A few weeks after much of the U.S. went into a shutdown because of the coronavirus, Peter Webster, cofounder and president of New York jewelry company Roberto Coin, got a call from a client who was seeking a 25th-anniversary gift for his wife.
In accordance with his client’s budget, Webster sent off a 120-carat diamond necklace, priced at $1.5 million, for consideration.
“That will buy a lot of forgiveness,” Webster said with a laugh a few weeks ago. “We’re seeing quite a few sales in the $50,000-to-$100,000 range. People have this pent-up frustration. They can’t go on their world trip so they will buy jewelry. There’s much more movement than I thought there was going to be.”
Wealthy people are generally still rich despite COVID-19, which has caused economic havoc and led about 41 million Americans to file for unemployment benefits since the pandemic began, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Stuck indoors because of the recent stay-at-home orders, the wealthy are shelling out tens of thousands of dollars on pricey baubles that might not be shown off at galas or European getaways anytime soon.
Jewelry retailers have attributed the demand for jewels to a combination of boredom, a need for diversion or a desire for an investment vehicle.
“I think people are seeking things of beauty to equalize the challenging news and information they are digesting daily,” said Los Angeles jewelry designer Loree Rodkin, who has designed pieces for Cher and Elton John. “Beautiful shiny objects take away the darkness that everyone is going through and bring back a sense of normalcy to their lives.”
Soon after the shutdown started, Rodkin sold a $23,850 Evil Eye pendant fashioned from tsavorites, diamonds and black diamonds.
“After the initial shock of what was going on, when that panic settled down, I started to see this willingness to spend,” said Lisa Nikfarjam, founder of jewelry brand Lisa Nik, which is based in Los Angeles and New York. “My clients found themselves in this unique position of being stuck at home without an outlet. So if they were thinking about a particular piece of jewelry before, now they had an opportunity to make a decision.”
Using video chat, Nikfarjam sold a $22,000 diamond necklace, a $28,000 green beryl ring and a $52,000 engagement ring.
“Not everyone has been financially hurt by this,” said Nikfarjam, who added that her clients were looking for ways to support brands they’d done business with previously. “There has been a giving mentality. I’m pleasantly surprised.”
For auction house Sotheby’s, global online jewelry sales have exceeded expectations. In early May, the company closed a sale of fine jewels that brought in $2 million, surpassing presale estimates, with 91% of lots sold; the top lot was a Graff ruby and diamond necklace that went for more than $513,000. Since March, Sotheby’s’ 12 online auctions have brought in more than expected, with bidders from more than 50 countries. A New York sale in late April brought in $1.34 million for a 1930s Cartier Tutti Frutti bracelet — that’s about double its original estimate — and is said to be the highest price ever for a jewel in an online-only sale.
“We are as pleased and surprised as everyone else,” said Kendall Reed, head of fine jewels and global online sales for Sotheby’s. “Even though people are stuck in their homes, they are still celebrating special occasions.” Reed said the brisk business being seen by Sotheby’s also could be attributed to the auction house’s global reach.