By Brecken Branstrator
These are Rony Tennenbaum’s “Air” bands, made in 14-karat rose gold with a 0.65-carat princess diamond solitaire ($4,250) and 14-karat white gold with a 0.50-carat round diamond solitaire ($3,500).
New York--Last summer, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, opening the door for citizens and states to begin fighting for marriage equality for same-gender couples across the country.

As of press time, 19 states plus Washington, D.C. had passed marriage equality laws and judges in an additional 12 states have issued rulings in favor of marriage equality, meaning that same-sex marriage now is legal, or at least under consideration, in a total of 31 states. 

While the figure continually is changing as new laws are made and others struck down, the numbers continue to trend in favor of marriage equality for same-gender couples. This has, among other things, provided a bump for the wedding market, and an opportunity for retailers open to change. 

According to a recent survey by Community Marketing & Insights, an LGBT consumer research company, about 76 percent of same-gender couples feel that it is important to work with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender-friendly businesses when they’re planning their wedding.

Companies across many consumer categories -- including in fine jewelry -- are beginning to understand this, targeting the LGBT community with marketing that will speak to them and show their support.

Ben Bridge Jewelers and Rogers & Hollands both opted to being carrying an LGBT-specific bridal line within the past year. 

And, even more recently, retail giant Macy’s showed its support for National LGBT Pride Month in June through in-store events, specialty merchandise, sponsorships, advertising and a gift registry service that “warmly welcomes all couples.”

New selling opportunities
The opportunity for same-gender couples to legally wed means that new experiences are being opened to them, as they decide if they want an engagement ring for one or both partners, styles for their wedding bands and more.

Community Marketing & Insights’ survey showed that female same-sex couples are more likely to buy engagement rings while both men and women are likely to buy wedding bands.

The bump in sales from same-gender couples is especially, and not surprisingly, seen in metropolitan areas, which generally are more diverse and culturally open. Evans Siskel of DVVS Fine Jewelry, who runs the store with his partner James Corry, said that the store’s location in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City has led to an organic growth in sales that the store does for same-gender couples.

But even in states where same-gender marriage is not recognized by law, couples still can be found buying their bridal jewelry at local gay-friendly stores, perhaps before taking a trip to a state where they legally can wed.

In Texas, for example, Susan Eisen Fine Jewelry in El Paso has seen an uptick in sales to same-gender couples.

“We’re open to selling to anyone who is in love and wants to buy a piece of jewelry. I don’t really care who it is,” owner Susan Eisen said, adding that she hasn’t yet had any problems from other customers about her store’s choice to welcome sales from the LGBT community.

Regarding buying trends for same-gender couples, she said women tend to know what they want when come into the store, opting for something a little different or a custom piece, while most men usually have less of an idea in their heads when they start shopping. 

Eisen also noted that some male same-gender couples have been buying matching watches as an alternative to the traditional bridal jewelry.

In Arkansas, another state where gay marriage is not legal, Kelly Newton of Newton’s Jewelers in Fort Smith said that while the store has never done a great amount of business to same-gender couples, the changes in the marriage equality laws over the last few years have brought more into the store.

“We’re very open-minded, and it’s just business as usual for us,” Newton said. “We live in a pretty small town in the Midwest, and we’ve never thought anything about it.”

The trends at Newton’s Jewelers fall in line with what Eisen said, including that the women who come in are more inclined for something unique, he said.

A learning experience
This cultural shift also means that there are learning opportunities on both sides of the counter, as a new crop of consumers navigate the wedding planning process and store owners learn how to market and sell to this community.

Jewelry designer Rony Tennenbaum is tapping into this need by helping retailers figure out how to best communicate with LGBT customers and how to sell to them, as well as helping same-gender couple navigate their way through bridal jewelry, and even wedding, planning.

Tennenbaum said he sees a need to educate consumers about what’s available to them and “wedding etiquette.” 

“It’s not enough for stores to carry it. We need to reach out to talk to them and explain it to them.”

Tennenbaum does this through educational programs and public appearances called “Rony Talks.” 

More recently, Tennenbaum announced that he would team up with EQL, a new biannual print magazine celebrating LBGT weddings and destinations, to debut his column, which will give readers an update on jewelry news, fashion, and wedding and engagement themes, tips and advice.

He also works with stores, helping them understand what the norms are for the LGBT community and to help them establish an idea of what they’re thinking and feeling before then begin to reach out to them as shoppers.

“You absolutely do need to know your customer. The gay consumer is marketing savvy. They can be offended very quickly,” Tennenbaum said.

He also designed his own bridal line, targeted specifically for the LGBT wedding market, which includes the Wed collection and Tie the Knot, among others.

“What was out there felt like what a straight man thought that a gay man would want,” Tennenbaum said, adding that he wanted to created something not only that spoke to the LBGT community, but also offer a line that is sophisticated, high end and loyal to fashion trends.

Two major jewelers now carrying Tennenbaum’s jewelry--Ben Bridge Jeweler added it to the product lineup in its Tacoma and Spokane stores in Washington, and Rogers & Hollands is now carrying it at two of its Chicago-area stores--in stores located in states where same-sex marriage is legal.

“At Ben Bridge, we believe that at its very core the jewelry business is a business of love. We take tremendous joy in being a part of happy moments in people’s lives and are always looking for new and exciting products to help people commemorate those moments,” Marc Bridge, vice president of marketing at Ben Bridge, told National Jeweler in an email. “We liked Rony’s jewelry and the message of love it conveys. It has been a nice addition to our collections.”

Being open-minded
Even as Tennenbaum creates his designs with a specific crowd in mind, there are still a great deal of retailers that aren’t carrying collections targeted specifically at the LGBT market.

Rather, many of them said that the key selling to same-gender couples is to be open-minded about the experience and be able to offer them the product they’re looking for, whether it be changing something on a piece they already have, finding a less traditional designer that can give them what they want, or building a custom bridal piece to create something unique.

“We sell more traditional plain wedding bands than anything,” said Siskel of DVVS in New York, but added that they’re also seeing an increasing amount of same-gender customers for alternative bridal jewelry, especially rings that feature meteorite mixed with other metals to create a textured look, such as those from designer Chris Ploof, or made in palladium.

This seems to be an increasing sentiment among retailers, who note that less traditional doesn’t necessarily mean something crazy. The key, they said, is to be ready to help the couple find what they want, which, in many cases, seems to be a custom design.

“We do so much custom work,” Siskel said, adding that 90 percent of their business is from custom pieces. “We don’t carry anything that’s specifically targeted at the LGBT community. I just don’t think there’s a huge market for gay jewelry.”

He said the key to their store’s success with it, in addition to being open to finding alternative bridal jewelry and creating custom pieces, is creating an atmosphere in the store where everyone knows they are welcome.

“There’s no set formula for it,” Siskel said. “It’s just about helping people figure out what it is that they want.”

Staying true to the store
The hardest part of selling to the LGBT community can be finding the right voice for the retailer, especially when it comes to marketing or other consumer-facing materials.

Washington, D.C.-based Mervis Diamond Importers has long been a supporter of the gay community, exhibiting at same-gender-focused wedding shows in the city, working with gay and lesbian publications and even launching its own line of same-gender wedding bands.

“The worst thing a company can do is pretend to be something they’re not,” Chief Growth Officer Jonathan Mervis said, noting that consumers will be able to see through any appeal that’s not authentic and true to a store’s value system.

Mervis has been very open about their support of the LGBT community and targeting them for business, creating advertising that speaks directly to them as a consumer group.

They recently put out an ad with the tagline, “Straight couples don’t pay retail anymore. Why should you!” This is a twist on the company’s well-known tagline, “Nobody pays retail anymore. Why should you!” and received a lot of positive feedback when it ran, Mervis said.

One of the things that a store has to be ready for if they take this route with their business, Mervis said, is that reactions will come from both ends of the opinion spectrum. 

If a jeweler is going to put out a bold statement in an LGBT publication or even a mass-media publication, the store has to be ready to stand behind it. Not everyone will be pleased with the marketing decisions.

“You have to have the mental expectation that it will come, and you have to be ready for it,” Mervis said. “You are going to have people that don’t like it.”

Mervis himself has received a few emails from clients, correspondence that he said was respectful but disagreed with the store’s selling to same-gender couples. He makes sure to respond to the correspondence directly with an equally respectful message, explaining their beliefs and decision behind it.

However, for Mervis, being gay friendly is not only a smart business move but also the right thing to do. He said that even though it hurts to see business actually walk away like that, it’s an “acceptable loss” when he considers what the business is gaining.

While reaching same-gender couples is not difficult in large, diverse metropolitan areas like Washington, it’s not so easy in the smaller or more rural towns, where it can be harder to establish how to get that message to them.

“We don’t really have ads running in the papers about it,” Eisen said. “There’s no way to market it. It’s very hard to do in this city,” since there are no specific forms of communication available in the area to reach that market. 

Newton’s in Arkansas and Debbie Fox of Fox Fine Jewelry in Ventura, Calif., both also reiterated the idea that there’s no easy way of marketing to the LGBT community in their towns, as there is no clear vehicle to communicate their business ideals with them. Both also noted that they would market to same-gender couples if they could identify a clear-cut way to reach them.

As it is, the biggest asset in these cases comes from word-of-mouth references. 

This is where providing a friendly, accepting atmosphere becomes key, hoping that happy customers --not only LGBT customers but also heterosexual clients who wish to support gay-friendly businesses -- pass on the word to others who share the same ideals.

Mervis also stressed the importance of store management walking themselves through the whole experience of selling, to look for things that could be offensive or non-inclusive that weren’t noticed at the outset.

For them, this included changing the customer information sheets from saying “His” and “Her” at the top to saying “Guest 1” and “Guest 2.”

“Think about the message your website is sending,” he said. “Consider your collateral and things other than the product.” 

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