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Branded diamonds lack lustre

Last updated on: November 13, 2004 21:09 IST
Although the diamond market in India is one of the fastest growing in the world, brands are failing to make an impact.

On television and in the glossy print media, the sparkle of diamonds is spreading to designer names and tags. Brandnames like Sangini, Tanishq, Orra and Nakshatra are on everyone's lips.

Despite this, however, the familiar neighbourhood jeweller is far from threatened by their presence; even as the domestic consumption of diamonds has been rising, the branded diamond is still to make a major impact.

At a time when brands are dominating markets from shoes to bath fittings, the jewellery market in India has remained relatively untouched by the phenomenon.

Given that India is the largest global centre for the cutting and polishing of diamonds, and given also that it's becoming one of the world's largest consumers of diamonds, this is, to say the least, surprising.

The diamond market in India, according to Diamond Trading Company, the marketing arm of diamond giant DeBeers, is worth over $1 billion, and for the last 10 years it has been growing at a mean rate of 15 per cent annually.

Last year, this jumped to 24 per cent; this was the highest growth shown by any DTC market worldwide. Yet branded jewellery accounts for only around 8 per cent of the total diamond market.

Why are brands, despite aggressive advertising and suitably swish brand ambassadors, failing to even dent the Indian market? With the success of mass brands such as Levi's, or niche luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, it's clear the Indian consumer isn't averse to paying a little bit more for quality, a guarantee and a name. Why should diamonds be any different?

According to Cherie Saldanha, marketing director (India), DTC, it's because the industry is still in its infancy.

"While it is growing at unprecedented rates, consumers are only just beginning to experience brands, and there is certainly a time factor before they will whole-heartedly accept them."

G S Pillai, the president of the recently-launched Gold Souk in the Delhi suburb Gurgaon, agrees, but puts more blame on the shoulders of the brands themselves: "Branding hasn't really taken off; I don't think it is understood that branding is not about just launching a name. A lot of money needs to be invested, and there needs to be a definite, long-term plan, a huge sustained effort."

Family jewellers have had a huge head-start in the market, and they are using it well. Pillai points out that their main weapons are trust and flexibility, and this can make a huge difference to the consumer. Jewellers, since they usually have long histories with their buyers, are not averse to payment in installments, or even a casual exchange policy.

They may sometimes allow customers to take pieces home on trust ("Some of my long-term buyers like to see how the pieces go with different saris," laughs one jeweller); these are advantages you would never get with a modern retail store.

The flip side is that unscrupulous jewellers can take advantage of this trust, knowing it is highly unlikely that customers will take their business elsewhere. While you run the same risk when buying a branded diamond, the path to claiming reparation is much less rocky, given that the piece will come with an official guarantee.

Either way, it may be a smarter move in the long run to trust international and national brandnames, rather than keep up an archaic relationship with a jeweller that could have no more to offer.

Brands, therefore, have a natural advantage over traditional jewellers; and although it will be difficult to shift the traditional jeweller from the deep niche that he has built for himself in the marriage market, brands can still make much more of an impact than they are doing at the moment.

The trend today, however, is moving, however slowly, towards branded jewellery. Consumers, especially that new, powerful subset -- working women -- are thinking beyond investment when they buy jewellery, and more about the pieces themselves.

Heavy, traditional gold jewellery, while still popular among the middle classes and universally during weddings, is losing some of its shine. Young women want something they won't have to keep in a bank all their lives and trot out only on ultra-special occasions. They want something they can wear every day. And this is where brands come in.

Marzin Shroff, CEO at Ishi's, subscribes to this point of view. "There will ultimately be a transition from unbranded to branded jewellery," he says, "But this phenomenon is likely to take a very long time. Currently, for serious purchase, the consumer still goes to the jeweller. And for fashion purchases, for light jewellery, the customer prefers branded jewellery. This will eventually stabilise as time passes."

Pillai has a host of suggestions for brands to help push this stabilisation along. As well as advertising, brands should pay more attention to retail. Nowadays, they simply sell wherever they can, and shopkeepers are happy to lure customers into their stores with large, glitzy posters of branded diamonds, but once the customer is in, they are no longer interested in peddling, for example, a Rs 10,000 Nakshatra diamond, when they can sell their own wares for a ludicrously larger sum.

"Some manufacturers," says Pillai, "just supply to jewellers regardless of clientele. They don't think about the fact that some jewellers are only interested in catering to the marriage market. They don't want to attract the young working woman in jeans. And this is exactly the customer that brands such as Asmi and Sangini need to attract. This is their target consumer."

One answer is to start exclusive retail stores. Some brands have already caught on to this as, for instance, Kiah, the diamond series from Sheetal Jewellers, that has opened a shop in the Gold Souk's hysterically high-market Avenue Montaigne. Orra, too, has opened its own store.

However, this is not all of the answer, for Nakshatra did have several outlets in cities like Delhi, Indore and Jaipur, but the owner, Ashok Jain, recently shut them down to branch out with his own brand, Aastha. "It was impossible to work with Nakshatra," he says, "The policy of the company is more shopkeeper-oriented than customer-oriented."

Brands may need to be monopolistic in the retail segment to survive, but a more overt change may be to make use their investing ability to give their pieces a definitive style. Ishi's, for instance, is trying to build consumer confidence with various events and tie-ups, for example with designer Satya Paul.

The recently launched B'Dazzled line also prides itself on its "different" pieces. Sonal Jain, one of the designers, insists, "Our line will have wide appeal: while the style of our pieces is more sophisticated than most, they are priced very reasonably, thus targeting both the middle- and high-end consumer."

She suggests that design could be another reason for other brands not doing so well. "Many of them are mass produced and have no distinctive character that the consumer can recognise and develop a loyalty to."

Perhaps differentiation is what brands need. But for the moment, to the Indian consumer, branded diamonds are diamonds that are not widely different in quality, price or style from the unbranded ones available at local jewellers, and with no real added advantages or benefits.

They have shadowy connections to advertising slogans and celebrity faces, but this does not offer much in real terms, either in inspiring trust, establishing a name, or linking that name with a particular style or design.

If even an international name like De Beers, with its internationally renowned plug of "A diamond is forever" has failed to take off substantially, it becomes clear that it is an uphill road. But there are huge incentives to tap into the market, and manufacturers have, specifically, over a billion good reasons to jump on board.

Samyukta Bhowmick