Would you buy fine jewellery off the internet?

Online shopping may have become second nature for many of us, but would you would spend hundreds of thousands of dirhams to acquire a gemstone or jewel on the web?

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In the old days, if a woman wanted to buy something (a handbag, perhaps, or a beautiful dress), she had to visit a shop. If she was a regular or preferred customer, the store might call her when something specific came in and hold it until she arrived. Important (read: big-spending) customers, meanwhile, might have choice items sent to their homes or workplaces, to peruse at their leisure.

These days, things happen a little differently, thanks in part to the foresight of former fashion journalist Natalie Massenet. Seeing the potential of the then fairly misunderstood internet, in 2000, she launched Net-a-Porter, the first luxury shopping site. The rest, as they say, is history.

Fast-forward 17 years, and online shopping is now an accepted norm – one employed by an estimated 1.66 billion people last year. According to Bain & Company's global luxury study, luxury goods alone accounted for US$1.2 trillion (Dh4.41tn) of sales, with shoes, bags and jewellery listed as the areas of fastest growth. Catering to that demand is big business, and a plethora of new companies have stepped into the fray, including Farfetch in 2007 and Moda Operandi in 2010. These portals offer fabulous clothes, seemingly impossible-to-get shoes and impeccable service, all via the internet.

And now, the e-luxury offering has been dialled up a couple of notches, with news that both Net-a-Porter and Farfetch have launched dedicated fine-jewellery sections. This means that customers can browse for and buy an 18K gold Talisman necklace by De Beers (Dh66,655 on Farfetch) or a Yeprem diamond necklace (Dh123,775 on Net-a-Porter) as easily as a pair of shoes or new handbag. With a few clicks of a mouse, these precious pieces can be purchased and, just as with the shoes or bag, will be hand-delivered to your doorstep.

We are already au fait with the sheer convenience that online luxury shopping offers – of not having to go out when it’s too hot, of not being subject to shop opening hours and, most importantly, of being able to try things on in peace and quiet at home. We are no longer at the mercy of unflattering shop lights, cruel mirrors or overzealous salespeople bothering us, and are free to experiment with how to wear something that works with the rest of our wardrobe. And while some may baulk at the thought of spending hundreds of thousands of dirhams via an online transaction, there is a growing segment of the market that is more than comfortable with this new way of acquiring precious jewels. 

For those unfamiliar with the term, fine jewellery denotes items made from metals such as gold, silver and platinum, and precious or semi-precious stones. Made in limited quantities, these often sell for tens of thousands of dirhams or more, but are not to be confused with high jewellery, which are one-off items that can be worth millions. Fashion jewellery, meanwhile, is trend-driven and changes from season to season. Made from base metals, such as brass and copper, it is akin to what used to be called costume jewellery. In addition, there is an entirely new category, called demi-fine, which still uses gold and silver, but of a lower grade (14K gold, not 18K, for example). Demi-fine pieces are cheaper to produce and thus cheaper to buy.

While Net-a-Porter may have been the first to coax Chanel to put its jewellery online in 2010, and Cartier last year (which incidentally led to the site's largest single transaction, when it sold a Panthère de Cartier watch for Dh534,000), what is new is that these e-tailers now have sections dedicated to this segment. 

The opening up of the digital fine-jewellery market sees Farfetch offer pieces from De Beers, Chopard, Pomellato, David Yurman and Tiffany & Co, and watches from Girard-Perregaux, Tag Heuer, Ulysse Nardin and Zenith. It also has a vintage-jewellery section. Meanwhile, on Net-a-Porter, customers will find pieces by Cartier, Piaget, Pomellato, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Chopard and Tiffany & Co, with the most expensive piece (at the time of writing) being a white gold, diamond and emerald necklace by Amrapali, which costs a cool Dh617,240. Interestingly, as with other items on the sites, the jewellery comes with suggestions of what to pair it with.

“I thought if you were looking to buy a watch, you would go to a watch store, and while you would get great expertise, there would be no context,” says Alison Loehnis, president of Net-a-Porter and Mr Porter. “There would be no: ‘Here is a great Cartier Tank, I see it dressed for evening, or with a sweater and jeans.’ The combination of customer demand and the take-up that we had seen in the category gave us an opportunity, so we put our foot on the gas.”

With 18 and 11 years of experience respectively (and keeping in mind that a year is a long time on the internet), Net-a-Porter and Farfetch have had ample time to fine-tune their business concepts and forge ironclad relationships. This has been rewarded with a continued number of customers who are confident that what they have paid for will be delivered. Trust is absolutely essential if customers are going to be tempted into making hefty jewellery purchases via their electronic devices. 

As Federico Marchetti, chief executive of Yoox Net-a-Porter, explained at the recent Condé Nast Luxury Conference in Lisbon: "Fine jewellery and watches are the perfect complement to high fashion. This explosion in fine jewellery and watches shows there's no limit to what customers will buy online with us. And we are now getting a fascinating insight into who these hard luxury customers are and what they are prepared to buy."

The arrival of fine jewellery at both sites is more than sheer coincidence. Having flagged since the global recession, jewellery sales are on their way up. This growth in purchases is being driven by the huge (and seemingly insatiable) spending power of Generations Y and Z, with China alone having 176.2 million shopping-mad 15- to 24-year-olds. Buying trends fit the pattern implied by the research of Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman, who suggests that 95 per cent of all spending decisions are made in customers' subconscious, meaning that it is our emotions and not our conscious mind that is controlling exactly how and why we shop.

Of all items, jewellery is perhaps the most emotionally charged. After all, it is worn right next to the skin. It is also loaded with meaning, linked as it is to relationships – through engagement and wedding rings, and even "push presents" (gifts given by a father to a new mother after she gives birth). It is a marker of financial independence, such as investing in gold, or a woman buying her first serious diamond, and is more likely to be handed down as a family heirloom, compared to clothing or bags. Aware that this makes for a complicated emotional journey, Net-a-Porter offers access to personal shoppers, trained by the Gemological Institute of America, to advise consumers on those big-ticket purchases, while return policies are offered as standard. 

While a string of diamonds will not be a spontaneous purchase for everyone, it is good to know that, should that time come, there are at least two online companies that can make the process a little bit easier.


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