LONDON, United Kingdom — When official data revealed that China’s marriage count fell 4.6 percent to the lowest rate in 11 years, the topic #WhyAren’tYouGettingMarried started trending on social media platform Weibo.
“I can’t afford a house, or to raise kids, so I can’t get married,” wrote user @Bnnashixiaodouzi. “How can a marriage fit into my ‘996’ lifestyle?” asked @Neppuccino — one of many female users who cited the hectic work schedules imposed by many Chinese companies that compels employees to work from 9:00am to 9:00pm, six days per week. Positive interjections in support of marriage were few and far between.
But China isn’t the only place where the institution is taking a hit, whether by people opting out or calling it quits. Across many international consumer markets, fewer people are getting and staying married — and the implication for some luxury brands is significant.
Aside from bridalwear, no category within the fashion industry has stronger ties to romance than fine jewellery — a sector Euromonitor estimates will grow 4.8 percent from 2019 to reach $41.6 billion in 2020. “As an emotional celebration, marriage has always been associated with symbolic gifting,” said Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari. “This dynamic has existed for 1,500 years.”
Granted, many young people are still getting hitched (and spending more on festivities than ever before). But where a growing cohort is postponing their nuptials or opting out altogether, some businesses are finding success by identifying and targeting previously neglected consumer segments like divorcées and singletons.
Third (or Second) Time’s a Charm
A decline in marriage and the de-stigmatisation of divorce has been observed in countries from the US to Finland. But the latter can be more lucrative than most brands think.
Though Tiffany & Co. Chief Executive Alessandro Bogliolo said in an earlier interview with BoF that “love is still a hot business,” fewer weddings still means fewer wedding rings. During its 2018 fiscal year, the American jeweller’s engagement lines alone made up 26 percent — nearly $1.2 billion — of its $4.4 billion in net sales, but the figure is down from 27 percent in 2017 and 30 percent the year prior. Tiffany declined BoF’s request for comment.
“Fewer people get married than they used to do 20 years ago,” said Bulgari’s Babin. “The bridal market is not the fastest [growing] segment in jewellery.”
However, he added that losses are being offset by the growing popularity of divorces and remarriages: “a massive change over the last generation” that he said will save the bridal segment within luxury jewellery from decline.
Fewer marriages in the first stage of life are compensated by more divorces, which in turn generate new marriages.
Bulgari has noted an increase in the average age of shoppers purchasing engagement and bridal jewellery, which the brand attributes to younger consumers delaying marriage in addition to the emergence of “second (or third) wedders.”
“Fewer marriages in the first stage of life are compensated by more divorces, which in turn generate new marriages,” said Babin.
While an estimated 40 percent of all nuptials in the UK celebrate second or subsequent marriages, remarriage is also on the rise among Americans aged 55 and older. According to Japan’s welfare ministry, over one in four marriages in the country involved a divorcée in 2015. Bulgari has gone from targeting young couples between the ages of 25-35 to adding those in the 45-55 age bracket to the mix.
The trend is still in its initial stages, but will come into shape as divorce rates among populations in Asia and countries in the southern hemisphere catch up with the US and western Europe, and brands should take note. “It’s a slow steady revolution which is [right now] more western than eastern, and more northern than southern,” said Babin. “It [will take] 10 years before it becomes really significant and global.”
Saying No to the Dress
Falling marriage rates — linked to falling birth rates and wider population decline — threaten to put the brakes on already slowing economies by cutting down on labour forces and domestic consumption. But single shoppers can be boons, rather than barriers, for luxury jewellery brands.
Fifty years ago, the high-end jewellery market was dominated by men gifting items to wives or girlfriends, said Babin. While men haven’t stopped buying jewellery for their partners, a growing number of women are purchasing jewellery for themselves.
“Certain elegant women of the past [from] the 50s and 60s had a very clear idea of what they wanted and a defined style,” said Gaia Repossi, creative and artistic director of Italian jewellery house Repossi. But “they were the eclectic ones.”
Financial independence plays a role, and ripples can be seen across the globe. A growing number of Japanese women are opting out of marriage to focus on their careers, while South Korean anti-dating and marriage feminists are extreme cases amid a growing resistance to romantic habits.
“Cultural norms increasingly favour personal fulfilment and self-expression,” said Eli J. Finkel, social psychology professor at Northwestern University. He added that globally, marriage and birth rates decline as economic circumstances improve.
The self-gifting shift is “very significant” for Bulgari, which has subsequently evolved its approach to in-store events: 80 percent of event guests were couples a decade ago, but it now extends half of its invitations to people to shop alone. “Gifting probably makes up 50 percent [of the market], but self-gifting is virtually as big now.”
Romantic gifting represented “over half” of demand for diamond jewellery for De Beers, the world’s largest diamond producer, last year, but it also witnessed a shift. “We see more and more women buying jewellery as a way of celebrating themselves and marking their own achievements,” Chief Executive François Delage told BoF.
70 percent of all online and in-store jewellery sales at Browns are from women purchasing items for themselves.
The company is betting on more exciting and bold designs, alongside versatile, “day to night” pieces catering to self-purchasing jewellery consumers, said Delage. Interestingly, De Beers noted in a report that one of the results of evolving romantic norms was a rise in romantic diamond gifting by people in cohabiting, unmarried relationships.
Retailers, too, have cashed in. Around 70 percent of all online and in-store jewellery sales at Browns — whose fine jewellery business is experiencing triple-digit growth for the fourth consecutive year — are women purchasing items for themselves.
“We have definitely seen a rise in self-gifting,” the London-based retailer’s Womenswear Buying Director Ida Petersson told BoF. “Jewellery is something so personal, it’s important to make sure that investment is the right one.”
But it isn’t just women who are buying pieces for themselves, and for brands and retailers looking to tap into self-gifting; neglecting the male shopper would be a mistake. Men’s sales already make up 35 percent of Browns’ jewellery business, despite it being heavily focused on women’s brands just last year. Petersson noted that customisable pieces from menswear brands like MAD Paris and 777 have done particularly well in catering to this segment.
Brands should think beyond introducing new lines and styles to their offerings and instead adapt their positioning and wider strategy to woo self-gifting shoppers, noted Repossi. Modern designs need to tie in with a brand’s overall identity for the entire offering to work.