Women aren’t waiting for men to buy them jewelry

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Jewelry was traditionally the sort of thing purchased mostly as gifts for others, making the holidays one of the most important times of year for the stores that sell it.

Those paradigms are changing.

For years now more women have been buying their own jewelry rather than waiting on someone else to give it to them. Combined with other shifts in the behavior of shoppers, it’s reshaping how much the gift-giving season matters to America’s jewelry stores.

According to a recent report by Coresight Research—a retail research and advisory firm that analyzed US Census data—retailers of all sorts see a diminishing share of annual sales coming from the holiday months of November and December. Among the types of retailers Coresight looked at, jewelry stores received the largest share of sales from the holidays, but also saw the largest drop in that share. In 1998, US jewelry stores depended on 33.4% of their annual sales during the holidays. In 2018, it was down to 26.7%.

The internet is responsible for part of that shift, Coresight found, as customers can shop 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year round. Shopping has consequently spread out more across the calendar. But with jewelry, there’s another factor too. “Lots of people buy it for themselves during other parts of the year,” says Marie Driscoll, Coresight’s managing director of luxury and fashion.

That’s a change from years past. In the mid-1980s, jewelry was still widely considered a gift item (pdf) and most of it was purchased for that reason. As recently as 2011 the Wall Street Journal reported roughly two-thirds of fine jewelry, meaning the high-end variety made with precious metals and gems, sold around the holiday season, and most purchasers were men buying for women.

But even in the 1980s the status quo was starting to change, as more women worked and earned incomes of their own. In the past 10 to 15 years, the shift has been noticeable, Driscoll says.

It’s common now for women to buy their own jewelry, making them a target audience for jewelry companies. Fashion search platform Lyst said last year women made up 78% of jewelry purchases on the site. In another survey of US millennial women with a household income of $75,000, more than half  said they bought jewelry for themselves.

The new generation of jewelry shoppers is looking more for pieces that reflect their style rather than, say, the priciest stone they can buy, according to Driscoll, and is often turning to smaller, digital-first companies. There’s been an uptick in fashion jewelry, made with plated alloys and fake stones for instance, as well as designer labels such as Kendra Scott. “I think millennials are looking for jewelry brands that are their own,” Driscoll says. Still, “no one is going to turn down a Cartier. The luxury brands still matter.”

Within the luxury market, jewelry is one of the fastest growing categories. Management consulting firm Bain & Company estimates it grew 7% last year and sales were about €18 billion ($19.8 billion). In the US, holiday jewelry sales also rose.

In fact, just because women are treating themselves throughout the year doesn’t mean they’re skipping the holidays. Last year, retail group Yoox Net-a-Porter surveyed 2,600 luxury shoppers (pdf) about their holiday plans. “The research shows over 60% of women would not wait for someone else to buy them a desired item of fine jewelry,” it said, “with 1 in 4 women intending to purchase a piece for themselves in the run-up to the holidays.”