In fine jewelry and watches, sustainability shines through

In fine jewelry and watches, sustainability shines through

It used to be that when people shopped for fine jewelry or premium watches, the first factor they’d consider would be the design of the item. That’s changed in the past few years: many consumers now look first for a brand that they like. And younger consumers won’t even consider a brand that doesn’t prioritize sustainability. In this episode of the McKinsey on Consumer and Retail podcast, McKinsey’s Tyler Harris and Alexander Thiel discuss the “sustainability surge” and other major shifts in how consumers buy fine jewelry and premium watches—and the implications for brands and companies. Subscribe to the podcast. 


In fine jewelry and watches, sustainability shines through

Monica Toriello: It’s the holiday season, and if you’re shopping for holiday gifts, it’s very possible that on your list of gifts to buy is a piece of fine jewelry or a wristwatch. And maybe, when you’re deciding which piece of jewelry or watch to buy, you’ll consider not only what it looks like, what color it is, and what it’s made of, but also how it was made and who made it. That’s our topic for today’s episode: sustainability in the jewelry and watch industry. Our guests are two of the authors of a recent 96-page report titled,State of Fashion: Watches and Jewellery. The report is a collaborative effort between McKinsey and Business of Fashion.

Tyler Harris is an associate partner in McKinsey’s New Jersey office. She’s an expert not only in the jewelry industry but also in retail operations, with a special focus on next-generation store technologies. Tyler is a graduate gemologist and holds certifications in diamonds, colored stones, and gem identification.

Alexander Thiel is a partner in McKinsey’s Zurich office. He leads McKinsey’s work in the Swiss consumer sector as well as our work in organizational design in the EMEA [Europe, Middle East, and Africa] region. He has advised companies all around the world, having lived in both Asia and the United States. He has deep expertise in retail, apparel, fashion, and luxury. Glad to have you with us, Tyler and Alexander.

Let’s start by defining terms. Your report covers “fine jewelry” and “premium to ultra-luxury watches.” What do those terms mean?

Tyler Harris: For fine jewelry, it’s a combination of price points and materials: pieces of jewelry that are priced at about $360 per piece and also contain a precious metal or precious or semiprecious gemstones, such as diamonds or amethysts.

Alexander Thiel: In watches, most brands have a certain “home” or center of gravity within a certain range of price points. Premium watches start at around €100 to €150, going to about €1,000. By the way, this is the space where many of the smartwatches, including the Apple Watch, are positioned, so we see a lot of disruption in this space. Then, prime watches start at €1,000 and go up to €10,000. Above €10,000, you’re going into the space of luxury and ultraluxury. Of course, in both watches and jewelry, there’s really no upper limit: €300,000 and €500,000 and even seven-figure purchases are all possible.

How the consumer has changed

Monica Toriello: What surprised you as you were working on the report? Were there any trends that turned out to be stronger or weaker than you initially thought?

Alexander Thiel: One of the surprising things is that a few years ago—even just five years ago—people shopping for watches looked first for a design they liked. Then they looked for particular features, like movements or certain complications. Only after that did they look for a brand. Now, it’s completely different: consumers now look first for a brand that they identify with, that they like, and that they want to wear as part of their public persona.

That is also one of the reasons why an aspect like sustainability—and a brand being authentic in its sustainability appeal—is so important. An individual watch can be sustainable, but it’s difficult to communicate that. For an entire brand, however, it’s much easier to put forward what you’re doing for sustainability. It’s also more obvious to the consumer if you’re not doing sustainable things.

Tyler Harris: On the jewelry side, in the past two years, the consumer has fundamentally changed as well—and she has forced the industry to change along with her. During the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers couldn’t go into the flagship store and try on engagement rings in person. They had to go online. The trend of moving toward digital in jewelry really exploded.

The same thing happened for sustainability. Our consumer research has shown that sustainability considerations across categories are really skyrocketing. We see that, too, in jewelry: the consumer cares much more about values and sustainable practices and ethics than she did even two or three years ago.

The ‘sustainability surge’

Monica Toriello: Let’s talk about that “sustainability surge,” as you call it in your report. One of the projections you make is that, by 2025, sustainability-influenced purchases will account for 20 to 30 percent of all fine-jewelry sales, equivalent to as much as $110 billion. That’s at least triple the sustainability-influenced purchases in 2019. So that’s a sea change, right?

And, yes, we’ve heard a lot about consumers—especially younger consumers—becoming more concerned about sustainability, but we’ve also heard about the attitude–behavior gap: what they say isn’t always what they do. The skeptic would say, “Well, of course consumers will profess that sustainability is a factor in their buying decisions. But that all goes out the window when they see a beautiful necklace or a watch that looks great on their wrist.” What gives you confidence that consumers now really mean it? That they really are considering sustainability as a factor in their buying decisions?

Alexander Thiel: The first thing is that, of course, the research we are doing is not just survey based. We actually do shop-alongs, we look at a lot of purchasing data, and we have partnerships with brands and manufacturers that give us certain insights. The attitude—behavior gap certainly exists, but in this research, we corrected for that.

Millennials are at a time and place in their life where many of them can afford a luxury purchase like a fine wristwatch. For them, particularly when purchasing a highly emotive item into which they’ve put a lot of consideration and thought, the item needs to fit certain sustainability minimums. If the brand doesn’t have a sustainability agenda or sustainability credentials, then for many consumers—millennials in particular—it will just not be viable. It will not be part of the consideration set. And that’s not specific to watches; that is true for all purchases that people put considerable thought and time into.

If the brand doesn’t have a sustainability agenda or sustainability credentials, then for many consumers—millennials in particular—it will just not be viable.

Alexander Thiel

Tyler Harris: When you look at the search terms that consumers use when they are browsing online for products, the combination of “fine jewelry” or “fine watches” and “sustainability” in Google has skyrocketed. The other thing that I would cite is real growth in brands that are founded on sustainable principles. Mejuri is just one example of a brand founded on sustainable values that is doing remarkably well and growing very quickly. The uptick in those kinds of businesses shows that consumers are looking for these brands and voting with their wallets.

Alexander Thiel: A few years ago, sustainability was almost exclusively discussed as a risk. I remember when the movie Blood Diamond came out. Everyone was afraid that consumers would stop buying diamonds altogether, and the discussion was entirely about how to mitigate this risk, how to avoid loss of consumers, and what kinds of practices, checks, balances, certifications, and insurances to put into place.

What we are seeing now is that the much more powerful sustainability argument is one of positive sustainability, where it’s about end-to-end sustainability—not just mitigating the biggest negative externalities but really building a positive brand. A positive message that enables you to positively associate with a brand is much more powerful than a risk-mitigation message that tells you, “Look, what you’re buying here is really not doing so much harm.”

Monica Toriello: Your report has some astounding statistics about the environmental and human impact of the fine-jewelry industry: “For every carat of diamond extracted, an estimated 250 metric tons of earth are shifted by miners who make as little as $3 a day in some regions.” Another statistic: “Gold mining companies dump 180 metric tons of hazardous water into water streams every year.” And the report says that silver and pearls and other gemstones are problematic in their own ways. How do you advise jewelry and watch companies to approach this problem? How can they figure out where they can make the most impact?

Alexander Thiel: Particularly when it comes to fine materials and fine metals—like gold, silver, and diamonds—the reality is that the standards for extraction today vary widely. Most companies are quite responsible. However, there are also operations that have a significant negative effect on the environment and local communities. Therefore, what fine-jewelry or watch brands have to do is relatively simple: it’s due diligence, stakeholder management, and supply-chain management. I encourage consumers today to ask for and look for these things, because the absolute majority of fine-jewelry and watch brands care about these issues and are very transparent about them.

Tyler Harris: Another thing that I see some of the best brands doing is setting targets and goals that are both near term and long term. In years past, executives set goals for 2050 or for far off in the future. That evokes ideas of greenwashing because it’s really easy to say, “In 20 years, we want our company to achieve this goal,” but you are de facto saying, “I’m going to make this the next leadership team’s problem to solve.” The best brands set near-in targets that ladder up to the bigger goal and hold teams responsible now.

The best brands set near-in sustainability targets that ladder up to the bigger goal and hold teams responsible now.

Tyler Harris

Diversity and its many dimensions

Monica Toriello: Of course, sustainability isn’t just about the environment. It’s also about social responsibility, the workforce, diversity. Here’s another statistic you cite in your report: “Among top fine-jewelry players, women make up less than 30 percent of senior executives, despite the fact that women wear 90 to 95 percent of fine jewelry purchased.” Given that their end-user base is almost entirely women, do you think it’ll be easier for companies in this industry to diversify their senior-executive ranks?

Tyler Harris: The problem, or the question, of diversity—whether it’s gender or race or another factor—is really hard to solve, irrespective of industry. Today, when you’re trying to attract junior talent, 75 percent of millennials will say that they expect their employers to focus on societal problems. So if you are an employer who is not focusing on societal problems—be it sustainability, diversity, or any of the other topics that are very much top of mind for folks nowadays—you are going to lose out on pretty meaningful and significant talent pools. The short answer to your question is: no, I don’t think it’ll be easier for fine-jewelry or watch players to crack the code on diversity. I do think it is incredibly important, especially when you think about future workforces and what the companies stand for.

Alexander Thiel: I think diversity is a huge opportunity, and I would cite three dimensions in particular: gender, age, and geography. When you look at most fine-jewelry and fine-watch companies, there is a dominance of men, of organizations that are old in the literal sense, and of organizations in which the executive positions are primarily European or Anglocentric. But the major growth markets for this industry are women, younger consumers, and consumers in emerging markets, particularly Asia.

So, even though I agree that there are many forces in the industry that stand in the way of change, the market forces are so strong that I think they will significantly contribute to solving this problem. The brands that become more diverse, and that manage this diversity successfully, will outperform their peers so strongly that their peers will quickly follow.

Tyler Harris: I also think there is a huge opportunity fordiverse designers, whether they work for some of the larger houses or are starting up their own direct-to-consumer businesses. There’s a real call from consumers for diverse points of view in terms of what is on the shelves or on the digital screen, if you’re shopping online. That is a huge growth opportunity as well.

Opportunities online

Monica Toriello: You’ve both mentioned the online channel. What’s working in e-commerce? What are jewelry or watch companies doing online that seem to be working really well?

Alexander Thiel: Let me start with watches, and then Tyler can talk about the huge challenge of bringing the magic of the jewelry-shopping experience online. For watches, the first realization is that there is a certain group of customers whose existence the industry denied for a long time: consumers who are willing—and actually prefer—to buy a $5,000 or $10,000 or even $20,000 watch completely online. These consumers exist. Giving them this opportunity in a seamless, easy, direct way and offering opportunities for customization as much as possible—that is a formula that is working.

Another thing that is really working is preowned watches. That started to boom the moment that the platforms operating in that space professionalized the market, so that there was enough consensus and trust that you are actually buying, for example, a Rolex and not something that someone put together in their basement. Watch brands have to find a way to make the preowned market work for them, because in the near future we think the majority of transactions in the watch space will be preowned transactions. For brands not to participate in this market would mean not participating in a significant part of the value creation.

Tyler Harris: On the jewelry side, there’s a lot that’s new online. In 2019, only about 13 percent of jewelry purchases were online—quite small compared with other categories. There are a few things that excite me about digital prospects for fine jewelry.

The first is building consumer trust. Fine jewelry is a very heavily researched category. It is a high-price-tag purchase. And diamonds and gemstones are pretty tough to understand: you start reading about the four C’s and all of a sudden you are in a rabbit hole of information that can be hard to figure out. So one of the beauties of online or digital for this category is the ability to capture trust from a consumer in their research process and educate them in a way that they can understand, that is not overwhelming, and that builds trust.

For brands, an exciting byproduct of consumers doing research online is that consumers are clicking on a lot of different designs and links, so you have a lot more opportunities to gather information on clickstream: what they’re interested in and what they’re not interested in. You have more “fingerprints” and more of a history from a consumer’s digital shopping than you do if someone walks in a store and walks right back out.

A second exciting thing online is virtual try-on. There’s a lot of talk about it but it’s still largely in test mode, so the verdict isn’t fully in on it. But we have seen instances where if someone has tried on, for example, two or three pairs of earrings virtually, they are twice as likely to make a purchase and transact than someone who hasn’t done any virtual try-on. So there is evidence that try-on has legs, and—particularly in a post-COVID-19 world where folks are much more conscientious about health and hygiene and trying things on—I think there could be something really interesting there.

A third exciting thing is online marketplaces. About 20 percent of fine-jewelry purchases are from big brands; the other 80 percent of the market is unbranded. That makes for quite a fragmented industry. When you think about marketplaces giving you the ability to connect your small jewelry shop to consumers across the country and across the globe, and scale in a way that is cost-efficient and drives revenue, there’s something really powerful there.

Creating in-store magic

Monica Toriello: What about in stores? Are there cool things that companies are doing to make the in-store experience even more “magical,” to use Alexander’s word?

Alexander Thiel: Whether you’re a jewelry or watch brand, you need to invest in a very specific positioning: something authentic, something you stand for, something that a consumer really believes are your values and that she or he can identify with. That means that when it comes to stores—since stores are the place where the consumer is closest to the brand and can really experience the brand—it is really important to make your positioning visible.

You can’t just have your products nicely displayed; you need to bring out what you stand for as a brand. And that creates a completely different level of requirements when it comes to creating experience-rich things—whether that’s having pinball machines or a billiards table and the like, if you are a casual brand. The store should be seen as the place where you as a brand have a chance to make the consumer learn and experience what you as a brand are all about.

Tyler Harris: The category lends itself well to thinking about other touchpoints to bring consumers into the stores, apart from the first big purchase. For instance, watches and jewelry are worn every day, which means they take wear and tear. That means they need to be repaired; you need to make sure that the diamond in your engagement ring is checked annually to make sure that it’s not going to fall out of the setting.

So we’ve seen players use their stores as a place where customers can bring in their jewelry for repairs, and use that moment when they’re back in the store to create more magic, show them more pieces, welcome them back into the brand, and remind them of what the brand stands for. That creates a loop of loyalty, so that when customers are going to make their next big purchase, they think of coming to that brand because they’ve already established a habit of regularly coming into the stores for another purpose. The hurdle of getting back into the brand’s stores to make a purchase is just much lower. That’s one example we’ve seen; you can imagine many other similar ideas.

Imperatives for CEOs

Monica Toriello: If you could gather all of the jewelry and watch CEOs in one room and give them one message—one imperative—what would that be?

Alexander Thiel: One thing is difficult. Let me try three for the watch industry. One is, you need to succeed with women. You need to design and produce for women much more than you have done in the past, because that part of the market is underserved. And you need to do it without catering to old-fashioned stereotypes. The future of watches is in moving more into a unisex space but making watches that women want to wear.

The second thing you really need to figure out if you’re a watch brand is how to serve the Chinese customereffectively and efficiently, now that a lot of the China sales are getting repatriated. Before the pandemic, most of the luxury watch sales to Chinese consumers—who are by far the largest fine-watch consumer group in the world—happened outside China, in destination travel, for example, to Switzerland. That has changed, and we think the change will be quite sticky. A lot of those sales are repatriated and will stay in mainland China. Therefore, you need to have brand presence, distribution, and brand equity in the mainland.

The third thing—and here we come back to our initial theme of sustainability—is to rethink what iconic items are. You need to have iconic items that everyone identifies with your brand and that have such a big appeal that everyone, or at least a lot of people, want to have it. In the past, in the watch industry, iconic items were largely defined by design, scarcity, movements, and the like. These things haven’t gone away, but there are now other sources that make a watch iconic, and they have more to do with the experience, the product, and the brand story behind it—and sustainability is a key aspect of that.

Tyler Harris: We are in a once-in-a-lifetime moment of change: from consumer behaviors, to new entrants in the market, to technology and new materials. Now is the time to throw out the rulebook that has guided the industry for years, in legacy processes and legacy ways of working, and try the new thing—whether that’s starting a new sub-brand or hitting the gas on sustainability and diversity.

There are a lot of things happening right now where time is not your friend, given how quickly the consumer is moving. In sustainability, time is not your friend; in diversity, the same. So acting now and taking some big leaps is what I would guide leaders to do. Like I said, this is a once-in-a-lifetime moment when we can rewrite the rulebook.