We shop differently for jewellery and watches now. But shop we do. The industry has proved resilient during the pandemic, as life’s celebrations continue. This traditional market is now entering the digital age, from online auctions to bespoke orders by Zoom. And with stores reopening we’re all getting ‘phygital’, in the seductive new space where physical presence and digital technology meet. Optimistic industry leaders tell Avril Groom how it works.
The Luxury Brand – Bulgari
Few luxury house bosses have a hotline to the British government, but Bulgari’s CEO Jean-Christophe Babin never follows convention. When the pandemic hit Italy early and hard, Bulgari turned its fragrance division to making hand sanitiser. Realising that vaccine research was imperative and that Britain’s Oxford-based team is a leading contender, the brand helps finance the work and, longer term, is funding scholarships for students committed to virus research. This active involvement in trying to defeat the virus explains why Babin’s calls to Health Secretary Matt Hancock do not go unanswered, and reflects his adventurous, can-do attitude.
‘The pandemic sped up change,’ Babin tells me by Zoom from Rome. ‘Celebrations of key life moments continue but we needed new methods. Luxury brands have been slowly embracing online commerce – we had it but we have expanded to fifteen countries in a few months, and online sales have triple-digit growth. Our sales staff have online meetings or phone calls with regular clients, as much to see how they are as to sell, especially during lockdown, increasing the quality of our relationship with them.’
Bulgari still launched its annual high jewellery collection in June, ‘but we needed to be creative to sell £2 million necklaces virtually,’ he says. ‘We sent top clients iPads that explained the background to the Barocko collection, and its inspiration in 17th- century Roman baroque – and via an app it shows all the pieces, to try on virtually like it’s a mirror.’ The app will expand to cover a wider range, including watches; in the meantime, clients pay a deposit and the item is sent so they can try it IRL. He estimates the conversion rate to sales at 60 per cent.
After helping Italy’s anti-pandemic effort Bulgari was able to hold a sparkling, but rigorously Covid-compliant, Rome launch in September, with a socially-distanced catwalk show and dinner at one of the city’s greatest baroque private palazzos, plus inspection in-store of the astonishing stones and designs of the collection. But it’s not quite back to normal. ‘The pandemic has changed how we work,’ says Babin. ‘I’ve found we can manage the company efficiently with very little travel, saving time, energy and money that we can re-invest, and have a better life balance.’ bulgari.com
The Vintage Specialist – Pragnell
Family firm Pragnell offers high-quality vintage, its own jewellery designs and top watch brands, and all sectors are doing well, says MD Charlie Pragnell. ‘People have more time to consider their purchase, to get informed online, and often make an appointment so we can prepare pieces for them.
There is a return to classically beautiful design. Something that has stood the test of time, and is restored to last hundreds more years, is very attractive’. Other factors are: ‘the investment value of heavy, vintage gold as the metal price rises, and people’s desire to shop in traditional high streets. And they are increasingly broad-minded, layering an antique yellow-gold chain with our new, bold, retro-style version.’ pragnell.co.uk
The Townhouse Model
On Bond Street a discreet doorway leads into Audemars Piguet’s London townhouse store, which feels like a private club. The spacious apartment has separate areas – a bar, a large table for client dinners, sofas around a wide screen and a secluded zone for consultations. Visits are by appointment, currently with only two clients at one time. However, says UK general manager Daniel Compton, ‘if someone is intrigued by our banner outside and calls up, we accommodate them if we’re not full.’
It’s one of five AP townhouses worldwide, all in architecturally interesting buildings. ‘As an independent brand making only 40,000 watches annually we would like to know all our clients personally,’ says Compton. ‘People aren’t travelling so we’re getting to know our local clients, both collectors and the guy who has saved up to buy one AP. They can take time out and relax here. We encourage visits even when they’re not buying.’ In normal times, treats would be laid on to suit clients’ interests – ‘money- can’t-buy’ experiences. Now it’s about building relationships, and other brands are looking at the business model. audemarspiguet.com
Robinson Pelham’s work runs from vivid rainbow-sapphire earrings to bespoke pieces that the Middleton family wore at William and Kate’s wedding. They have upped their digital offer and replaced meetings with phone consultations, many about remodelling. ‘Each customer who has commissioned during the pandemic has done so to capture or hold on to an emotion,’ says director Zoe Benyon. ‘They’ve been thinking about what jewellery means to them. It could be a grandfather’s coin collection put on a bead necklace, sapphires from a grandmother’s ring set into a Pomegranate ring alongside our rainbow sapphires and tsavorites, or a single old-cut diamond given a pavé sleeve of orange and pink sapphires. We change our habits to suit the customer,’ she adds. ‘Jewellery is full of sentiment but it’s also fun. If a client is nervous about coming to us we make it happen in a different way so it’s till a wonderful experience.
The Shopping Outlet
Outlet stores are often overlooked for jewellery and watch shopping, yet make sense for long-term buys. Bicester Village has brands including Breitling, TAG Heuer, Longines, Annoushka, Pomellato and Monica Vinader, which have found a double-digit growth in average transaction value since lockdown, especially on watches, as clients want to ‘buy better’.
Some stores are innovating to reach the customer – Annoushka has pioneered virtual shopping, which now accounts for nearly half its Bicester business, either directly through the website, through video with the store or through the Village’s personal shopping service. And De Beers’ Forevermark diamond brand, which currently has no Bicester store, recently held a successful week’s trunk show, by appointment, at the Village’s VIP apartment. tbvsc.com
The Luxury Chain
As a major retailer with 135 branches in Britain and the US, Watches of Switzerland was hard hit by lockdown, with spring sales down 28 per cent. But the bounceback has been impressive. Last quarter showed a 20 per cent increase year-on-year with online sales up almost 50 per cent. Even in July, jewellery sales for the group (including Mappin & Webb and Goldsmiths) were only two per cent down on last year. What’s the secret?
‘Our staff and the way they have kept in touch with clients,’ says CEO Brian Duffy. ‘Throughout lockdown they were contacting regular customers with Zoom meetings and phone calls. We’ve taken digital ads and sped up delivery to next day, or same day on high value items – 86 per cent of our watch sales are £1,000-plus models. We keep up interest with collaborations such as an exclusive model with Hublot [right].’ During lockdown, ‘our staff trained in Covid hygiene and PPE-wearing, so by mid-June we were ready to go, confident our stores are safe. We are being supported by local shoppers while tourists account for under ten per cent of sales, and the phygital model is working well.’ watches-of-switzerland.co.uk
The Auction House
Online-only auctions are flying, attracting many first-time buyers. Christie’s two online watch and clock auctions in July saw participants from 40 countries, half of them new clients, and made over CHF 3.2m (£2.6m). Christie’s also achieved a world record online auction jewellery price – $2,115,000 (nearly £1,7m) for a 28.86-carat, D-colour, step-cut diamond. It has offered part-online auctions since the sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels in 2011 but, says Aline Sylla-Walbaum, global MD, Luxury, ‘the international take-up, and new buyers, are really encouraging and reflect how happy people are to buy online. This was a real moment of truth – what might have taken three years took three months. Live auctions will offer the most outstanding works but online sales will have increased importance.’
British auctioneers Fellows also had online auctions for watches and jewellery during lockdown. ‘We make the auction a very good experience that our clients trust,’ says communications manager Alexandra Whittaker. ‘We now hold some live auctions with limited viewings but we also do virtual Zoom viewings and we’ve had record numbers of clients, especially for collectable watches, including recently a record-breaking Rolex Military Submariner that sold for £140,000. But online auctions are here to stay.’ christies.com; fellows.co.uk
The Bespoke Independent
Shaun Leane is known both for elegant, slightly punk pieces and bespoke work – recently Princess Beatrice’s engagement and wedding rings. ‘We’ve been busy with bespoke orders during the pandemic,’ he says. ‘I’ve set up our jewellers to work from home and on design I’ve been having Zoom meetings with clients and sending 3D printed models of designs, or stones to inspect.’ Couples often ask to receive a ring at the studio. ‘The man then presents it. I open the champagne – it’s a great Instagram moment.’ shaunleane.com
London-based silversmith and bespoke jeweller Theo Fennell has been equally busy, creating dramatic rings for private clients. He has also found ‘people are thinking about their life and family, finding old pieces with decent stones stashed in drawers and wanting them redesigned.’ He has created simple, modern designs for necklaces or bracelets that focus on stones of different colours and shapes which, he says, ‘we can make with the client’s own stones, working out the colours and cuts into a harmonious, unique piece’. theofennell.com