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Who Buys a $25,000 Ring Without Trying It On First?

The business of buying fine jewelry online is booming.

Koryn Kennedy was browsing antique jewelry websites from her home in Seattle when she came across an Art Deco ring she loved. "It was beautiful, it was antique, it looked like a snowflake. It was just me," she says. She had never seen this ring in person or tried it on her finger. She had no way of verifying if the diamonds were real or if the gold was 18k as advertised. She had never previously bought anything from this retailer, located across the country, and had no idea if the company was trustworthy. As someone who usually does extensive research before buying anything, this felt uncomfortable.

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Still, she had been searching for a ring like this and knew she had to have it. If buying it online was the only way she could get it, so be it. "My fiancé literally bought this ring in a towel while dripping all over our kitchen," she says. "And when it got here, it was my favorite thing in the world… If I'm going to invest in another piece of jewelry, I'm going to buy it the same way."

Before Kennedy’s fiancé bought her ring, she sent a picture of it to her friend who photographs jewelry for a living. "I asked someone else, which in retrospect is ridiculous because he was looking at the same picture I was," she explains. "But at least in my head it checked off that I wasn’t being impulsive."

It might seem crazy that people are spending thousands of dollars — let alone tens of thousands of dollars — on pieces of fine jewelry they’ve never seen, touched, or held. But buying expensive jewelry online is on the rise, as is luxury e-commerce in general. According to a McKinsey study released in October 2015, the online sale of luxury goods, including jewelry, could triple over the next ten years.

Like Kennedy, more and more people are turning to the internet, instead of going to a store, to buy jewelry. On Latest Revival, an e-commerce operation that specializes in rare and hard-to-find pieces, you can currently buy antiques like a diamond, sapphire, and emerald ribbon-bow brooch and pendant that dates back to the Edwardian era and costs $20,000. Or, something a bit more modern, like limited-edition Zaha Hadid rings inspired by animal carcasses that sell for $25,000 each.

A close up of a gold and white diamond ring
An 18k Ana Katarina white diamond ring, selling for $7,790 on Latest Revival.

Latest Revival's founder, Dalia Oberlander, started her site in September 2012 after helping a close friend find a special engagement ring. The experience was inconvenient and stressful. "After going from store to store to location to location to dealer to dealer, I was like, ‘This can’t be the way to find something,’" she says. "We found this gorgeous 1950s Cartier ring for her, but it took so much time."

At first, industry experts told her that convenience alone was not enough. "Jewelry is so personal," they said. "How are you going to break the barrier for people to buy into such a significant piece without seeing it in person?" Their calculations were wrong. Not only have her sales gone up every year, but shoppers are demanding more high-end and costly pieces that go into the six-figure range. "We have no price resistance," she says.

Convenience and variety aren’t the only factors; for some buyers, shopping in person isn’t always an option. Shane, who lives in Virginia, ordered his fiancée’s engagement ring over Facebook because he was on a military deployment in Africa. "I didn’t have a cell phone or phone service, so it forced me to do it over the internet," he says. He turned to Lauren Priori, a private jeweler in Philadelphia, and did everything from `viewing` sketches to `selecting` the diamond to `paying` for the final product on social media. (This is not rare, says Priori. She has customers who have ordered jewelry over Instagram.)

Online shopping is a great option for those like Shane who live outside of major metropolitan areas. People who live in cities may have access to hundreds of jewelry shops, but in the suburbs, a chain store like a Zales might be it. If they want variety, the internet is the only convenient option.

Understanding this growing need, Nadine McCarthy Kahane founded Stone & Strand, a website that sells highly-curated fine jewelry from around the globe, three years ago. She began to notice that more buyers, especially women, were buying fine jewelry for themselves rather than waiting to get it as a gift. "[They] want something more unique that reflects who they are rather than a generic earring everybody has," she says. Stone & Strand is able to give them that wide selection so that they can find the perfect piece. And because of it, Kahane’s business has doubled every year since it started.

A model's hands wearing several small rings
A collection image on Stone & Strand.

Kahane also recognized that buying jewelry in person can be an uncomfortable experience. "With a traditional store experience, everything is behind a glass case, and you have to point to pieces. You can’t see the prices, and the sales assistant is like, ‘Oh my god, you want to see another piece’ — and if you walk out without buying anything, you feel guilty," she says. Shane adds that another reason he turned to the internet is that he didn’t want this type of interaction, or any at all. "I’m a pretty quiet guy, so I don’t really like talking to people that much," he says. "Online was much better."

But this doesn’t mean that people aren’t still shopping in stores. Some of the more traditional legacy jewelry brands are hanging on to — and revamping — their in-person presence. Cartier recently re-opened its Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City after an extensive renovation, and it’s hard to imagine buying a Tiffany ring anywhere other than its elegant flagship up the street. These stores are still appealing to shoppers who want the experience of browsing for their gifts in person — perhaps with a glass of champagne in hand and a sales attendant to answer their every question.

Yet, even these brands are enhancing their online presence. "Stores are still important," says Jennie Farmer, the brand director at De Beers Diamond Jewelers. "For the brand, it's all about serving our clients in the best possible way, and a majority of clients still like to come to the store to try the piece," she explains. But she still says that they view digital as a priority. Even customers who want to come into a store are using the company’s website to make appointments, browse products, and get familiar with the brand. More and more are starting to purchase their jewelry online as well.

Some vendors are finding a middle group to appease apprehensive buyers without forcing them into a super traditional retail environment. Latest Revival will take jewelry to people’s homes if customers want to try on valuable pieces before they buy them. Blue Nile, an e-commerce site that has sold engagement rings to over 500,000 customers, has opened five showrooms since June 2015. They also get all their diamonds valued independently by the Gemological Institute of America and send customers certificates in the mail. (For further security, these diamonds and gemstones are also etched with their own serial numbers so small they aren't visible to the eye, but large enough that professional jewelers can reference them to make sure the piece is authentic.)

Kahane says Stone & Strand takes extra steps to ship jewelry safely to customers. "It really is our only business, and we can tell our customers how we handle this stuff," she explains. "We deal with so many packages on a day-to-day basis, it’s like the back of our hand." She also has special insurance that protects her company and its clientele. The site also focuses heavily on editorial content to help customers picture how the jewelry can look in real life.

Fewer of her customers are showing any hesitation to buying online, says Oberlander. "The market has changed… People just want to be able to play around online and find something and have it brought to them — and have it be a special item of their own."

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