“Gulf Jewelry Market Stays Strong,” read a recent headline in Dubai-based Gulf News only a few days ago. While we hear of the struggle that luxury fashion businesses are going through in the region owing to the pandemic, it seems fine jewelry is actually performing well. Italian jeweler Repossi has been retailing in this region for 30 years. Says the brand’s CEO Anne de Vergeron: “We have not only noticed an increase in sales for local customers, but also for tourists. There is also a growth in both volume and in value, with stunning and unique high-jewelry pieces.” With Dubai being one of the first cities to open up to tourists, its role as a global shopping destination seems to have only been strengthened. On the other hand, countries like Saudi Arabia, which opted to keep borders closed, saw their residents forced to shop at home. As each country put their own safety measures in place, retail brands have had to adapt their strategies to work within the situation, unable to have a region-wide focus.
For Repossi, their strongest markets have been Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Notes de Vergeron: “The way of buying has changed with the pandemic, where customers are making more conscious purchasing and looking for pieces with a higher value.” What has not changed is the Middle East’s tradition of jewelry buying, be it for Eid el Fitr or for weddings.
Founded in 1860 in Beirut the now Switzerland-based Chatila is a four-generation-old business, so it has seen its share of ups and downs over the years. Observes director Marwan Chatila, “Jewelers sell dreams, and dreams, paradoxically, are more resilient than necessities.” He explains: “You may have noticed in news reports that the world’s largest rough diamond producer, Alrosa, saw a big drop in sales at the start of the pandemic, falling nearly to zero in the middle of 2020. But by the end of that terrible year, and now in the first quarter of 2021, their sales have completely recovered, with jewelers the world over seeking to replenish their stocks. This is a powerful illustration of the elasticity inherent in our business sector.”
The same trend has been noticed by luxury e-tailers. MatchesFashion has seen a surge in their jewelry sales from the Middle East in the past year. Says Tanika Wisdom, a buyer at the fashion e-commerce site: “Over the past year, we have seen such an incredible reaction to fine jewelry. We saw a strong lift in sales in January 2021 as well as high sales in March, July and August 2020.” Brands that performed well include Shay, Yvonne Leon, Suzanne Kalan and Mateo. “Jacquie Aiche’s reimagined Rolex [watches] have been a real highlight,” adds Wisdom, “as we have seen a surge of requests from clients for watches that are not readily available on the market. People may have most of the classics and are now looking for something special or one-of-a-kind. Shay’s diamond necklaces and bracelets are also popular with our Middle Eastern customer, as they are great investment pieces that will never go out of style and can be cherished forever.”
While fashion seems to have gone toward comfort and casual clothing, when it comes to jewelry it seems that being bold and beautiful is key. As Chatila comments: “I think we will have more potential clients looking for very specific things, rather than just looking. As I say, the lockdown has given them plenty of opportunity for shopping vicariously, and some of them will come to us with definite ideas. I see increased appetite for unusual cuts of diamonds, such as the trapeze, as well as for unusual gem colors and color combinations.”
Homegrown jewelers too have been surprised that the demand for precious buys in this region has not waned in these unprecedented times. Lebanese jewelry designer Selim Mouzannar, whose creations retail from New York’s Bergdorf Goodman and London’s Dover Street Market, says:, “Given conditions all around and the political and economic situation in Lebanon, we have done surprisingly well.” Mouzannar acknowledges that because his brand retails from marquee stores internationally, his jewels retain a certain cachet. A strong digital network – his pieces retail on both Net-a-Porter and Farfetch – has also helped him. Being a homegrown brand has also been a major plus point for him. Based in Beirut, Lebanon, Mouzannar comes from a family of jewelers that dates back to the days of the Ottoman Empire. Mouzannar’s jewelry is known for its fine craftsmanship, and he references Arab traditions in his designs. “I feel like people are very supportive and pushing us to keep going,” he says.
With money not being spent on travel, and with everyone feeling like they deserve a pick-me-up, jewelry is now seen as a stylish investment, says Nadine Ghosn, the Lebanese-Brazilian jeweler best known for her tongue-in-cheek take on jewelry design (Beyonce has worn her “Shut Up” studs): “As fewer people are traveling, saving up for jewelry and receiving it has given them something to look forward to,” Ghosn explains. This means that fashion capitals such as London, Paris and New York have missed out on the Arab spend. “The decrease of Middle Eastern clients in our stores in other cities was absorbed by an increase in online sales, especially in the United Kingdom,” says Repossi’s de Vergeron. “Our store in London, very dependent on these visitors, is looking forward to welcoming them very soon.”
With Ramadan sales so far being strong for most fine jewelry brands, it seems as though nothing impacts the MENA region’s penchant for well-crafted precious buys, not even COVID-19. Says MatchesFashion’s Wisdom: “It is clear that our Middle Eastern clients love investing in fine jewelry. The Middle East has seen incredible growth over the past year, and we see this continuing in 2021.”