion jewellery range.

The company uses traditional gold and silversmithing practices to ensure every piece is made to the highest standard of workmanship and lasts for generations. 

They also make custom pieces using a customer's unworn jewellery, for example if they have heirloom jewellery they want to modernise.

Clarkdescribes his product as “contemporary with a classic look” and his mission to “help people leave a legacy through personalised jewellery.”

For Benjamin Black, ethics and sustainability are a major focus. Clark says it’s important to him that his jewellery is made in New Zealand. 

“[Many] jewellery brands have pieces made in Bali or China because of margins, so we really focussed on how we could create these pieces here and keep them being created here. Everything we do is made in New Zealand.”

Consumer behaviour has definitely changed over the last few years, he says.

People are increasingly asking questions around where raw materials are sourced from. 

In 2016 Benjamin Black was approached by Christchurch-based company Untouched World to create a line of jewellery made solely from recycled materials.

Unwanted silver is bought from customers, cleaned, melted down and re-made into jewellery, which is sold at Untouched World, the first fashion company in the world to be recognised by the United Nations for sustainability.

“It’s been awesome working with Untouched World, we’re so like-minded... they’re just a really good bunch of people,” Clark says. “It’s nice to be able to talk and work with people that think the same way.”

One of the biggest challenges for the future of the industry, Clark says, is technology.

In a lot of cases now, there may only be a couple of jewellers and “the rest is done on computers.’

He would like to see more apprentices being taken on to keep the craft alive.

“Technology is the way of the future but it’s a bit sad to see 10 jewellery designers that sit on a computer and only a few jewellers actually making it. A lot of the creativity, craft and personality of it is being removed. It’s one of the oldest crafts in the world; it’s beautiful.”

Dunedin jeweller Tony Williams.

Dunedin jeweller Tony Williams spent the first six years of his jewellery career in England, before moving to New Zealand and continuing his craft for another 44 years.

The master jeweller supplied hand-made fine jewellery to top retailers in New Zealand and his pieces were in demand all over the world.

Last year he published his book Tony Williams, Goldsmith which charts his five decades as a jeweller.

Now semi-retired, but still taking on some commissions, he has seen huge changes in the industry over the last 50 years.

Williams says 1984 was the year things dramatically changed for the industry. That was when the Lange/Douglas Government came to power, which saw the lifting of import controls and the introduction of free-market economic policies.

This allowed a flood of cheap overseas jewellery into the country, and this globalisation has been damaging, he says.

“That was the point when things changed, we went global. From then on, it was the start of cheap imports.
 

“The primary thing that did for jewellery makers was to pull down the perceived price. Now people expect it for very much less.”

Williams says individuality is increasingly important in an age of over-production, mass production and over consumption.

There are “jewellery connoisseurs in New Zealand who understand jewellery who aren’t buying on brand but are buying for the piece”, he says.


That market is still alive and well, though it can be difficult, he says.

“There’s always been a niche market for individual, high quality jewellery,” Williams says. 

“I think there is a growing acceptance that things should be special and unique, and that mass production is not good for the planet. These are good signs.”

Williams’ advice for budding jewellers is to “stay true to yourself”.

“You have to find a way in what you do and what is special to you, and you have to believe in that and find the people who understand you. I see a few young jewellers coming through that I have huge admiration for. But there’s not as many as there should be. If I was saying to a nephew or anyone setting up now, it’s to ensure your work is true to yourself and don’t take on any debt. The trade is too variable and too unreliable. You have to be able to weather the storm.”

This story originally appeared in NZ Retail issue 763 August / September 2019.

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