I was at the Apple store the other day with my son. We were both looking for phones to buy. I was struck by the fact that even in the middle of the working day, the store was crowded with customers, both men and women, most between the ages of 18 and 30.
Technology is the buzzword of today’s global society, so it’s understandable that technology products cut across gender boundaries. It is also natural to expect young people to congregate at outlets that dispense technology at even unlikely times of the day. But why was everybody here at the Apple store?
Then it struck me. Apple’s products intervene in people’s lives. Consumers love that product intervention. These people were all here to give Apple a chance to intervene in their lives. What’s more, even though many in the store had limited budgets and finally bought entry-level or mid-range products, almost everyone excitedly checked out the top-of-the range products that cost more than $1,000!
I was almost immediately also hit by the realisation that as a jewellery designer and manufacturer, I was part of an industry that was merely providing a service for an existing tradition — the wearing of jewellery. This tradition, particularly the buying of fine jewellery, I am keenly aware, is also fast becoming irrelevant to the young people of today. Could our industry’s products generate this sort of excitement among the young? Have them look yearningly at $1,000 products?
As a global industry, the vast majority of us are still stuck at worrying about the price of gold or diamonds. Our products are simply sticking tape to hold these raw materials together in a form that we can pass on to the consumer. We haven’t got around to using these materials to create products that intervene in society, create a buzz and generate aspiration.
I’m tired of hearing the argument that we can’t compete with technology because we don’t have products that have a practical use in everyday life. To those who say this, I say, look at the Swiss watch industry. Literally overnight, the Swiss watch industry was hit by tsunami from Japan in the form of the quartz movement watch. The quartz movement was every bit as accurate — if not more — than the most expensive Swiss mechanical watch at the time, and it cost just a fraction of the price. Many obituaries were written about the Swiss watch industry.
But the Swiss bounced back with a vengeance. They did two things; they adopted quartz movement technology and they reinvented the watch. From simply being accurate time-keeping devices, they made watches personal and style statements. The Swatch actually took Swiss watches from being expensive artefacts to literally throwaway accessories that consumers could buy many of and wear interchangeably to match their moods or their clothes.
The most remarkable comeback was by the Swiss mechanical watch, which was thought to be rendered obsolete by the quartz movement. It came back as an emphatic statement of differentiation from the crowd that also hinted at the exciting personality of the wearer by alluding to high adventure and daredevilry.
The wristwatch as a whole is less relevant as a practical device today. Phones, car dashboards and computer screens all provide extremely accurate time-keeping today. Yet the wristwatch has intervened in people’s lives as a product that makes a statement. Young people too aspire to specific watches today.
The closest that jewellery has come to creating a product with the power to intervene in people’s lives, ironically, was the successful ride it had for many decades on the global umbrella promotions unleashed by a raw material supplier. Diamond miner De Beers intervened in people’s lives by telling them that a diamond was indeed the definitive statement defining the relationship between men and women. Jewellery happily supplied the sticking tape to hold diamonds together and rode t
he successful diamond engagement ring wave.
There was a parallel in the technology industry. Several undistinguished computer manufacturers successfully rode the “Intel Inside” wave as the chip producer reached straight to the consumer and delivered the assurance of reliability along with cutting edge technology. People bought Apple products back then, even when it used processors made by PowerPC. They didn’t the assurance of the chip maker. It didn’t matter to most people when Apple finally switched to Intel processors in 2005.
Now, the jewellery industry is groping around for something to fill the gap left by the withdrawal of De Beers from global promotions. We still seem to be selling sticking tape. We haven’t got around to developing a product that will intervene in people’s lives. Blur the gender divide. Make them come to our stores even during normal wor
king hours. Make people want jewellery.
I fervently hope that we act positively now and don’t become the mink coat of the world.