The marketing reality behind the glitter of diamonds
Mark Tungate is based in Paris. His column from the capital of fashion and luxury appears regularly
It was the jewelry designer Lorenz Bäumer who first enlightened me on the link between fashion brands and diamonds. And Bäumer knows of what he speaks, given that he’s designed pricey trinkets for the likes of Chanel and Louis Vuitton. He told me: “When fake branded T-shirts from Asia threaten to undermine their image, having a jewelry collection is the ideal way to reinforce their premium positioning.”
No matter what you think about other objects in the luxury goods universe, jewels are special. There’s no reason why these swirls of carbon and metal should have such an aura, but they do. Buying a diamond bracelet is not the same as buying an haute couture dress, even when they cost the same. Perhaps it’s because there’s something dauntingly enduring about a diamond. You’re not just buying a gift, but an heirloom. A diamond, as they say, is forever.
(As you may know, a young copywriter named Frances Gerety penned that line for De Beers in 1947, while working at NW Ayer. Apparently she sat up all night before hitting on the right formula, which seems odd because it’s so perfect. But perfection takes time, as any diamond appraiser will tell you.)
Nevertheless, today the worlds of jewelry and haute couture overlap more than ever before. And they overlap most visibly in two places: at the Cannes Film Festival, and during the Paris haute couture collections.
At Cannes, fashion brands fight to get their clothes on the backs of stars. In fact, many fashion houses have VIP liaison departments created specifically for that purpose. The rewards repay their efforts: in 2003, Nicole Kidman sent a cobwebbed yet renascent brand, Pucci, rocketing back into the headlines when she wore one of its dresses to a movie screening.
But jewelry brands are in on the act, too. At last year’s festival, Bulgari sponsored a 50th anniversary screening of the film Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor (of whom her lover Richard Burton once said, “The only Italian word Elizabeth knows is Bulgari”). The brand sent actress Jessica Chastain to the event in a diamond and sapphire necklace from Taylor’s collection—worth US$6 million at auction. Rest assured, when you see an actress draped with diamonds on the red carpet, chances are they don’t own the baubles.
When the Paris haute couture houses started going out of business, the Chambre Syndicale—the body that runs the shows—realized it had to do something.
By the way, haute couture has nothing to do with regular fashion. An haute couture dress must be hand made in Paris (an exception is made for special guests like Armani and Valentino, which have dressmaking ateliers in Italy). The dresses you see in the shows will never go into mass production. They are one-offs. If you like one of them, the designer must make it for you from scratch. Each costs tens of thousands of dollars. It’s said that only 500 women in the world still buy haute couture dresses on a regular basis, so it’s not a profitable niche.
With the number of Paris haute couture houses down to less than a dozen, the Chambre Syndicale came up with a plan to make the show schedule less threadbare: it invited the jewelry brands. So now Bulgari, Boucheron and Chanel Joaillerie all have runway shows too. And it’s true that the glittering constellations on display are often breathtakingly creative.
Of course, it’s not just about diamonds. Other gemstones have a distinct allure. One of my favourite Paris jewelry designers is Marie-Hélène de Taillac. Central to her brand’s mystique is the fact that she spends half of the year in Jaipur, India, sourcing gemstones and designing their settings. Jewelry design is still a gratifyingly artisanal process: designers like Bäumer sketch the settings by hand before sculpting wax moulds.
But despite the mouthwatering glamour of amethysts and fire opals, diamonds get the best PR. They combine the twin beguilements of luxury branding: rarity and mythology.
It could be argued that the rarity part is manufactured—at least one major diamond merchant has been accused of stockpiling diamonds to augment their value. But diamonds have always been swathed in legend and fable. They were said to offer protection against the plague, which is why we offer them to our loved ones. And when the Jews of Eastern Europe fled the pogroms, they would exchange their belongings for diamonds, which they could sew into the lining of a coat. Their goal was America—often they only made it as far as Antwerp, which remains the European capital of the diamond trade.
Shimmer and stories—that’s luxury marketing. Would Tiffany’s have the same appeal without Breakfast At Tiffany’s? Chanel loves to tell stories about its founder. But when it comes to its jewelry collection, the fashion house veers somewhat off-message. Because the fact is that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was not overly fond of diamonds. Still the cabaret singer at heart, she preferred costume jewelry.